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Monday, March 20, 2017

MSU Story Catcher's Drama Club Performs Play at Ionia Prison

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

After several months of production the moment finally arrived this past Friday for playwrites at the Handlon Correctional Facility to perform a play they produced titled "Only the Blind Can See." 

The play script was written by prisoner participants in the MSU Story Catcher's Drama Club and performed in the prison auditorium for the prisoner population. Also in attendance were Warden Dewayne Burton; Dr. Austin Jackson, director of the MSU My Brother's Keeper Program; and other prison staff members. It was the first play ever performed at the prison.

The Story Catcher's Drama Club is lead by Dr. Lisa Biggs, an actress and assistant professor in the Michigan State University Residential College of the Arts and Humanities.

Dr. Biggs created the "story catcher's" concept as a vehicle to deconstruct false and misleading narratives about members of marginalized communities. She believes we can empower communities by fostering the creation of counter-stories that shatter stereotypes, promote equality, and combat words that wound which can result in a withered self-concept.

Storytelling provides a forum for the marginalized voice. According to Richard Delgado, "Through personal histories, parables, chronicles, dreams, stories, poetry, fiction, and revisionist histories, the marginalized voice is allowed to teach us other realities that we need to know in our world."

"Only the Blind Can See" is a play about a teenage African-American male who collapses in a town. People all over the community make assumptions about the event, including believing that he was a victim of violence.

In the end it is a blind man who simply asks if anyone has checked the teenager's body for vitals. The question leads to the discovery that the teenager is still alive, revealing that many people drew wrong conclusions about what occurred.

It was the one character in the story that could not physically see who had the clearest vision of all. He did not allow his opinion to be distorted like other people did which resulted in their flawed conclusions.

The moral of the story was the need to recognize the importance of utilizing all our conceptual tools to interpret reality rather than reaching conclusions based on fragments of information. Too often people make erroneous assumptions about people or events with little or no evidence to support their belief.

The play was replete with a broad spectrum of experiences. Some were funny, serious, and others were designed to evoke serious thought, reflection, and penetrating insight.

Audience members described the play as "disciplined and heartfelt," "40 minutes of great entertainment," and "brilliantly done." They also discussed the performance with several other prisoners upon returning back to their housing units later that evening. They shared impactful scenes with friends and recited various lines by characters in the play.

Each cast member took their role(s) seriously and their performances reflected their commitment to success. Most had never performed before a large crowd and had to quickly overcome fears associated with that experience.

Shortly before the play began one cast member peeked through the curtain to view the audience. Upon seeing the large attendance he abruptly closed the curtain and returned to the back of the stage.

He indicated that he felt intimidated by the presence of so many people and didn't think he would be able to perform his character. After some encouragement from other cast members he regained his confidence and subsequently delivered a stellar performance.

Another cast member had been previously characterized as shy and introverted when the theater workshop initially began. One prisoner described him this way: "He never used to interact with other prisoners or come out of his cell. The class made him come out of his shell and start talking to people. He changed a lot in a good way."

According to Diarra Bryant, another member of the cast, "Men came together to present a narrative about the difficulties of life and the joy that comes from triumphing over struggle."

One of the youngest performers, Kenyatta Johnson, was impressed with how Dr. Biggs "continued to break down walls and barriers that the men in her class didn't even know existed." He added, "I learned a lot from the experience and forged new bonds with people from different walks of life I had never talked to before."

Dr. Biggs taught cast members deep listening skills, the importance of collaborating with and respecting the opinions of others, and she fostered the development of their self-confidence. She also challenged them to embrace vulnerability which can serve as a pathway to exploring new experiences.

I played multiple roles in the play as a student, storekeeper, poet, and mayor whose role was to calm escalating tensions in a city that was demanding answers to why the teenager collapsed.

I wrote the dialogue for a mayoral press conference scene which appeared in the play. It was a proud moment for me personally because it was the first time I ever wrote anything for or appeared in a play.

The name I gave to the character I developed in the play as the mayor, Carlos Munoz, Jr., was done as a tribute to a friend and mentors I admire and profoundly respect. Dr. Munoz is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, in the Chicano Studies Dept.; author of "Youth, Identity, Power"; and a long-time Chicano and human rights activist who recently suffered a stroke.

The success of the play would have never been possible without the dynamic stewardship and careful guidance of Dr. Biggs. Her passion for education and the arts is a model many other educators can learn from.

The cast of "Only the Blind Can See" would like to thank Warden Dewayne Burton for allowing the play to be performed, and to staff member Jodie Heard for coordinating the cast costume inventory, facilitating the scheduling of prisoner audience members to attend the performance, and printing the programs.

A special thanks to Dr. Biggs for sacrificing valuable time from her busy schedule to travel to the Ionia-based prison weekly for several months to share her wisdom, expertise, and inspire cast members to explore the depth of their imaginations.

One concept Dr. Biggs introduced to cast members was "sawubona," which she learned about while conducting a theater workshop for women prisoners in South Africa. The Zulu term inculcates the value of recognizing the inherent dignity in fellow human beings.

Lessons like these and others helped the men remove their intellectual blinders, evolve into better people, and empowered them to become the torch bearers to carry on Dr. Biggs' legacy of teaching the world the vital role that story catchers play in our society.

It is a legacy well-deserving of our time and dedication. And, one that will proudly be carried on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

28 years of Incarceration

MAR 15, 2017 — Dear Friends, Family and Supporters,

Today marks 28 complete years Efren Paredes, Jr. has been incarcerated. It is a total of 10,220 grueling days or 245,280 hours, however you choose to calculate the numbers. No matter how you do the math it is an inordinate number by any standard. Efren now begins serving his 29th year in prison.

As many of you know, in January 2016 (over a year ago) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The Court ordered that the 2,500 prisoners affected ("juvenile lifers") nationwide be resentenced.

Since that time less than 10% of Michigan's juvenile lifers have been resentenced despite the high court's landmark ruling. Several Michigan counties have not resentenced a single prisoner, including Berrien County, where Efren was originally sentenced.

If there is any positive news to report in all this it is the fact that of the Michigan prisoners who have been resentenced in recent months the majority have received 25- to 60-year sentences. It is the same sentence this petition is requesting that Efren's resentencing judge impose on him as well.

Efren's long history of impressive accomplishments and capacity for change are well-established and widely recognized. When juxtaposing Efren's case and history against those that have already received 25- to 60-year sentences, any fair-minded person will conclude that Efren is equally deserving of receiving a sentence proportionate to them as well.

We are calling on everyone who has already signed this petition to please invite at least 10 of your contacts to sign the petition and circulate it via email and social media pages. Ask them to also encourage others to feature the petition link on web sites and blogs as well. A shortcut link to the petition people can use is: www.TinyURL.com/Efren1016.

Please also take a moment to invite people to "Like" the Free Efren Facebook page so we can help keep them updated about our campaign to free Efren. The link is available at www.fb.com/FreeEfren.

Thank you for your continued support. Please keep Efren and his family in your prayers.

Sincerely,

The Injustice Must End (TIME)
Committee to Free Efren Paredes, Jr.

Mini-Tablets Now Available in Michigan Prisons

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

In a positive step in the right direction the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) has made it possible for Michigan prisoners to begin purchasing 4.3-inch screen mini-tablets.

The move makes it possible for prisoners to send and receive electronic messages to members of the public through the tablet, as well as purchase music to listen to, and store photos sent to them by people electronically.

The device, which is available in hundreds of prisons across the nation, does not allow access to the Internet. All features available on the tablet are pre-approved by MDOC administrators to meet all security requirements.

Women prisoners were allowed to purchase the tablets as part of a pilot project launched a couple years ago. Its success lead MDOC administrators to allow male prisoners to begin purchasing them early this year.

The tablets also feature a calculator, clock, alarm, and calendar. They are features that though very simple are important to many prisoners' day-to-day lives. The wristwatch currently allowed to be purchased by the MDOC alone is more expensive than the tablet.

Regularly priced at $39.99 the tablet is a wise investment. Michigan prisoners are fortunate to purchase the tablet for $19.99 for a two-month limited period of time.

Previous to allowing prisoners to purchase the tablets prisoners had to send and receive electronic messages using a kiosk manufactured by JPay. Access to the kiosks was limited to two 15-minute sessions per day, however, to accommodate usage by all the prisoners in each housing unit. The ratio of kiosks averages about two per every 140 prisoners.

This presented several challenges for many prisoners who can not type fast or hardly type at all. In many instances it would take prisoners a couple days to type a complete letter to send someone. The frustration often discouraged many prisoners from even sending messages.

Now prisoners can type messages on their personal tablets in their cells and spend as much time as they need to do so. Once complete, they can connect to the JPay kiosk and quickly send their message through the portal.

All electronic messages and photos sent to prisoners via JPay are screened by the company and MDOC staff prior to delivery. This can result in messages being delayed for hours or not being delivered until the following day.

To contact a Michigan prisoner electronically members of the public can visit www.JPay.com and locate the prisoner by her/his prison number. For instance, someone can contact me by searching for me using the number "203116" for a Michigan prisoner.

With the overwhelming positive response to the tablet it is the hope of many prisoners that the MDOC will one day allow prisoners to purchase tablets with larger screens.

A larger screen would allow them to purchase and read e-books, and make it easier for elderly and visually impaired prisoners to read and compose electronic messages.

The purchase of dictionary, thesaurus, and foreign language apps could also be helpful. So could trivia and educational games that teach science, math, and other disciplines.

Apps that could also prove very helpful are ones that allow prisoners to take correspondence courses which help them learn important social and life skills that help them prepare for their transition back to society.

Tablets can be transformed into instruments that foster literacy, increase communication between prisoners and members of the public, and aid rehabilitation which improves public safety. They will also reduce idleness. The more features that are available the more time prisoners will spend using it.

As society advances in the digital age it is important that prisoners not be left behind. Prisoners will one one day return to society and it is essential that they understand the fundamentals of communicating electronically.

Many Michigan prisoners who recently purchased tablets were incarcerated when the Internet, smart phones, and tablets were introduced to the world. They are now having to leap through decades of technological advances to acquire new information about things they have never used before.

Hopefully the future will not include another multi-generational technological drought for Michigan prisoners. It is counterproductive to keep future returning citizens digitally illiterate.

MDOC Director Heidi Washington deserves credit for helping lead Michigan prisoners out of the dark age of technology. Hopefully she will receive the abiding support she needs to advance her vision and stewardship.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program, Innovative Model of Transformation


by Efren Paredes Jr.  


My Brother's Keeper Program (MBK) is a Michigan State University mentoring program for at-risk African-American boys, Grades 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools. The program uses undergraduate and graduate students as mentors and models. It was designed to also assist students imagine what they want to become as they transition into adulthood.

MBK promotes an Africentric approach to education which centers African-American children within the context of familiar cultural and social references from their own historical settings. When children are centered in cultural ways it helps make learning interesting and personal. Many children of color view schools as foreign places because they do foreign things. As such, they have been trapped in foreign conceptions of reality. This can lead to a destructive pattern of deifying other people and dehumanizing themselves.

The MBK program began in 1990 by founding director Dr. Geneva Smitherman, MSU Distinguished Professor Emerita. The program is now under the directorship of Dr. Austin Jackson, Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Transcultural Studies in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.

In the Summer of 2016 Dr. Jackson launched the first prison component of MBK in the nation at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility. The concept was originally proposed to Dr. Jackson by a prisoner named Ricardo Ferrell. This project has come to be known as the MBK Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP).

MBK-POP will have at least two primary objectives. According to Dr. Jackson, MBK-POP will, "(1) create a dynamic, sustainable inmate-centered peer mentoring program (Fall 2016); and (2) engage and assist the MSU MBK Program with educational, mentoring, and cultural programming useful for intervention and deterrence instruction."

There are currently 20 prisoners participating in MBK-POP. Each week Dr. Jackson travels to the Handlon Correctional Facility to teach the prisoners important skills and provide them with didactic materials helpful to develop into effective mentors. He provides workshops, makes PowerPoint presentations, shows educational DVDs, and holds debates and group discussions. Dr. Jackson is currently providing lessons about critical race theory (CRT), rhetoric, and preparing prisoners to begin facilitating classes and teaching portions of the curriculum.

Several of these mentors-in-training are from urban areas and share many of the same childhood experiences as those they will be mentoring. It is this firsthand knowledge, experience of incarceration, and personal transformation that makes them uniquely qualified to connect with the young people they will be working with and help them make better choices for their future.

I was fortunate to be one of the candidates selected to participate in MBK-POP. I am using the skills I have developed during nearly three decades of incarceration and my wealth of experiences mentoring college students, high school students, and prisoners to further the objectives of MBK-POP. My knowledge of Latino Studies, Black Studies, Hip-Hop culture, and communications will also be very useful as we advance through the MBK-POP syllabus.

According to Dr. Wade Nobles, "When the essence of a people is disrupted or disturbed there is similar disruption observed in their consciousness. When the essence of a people is distorted a change in their perceptions of reality occurs. This means how they come to understand or know is distorted."

Developing mentors allows us to create healers in the community who can inspire others to become whole again and illuminate their spirit. This self-discovery helps restore their essence and end the debilitating disconnect that prevents them from realizing their potential. It also helps end the dizzying distortions that skew the way people interpret life through a fractured lens.

One of the most potent kinds of power people can have is the power to label their experience. According to CRT scholar Angela P. Harris, "The struggle over what to call things, and hence how to understand and ultimately experience them, is a struggle over social power." Harris adds, "Just as history is written by the winners, language is shaped by the socially dominant."

People must become disenchanted with the notion that others will equip them with the tools to restore their agency. This will help them end their dependency on others and perceived racial subordination. When people deconstruct the false narratives manufactured about them they are able to define their own experiences and re-imagine brighter possibilities and outcomes for their lives.

The refusal to be measured by the tape of foreign branding will lead them to discover the need to reconnect with their culture. Nothing occurs outside of culture. It is culture that shapes and gives meaning to our reality.

This awareness will empower people to defy the murder of their selfhood and break the shackles of nihilism, a term Cornel West refers to as "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and lovelessness."

Through our work MBK-POP endeavors to build enduring intellectual structures of excellence. The program aspires to become an innovative model of success to be emulated in prisons across the nation. It is a blueprint born from centuries of struggle and fierce self-determination.

MBK-POP recognizes the inherent value and dignity of children and categorically rejects the notion that they are dispensable. We are committed to creating new learning pathways that keep them at the center of their educational experience -- not on the periphery -- and awaken their genius.

Please support the My Brother's Keeper PrisonOutreach Program (MBK-POP), "Like" its official Facebook page, and invite others to do the same.