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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Inside the Political World of Efren Paredes, Jr.

by Carlos Vicario

The following is the first in a series of interviews conducted with Efren Paredes, Jr. during the past six months. The first installment shares his views about America's current state of politics.

Carlos Vicario (CV): For starters Efren, what are your thoughts about the recent midterm elections?

Efren Paredes, Jr. (EPJ): I was pleased with the record-breaking increase in national voter turnout. I predicted it would happen based on a number of variables I have been closely observing the past several years. It was also great to see so many first-time voters go to the polls and use their voice to speak truth to power. Many of them were women, people of color, and young voters.

Another impressive result was the historic number of women and most diverse freshman class ever elected to Congress. Democrats garnered a crushing 9 million more votes than the GOP during the midterms and took back the U.S. House (picking up 40 more seats). Voters sent a strong message to Washington that there would be government oversight now and things will no longer be business as usual.

The nation's demographics are rapidly changing. Each year a million Latinx youth are becoming eligible to vote nationwide, not to mention the numbers of other communities of color. There are also thousands of people moving to the mainland from the island of Puerto Rico who many forget are U.S. citizens eligible to vote; the same people the Trump administration neglected after hurricane Maria.

A recent study revealed that there was a 96% increase of Latinx voters in the 2018 midterm election from the 2014 midterms. It also reflected that 80% of them voted Democrat and one-fourth of them were first time voters. These numbers are a signal of what else is to come in a digital age that is accelerating the transformation of the electorate at warp speed.

In a major move that is certain to tip the political scales in Florida, an important state that the 2020 presidential candidate will desperately need to win the next election, voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to a million and a half disenfranchised formerly incarcerated citizens of that state. That number will add a large number of people of color to the voter rolls.

The Florida Governor and U.S. Senate races were only won by very slim margins. The number of new eligible first-time voters could easily change Florida from a red to blue state in 2020. And, not only is that highly likely to occur in Florida, it is probable in other red states around the country as well.

CV: What do you believe brought voters out to the polls in such large numbers during the 2018 midterm elections?

EPJ: Some of the primary reasons included a huge resistance movement against efforts at systemic voter suppression, increased efforts by voters of color to educate and energize their base, and the highly divisive and toxic
 climate of the nation which has been fueled by the racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant Trump rhetoric.

The nation has witnessed a surge in hate crimes since Trump took office in 2016. When voters entered the sanctity of the voting booth many did so haunted by the images of Tiki torch wielding white nationalists at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump all but endorsed them by characterizing the protesters as having "good people on both sides."

Though Trump's rhetoric has played well with his base he has alienated huge swaths of the nation. During the 2016 general election many voters of color, young people, and women stayed home
 instead of going to the ballot box. These voters realized how their absence hurt the country morally and politically and it brought them back out to reengage in 2018.

A huge credit for the uptick in voter engagement must also be given to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have swept the nation with their message of women empowerment and solidarity. They definitely deserve major credit for seating over 100 women in Congress for the first time in history. It is a demographic that Trump foolishly continues to offend, disparage, and debase on a frequent basis.

CV: Do you believe the Democratic party is the future political choice for voters of this country based on current voter trends?

EPJ: If the Democratic party is to continue
 attracting and retaining women voters and voters from communities of color the party will need to pay closer attention to the needs of these demographics and properly represent them. Democrats cannot become complacent and assume that they are safe politically because they had so much success during the midterms. It would be divorced from reality.

Political parties have long taken for granted voters from communities of color, as well as women, young people, and the impoverished. Moving forward, this shameful approach to mistreating and devaluing voters is tantamount to political suicide. It is a failing strategy for winning future election cycles and a sure way to destroy a political party.

According to the results of a Gallup Poll released November 26, 2018 Trump's disapproval numbers have descended to a historic 60%. Only 38% expressed their approval. As the nation braces for the release of the Trump investigation report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller legal experts like Alan Dershowitz are forecasting the results will be devastating to Trump.

It is also noted that the same night the Gallup Poll was released Sen. Mia Love (R-Utah) stated in her concession speech to the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in her race that Trump's relationship with Blacks is transactional. Love, who is African-American, was a recent target of Trump who predicted she would lose her Senate seat to a Democrat during the midterm election. He expressed gratitude about Love's defeat because of her refusal to embrace him during her race for office.
The party of Trump is pushing voters away by the millions and almost no one from the party is condemning the devastating damage he is causing them. That persistent trend will likely remain constant for the next two years and continue eroding his party. His insistence on celebrating corrosive language is making him radioactive to the party.

CV: Having been incarcerated nearly 30 years since 1989 how have you developed your political acumen and remained current about the subject?

EPJ: I read books about politics, social issues, history, etc.; as well as an array of magazines, and newspapers, and I watch CNN, FOX News, PBS, C-SPAN, NBC News, and Univison
 news shows daily. I also listen to BBC News and several programs on NPR throughout the day from early morning until late in the evening each day. I have a steady diet of diverse external reference points each day that help me stay updated about current events.

I also have an amazing family, wonderful friends, and a support network of caring people that send
 me printouts of current information from the Internet and research things for me I want to learn more about. They share things with me on the phone, during visits, and in emails/letters as well. I have been able to experience things vicariously through them and they are frequently my guides through the rapidly changing and often dizzying world.

CV: Do you find it difficult to watch CNN and FOX News, two networks with polarized views of each other?

EPJ: No. I think it is important for people to hear all perspectives of issues rather than sit in an echo chamber each day. We don't learn, grow, and change responsibly if we drown out opposing voices with static personal beliefs. When the facts change our minds should change as well. Life doesn't operate in a straight line. The more external reference points we have to make decisions in our lives the better off we are in the long run.

Never changing our minds is symptomatic of insecurity and being trapped in a limited, self-absorbed world. I learn from people with opposing views each day. I may not always agree with them, but it doesn't always make me right and make them wrong. We can both learn from each other and should be encouraged to do so.

CV: What motivates you to follow politics and elections as closely as you do?

EPJ: For decades people from communities of color and women were devalued and denied the right to vote. People have died, protested, and suffered an untold number of injuries for our democracy. We also have brave service women and men stationed around the world who bravely defend our democracy. I would characterize it as a betrayal of our democratic values and being un-American not to be civically engaged.

As for following politics, I think the answer is clear: to not be concerned with it would be dangerous and akin to not being concerned with the future. Our elected officials represent us. Whether we are prisoners or free citizens we can affect policies and encourage citizens to become engaged politically. We can educate people about their right to vote and teach them the value of becoming civically engaged.

A recent study Florida revealed that formerly incarcerated citizens who are civically engaged have lower recidivism rates than those who are not. This is important. It is one of many reasons I encourage prisoners to register to vote when they are released to the community. Not only is it good for them, it is also good for the community.

People have a vested interest in protecting things they feel a part of and participate in. I know this firsthand when it comes to prisoners because I see the pride they take in learning new skills and how dedicated they are to constructive projects I invite them to be a part of. Many of them didn't have people who encouraged them to learn and grow previous to their imprisonment.

On a personal level, there is also a rewarding feeling each time I hear from excited formerly incarcerated people after casting their first votes. Even though I wasn't able to vote there are many others who are able to vote because of the contact we made behind bars. That means something to me because every time they are released from prison a part of me goes with them.

CV: Would you consider participating in voter engagement when released from prison?

EPJ: Yes, it is my civic duty. I would be a strong advocate and voice for underserved people, women, young people, and communities of color who have been marginalized and taken for granted. I have done this for many years both inside and outside of prison and it has prepared me to help people in my community when I am eventually released.

In prison I have learned to live with and communicate with people of different races, religions, beliefs, and ethnic backgrounds. I have built bridges between these communities and earned the respect of countless prisoners and staff. I have been elected to serve over 20 terms as a unit representative at different prisons, served multiple terms on the board of directors of various self-help organizations, and co-facilitated (alongside prison staff) courses on conflict resolution for prisoners.

I have developed the necessary communication, leadership, and political skills that would make me an asset to my community not only on a political front but also in countless other ways. I would be able to connect with people from areas others may be unwilling or unable to connect with, including our youth. I welcome the chance to use my skills and talents for the benefit of humanity on a broader stage when the opportunity presents itself.
CV: Is there a voter demographic that you feel is overlooked by politicians or that doesn’t receive much attention by them?

EPJ: I think a powerful voting block that is frequently ignored is formerly incarcerated people and the families and friends of currently incarcerated people. There are tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated people in Michigan. There are also over 100,000 people currently in prison, jail, on probation or parole in the state.

Most of these people have family and friends. If only 10 of their family members or friends form an organized voting block they will easily garner over one million votes. They can use their votes to produce criminal justice reform and change the offices of elected officials from the local level all the way to the Governor's office. This includes electing mayors, judges, prosecutors, State Senators, State Representatives, Attorney General, Secretary of State, etc.

Many people have the misfortune of having a family member behind bars or know someone entangled in the vicious cycle of mass incarceration. It is a disturbing crisis that studies have recognized for decades but politicians are only now having the courage to acknowledge they were complicit in creating. Several states have made changes to draconian policies in their jurisdictions in recent years and more are following the trend.

Criminal justice reform has also begun occurring at the highest levels of government. December 18, 2018 the U.S. Senate passed the "First Steps" bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Senate vote was a staggering 87-12. It is the largest overhaul to the criminal justice system in decades. The changes would support good time initiatives, second chances for offenders, and numerous other progressive reforms for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Trump has already stated he will sign the bill as a President of everyone, "including those who have made mistakes." He recognizes the prison industrial complex experiment has woefully failed to reduce crime, has shamefully wasted billions in taxpayer dollars, and resulted in too many inordinate sentences that do not make the nation safer. Trump also expressed that he supports second chances.

CV: Do you believe that the issue of criminal justice reform will remain a major issue in the years to come?

EPJ: It will definitely remain a major issue until the broken system is completely overhauled. The apparatus has adversely impacted communities for decades based on flawed policies and predictions. Recent reforms are a first step, as the bill's name suggests, in a long road of needed change. While it is a step in the right direction it is only a start.

Unfortunately millions of lives have suffered and been destroyed as a consequence of the misguided policies. Mass incarceration is the leading civil rights issue of our day and has drawn the global disdain of other nations. The U.S. shamefully incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world including China and Russia.

If 95% of people behind bars will one day return to society as reflected in statistics how do we want those people to reenter society? Do we want them to be bitter and uneducated, or better and equipped with the skills to become assets and contributing members of their communities? Common sense informs us the choice is very clear.

We have to look for ways to resolve the crisis humanely with reason and logic. Allowing emotion to override these things and act irrationally will continue to result in myriad failed solutions. The callous and unforgiving impulse to incarcerate people and dispose of their lives by throwing away the key will only continue driving us further into the pit of moral darkness.

On a spiritual level I believe it also contravenes pro-life views and Biblical philosophy. If believers aspire to promote Christian values they are moving in the opposite direction by condemning people to perpetual incarceration. I believe it is a betrayal of Christ's teachings to abandon the concept of redemption and ignore the intrinsic value of our fellow citizens.

CV: How long do you think we should keep offenders in prison for crimes they have committed?

EPJ: While I think every case is different and each one calls for different punishment I believe people who make mistakes deserve a second chance. This is especially true in the case of juvenile offenders who have the enormous capacity for change. There are a number of variables that should be taken into consideration.

Though there may be people who need to be incarcerated for long periods of time in some instances, the decision when/if to release each prisoner should be left up to the Parole Board. They can review the progress of prisoners during their incarceration and use their wealth of resources and risk assessment instruments to assess a prisoner's risk to the public if released.

Once the Parole Board determines a prisoner has been rehabilitated and no longer poses a danger to society the prisoner should become eligible for parole consideration. Incarcerating a person beyond the time necessary to rehabilitate them is cruel, inhumane, and a violation of United Nations treaties.

As former Michigan Department of Corrections Director Patricia Caruso stated while in office, we have to distinguish between who we are afraid of and who we are angry with; we can't conflate the two. Blind anger has driven much of our criminal justice policy in the past. It has clouded our rational judgment and sensibilities and is no way for the greatest nation in the world to treat its citizens.

CV: Do you support or oppose life sentences for offenders?

EPJ: I oppose any life sentence or virtual life sentence (e.g., long indeterminate sentence) that does not provide prisoners periodic meaningful release opportunities by demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation. Sentences that do not allow for this in a fair and realistic way are tantamount to death-by-incarceration.

Rather than issuing life sentences I believe it is more sensible and fiscally responsible for the legislature to grant the Parole Board jurisdiction to begin considering juvenile offenders for release every two years after serving a minimum 15 years. I would support adult offenders being considered for release by the Parole Board every two years after serving a minimum 20 years.

If an offender does not demonstrate growth and maturity during that time they will remain incarcerated and continue 
participating in rehabilitative programming until they change. There may be cases where some people are never released. But it is a decision that should be determined by the Parole Board during periodic reviews, not years in advance by sentencing bodies who are unable to realistically predict the future.

Life teaches people that the further away they get from a tragedy the more time they have to examine the situation and see it clearly. It also affords agents of the criminal justice system time to more objectively process events and examine prisoners' lives through the lens of redemption, rather than one that only seeks to condemn and banish them from society.

CV: Can you offer any data or research that supports your opinion about this issue?

EPJ: Most criminologists, social scientists, and reasonably minded corrections professionals who work around prisoners daily will agree
 with this assessment. Aging, harsh isolation, rehabilitative programming, having a support network, and other factors contribute to reducing the risk of prisoners reoffending.

Of the thousands of prisoners I have spoken to who have been incarcerated more than 20 years, who are guilty of the crime they were convicted of, I have never met a single person who does not deeply regret his actions. They also emphatically state they would not do it again if they had the chance to relive the moment they made their tragic mistake.

The possibility of dying in prison after spending decades of incarceration changes people forever. It also helps them learn to cherish their freedoms and develop a greater appreciation for the sanctity of life. Statistics reflect that people serving life without parole sentences have a less than half of one percent chance of reoffending if released. Prisoners serving parolable life sentences have less than a two percent chance of reoffending.

The national recidivism rate for all offense categories of prisoners is closer to 45%. This means that prisoners serving life sentences have the lowest reoffense rate of all other offense categories combined. The evidence of risk is in the facts and numbers. My personal experience in the carceral system and an index of research and data all support this.

CV: Are you saying that you believe using the criminal justice system to exact revenge is wrong?

EPJ: Criminal offenses are wrong and I support punishment for them, but I do not support it absent rehabilitation. The criminal justice system was never designed as an instrument for revenge. I believe that inflicting more pain i
n a reciprocal world will not decrease the impact of a crime being done. It only compounds the misery suffered by everyone affected and destabilizes communities by impeding the path to peace and reconciliation.

CV: Do you think you would ever consider running for political office when you are released one day?

EPJ: I have no desire to seek political office of any kind upon release. I have a friend who worked as a legislative aide to a Michigan State Representative after serving nearly two decades in prison who found it to be a positive experience. I wouldn't rule out ever working for/with someone holding political office or assisting them in some capacity, but I wouldn't want to hold any office myself. I believe I can serve people in my community in more ways than just politically and I don't want to restrict myself to promoting party politics.

CV: What do you mean when you say you don't want to promote "party politics"?

EPJ: I will not support an individual party's platform that is not designed to serve everyone equally regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. To me it should be about people before party. We should elect people based on what they support and policies they plan to change not based on what party they represent.

I don't think political parties are evolving with the times as rapidly as they should and many in their leadership are practicing throwback era politics. We need change that reflects inclusion in all aspects of politics. I support a progressive platform which also includes a broad coalition of people that will introduce policies which reflect this vision.

CV: Efren, thank you for answering my questions. I look forward to sharing the rest of our interview with our readers in the weeks to come.

EPJ: Thank you.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting and