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Friday, November 7, 2014

Muskegon Correctional Facility: A Blueprint for Change

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

For nearly 26 years I have been housed at a number of different prisons across the state of Michigan.

Throughout my incarceration I have advocated the need for increased prisoner rehabilitative programming opportunities and been critical of Michigan prisons for their refusal to address the scarcity.

Research shows that 95% of all prisoners will one day return to society. Despite this fact most Michigan prisons only offer rehabilitative programming to prisoners who are within a year of their earliest release date.

Prisoners who are serving life or long indeterminate sentences are often prohibited from participating in the majority of these programs.

The blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of Wardens who manage the prisons. They are responsible for not only the safety and security of the facility and protecting the public, but also for programs that are made available at their respective prisons.

Denying rehabilitative programming to prisoners throughout their incarceration compels them to spend years utilizing the dysfunctional thinking they had when entering the prison system.

Being dumped in a place that is teeming with like-minded people for years further exacerbates the problem and fosters an environment for them to adopt more criminal thinking.

This leaves prisoners in even more need of treatment than when they arrived and more vulnerable to negative influences. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners prisons are actually making them more likely to recidivate.

Prisons should be places with myriad programming opportunities. They should be therapeutic environments that minimize room for problems and maximize space for the flowering of human consciousness.

The earlier we can reach people with distorted thinking patterns the sooner we can help turn their lives around. Likewise, the more prisoners we can reach sooner, the more other prisoners we can influence to change.

I have witnessed firsthand how prisoners' lives are prevented from continuing in a downward spiral by immersing them in therapeutic programming and cognitive restructuring classes.

The more prisoners are taught to enrich their lives and purge themselves of criminal thinking the better they become prepared for their eventual transition to society.

If a prisoner has distorted thinking we cannot expect them to change on their own. It is akin to blaming addicts for their addictions and returning them to drug infested communities expecting them to change. They need help.

When I arrived at the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) a month ago I discovered a prison whose Warden, Sherry Burt, understands these realities.

In just the past 30 days I have had the opportunity to participate in programs at MCF such as Transition to Success (a class offered by Muskegon Community College), The Power of Peace Project, and a male leadership development class taught by Bishop Mbiyu Chui.

After the new year I am scheduled to enroll in the programs Juvenile Restoration in Progress (JRIP) and Chance for Life. The latter teaches the need to develop critical thinking skills, understanding the value of family and community, and the perils of addiction.

At the previous facility I was housed the only programming I was permitted to participate in was a parenting class. I was denied the opportunity to participate in the Thinking for Change, Violence Prevention Program, and any of the vocational trade programs.

Warden Burt is the only Warden whose name I have heard consistently be used synonymously with rehabilitative programming by prisoners at various facilities across the state.

According to the prisoners Warden Burt has earned their respect because of her commitment to help them recognize their unexercised infinite potential. They also note her desire to help them return to society as better human beings.

Rather than simply talk about rehabilitation Warden Burt steadfastly works to see it manifest into reality. She not only creates the space for the opportunities, she is known to be present at numerous events where prisoners graduate from the programs.

When Kit Cummings recently flew in from Atlanta, Georgia to begin two days of presentations about The Power of Peace Project Warden Burt was in attendance. Many other Wardens would not have attended the evening prisoner program even if invited.

Warden Burt understands the need for her stewardship and to demonstrate to others by example what it means to genuinely care about transforming lives. She also understands how lives are adversely impacted when they remain neglected.

Most prisoners have a sixth grade education, grew up in single parent homes, and were raised in communities where they frequently witnessed violence, drug abuse, and other forms of crime. Many of them were victims of various forms of abuse.

Changing these prisoners requires hard work, dedication, time and developing innovative ways to effectively reach them. It also calls for society to recognize that people are not perfect.

Just as people cannot be defined by the greatest accomplishment in their lives, they should not be defined by the worst mistake they make in their lives. Each person has inherently redemptive qualities and they possess the enormous capacity to change.

There is no magical cure to solving the crime problem. There are, however, sensible evidence-based methods to reducing the problem and rehabilitating prisoners.

 The policy of prison administrators devising new ways to keep prisoners locked in their cells instead of involved in programs and education is a dismal failure. It only serves to foster more criminality and further erode the human spirit.

Each prisoner who is released will eventually become someone's neighbor in society. We can help determine what kind of neighbor they will become during their incarceration.

It begins by reproducing Warden Burt's progressive model of rehabilitation statewide and immersing prisoners in programming that will transform them by the renewing of their minds.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Coats for Kids Prison Program

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Recently I was accepted to volunteer in the Red Cross Sewing project at the Saginaw Correctional Facility (SRF).

The program, which has been in place a couple years now, teaches prisoners how to use sewing machines to create coats and quilts for poor children and homeless shelters. Hundreds of coats and quilts have been produced through the program.

Each coat and quilt made is produced using materials from members of the public who donate fabrics, thread, sewing needles, buttons, zippers, sewing machines, and other useful supplies.

Interested prisoners who apply to participate must have a positive prison record and not pose a disciplinary problem for staff. They can also not be convicted of crimes against women or children.
I walked past the classroom several times during the first few months of my arrival at the facility and wondered what the class was about. Eventually I approached someone in the class and asked about the program. After giving me details about the program I decided to give it a try.

Subsequent to receiving training and tedious practice (and numerous failed attempts to sew straight lines) I proudly created my first children's coat. It was a very rewarding experience. All the more so because I had no previous knowledge of how to use a sewing machine and was clueless about making clothing.

I knew once I learned to produce the first coat I would go on to make others. I was also hopeful that my involvement and support would make the program more attractive to other prisoners who may not have otherwise considered participating.

Some prisoners had previously not considered participating in the program because of their fear or insecurity of what other prisoners may think about them. Sewing is not viewed as a masculine activity in prison.

For prisoners who lack confidence or have low self-esteem this can be problematic because the stigmas in prison can prevent them from evolving into the best they can be. They allow others to impose limitations on their potential.

To combat this thinking I frequently remind people around me that failure is not fatal. Once they embrace this reality they are able to discover that success is the culmination of sacrifice, hard work, and is often realized after a litany of failures.

The sewing program not only provides warmth to poor and homeless children, it also teaches prisoners what it means to be caring and compassionate. It teaches them that striving to become a better person, despite the fear of failure or being stereotyped, is worth the risk.

Prisoners are also able to learn the value of altruism and service to others through the program. They learn that when they do good they foster goodness in others who reciprocate their example and positive stewardship.

All it takes is donated materials from members of the public and the efforts of a few prisoners to transform a small classroom into a radiant place where the magic of kindness and miracles can manifest.

If you would like to support this effort you are invited to donate useful items to:

SRF Red Cross Sewing Program
Attn: Jodi Curtis
9625 Pierce Road

Freeland, MI 48623

Saturday, April 26, 2014

New Film About Michigan Youths Sentenced to Die in Prison

The case of Efren Paredes, Jr. appears in a new feature length documentary titled "Natural Life." 

The film challenges inequities in the U.S. juvenile justice system by depicting, through documentation and reenactment, the stories of five prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole (natural life) for crimes they were convicted of committing as youths.

Life without parole is the most severe sentence available for convicted adults. Shamefully the U.S. is the last remaining country in the world imposing this draconian sentence on youthful offenders. Seventy-two percent of the children who received the sentenced in Michigan are children of color.

The youthful status and/or lesser culpability of these youths, their background and their potential for rehabilitation, were not taken into account at any point in the charging and sentencing process.

Without a change in current sentencing laws, or a favorable decision by the courts regarding applying a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case (i.e., Miller v. Alabama) retroactively which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, the five could remain in prison until they die.

The documentary film portrays the ripple effect that this unforgiving sentence has had not only on the incarcerated youth and their victims, but also on the community at large.

During the past two-and-a-half decades fear of juvenile crime has violated the fundamental ideas upon which juvenile court rests, and specifically, the belief in children's unique capacity for rehabilitation and change.

State lawmakers and the federal government have more and more frequently opted to resort to harsher punitive adults models, demanding that children be put on trial as if they were as culpable, liable and informed as adults who commit similar crimes.

Forty-one states in the U.S. impose life without parole sentences on youth under the age of 18. The sentencing system for youth is especially vulnerable to a challenge where over half of the youths serving these sentences did not, themselves, commit a homicide.

The film features nearly 50 interviews with individuals who were involved with the crime, the arrest and the sentencing of the five featured inmates.

Among those interviewed are judges, lawyers, police officers, reporters, wardens, teachers, child psychiatrists, legal experts, members of families of the incarcerated as well as of the victims' families; all this alongside extensive recorded phone conversations with the inmates themselves.

The film is being screened across the U.S., Canada, and Europe. You can learn more details about the film or purchase a copy by visiting You are also invited to "Like" the film's Facebook page.

Members of the media, educators, students, people seeking to screen the film for a large audience, and others can request a live interview with Efren to discuss the film, or to include his responses to questions in a media story by putting "Efren Media Request" in the subject line of an e-mail to his family.

You can also contact Efren directly electronically via He can be found on the prisoner locator for
the state of Michigan under prisoner number 203116.

Please circulate this post widely by sharing it via e-mail and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google , etc.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Efren Paredes, Jr. Letter to Pope Francis

April 14, 2014

His Holiness, Pope Francis 
Apostolic Palace 
00120 Vatican City

Dear Pope Francis,

My name is Efren Paredes, Jr. and I am a Latino prisoner currently housed in the State of Michigan, United States of America (U.S.).

In 1989 I was arrested at age 15 and given two life without parole (LWOP) sentences, and one parolable life sentence, for a homicide and armed robbery I did not commit. I was home with my family when the crime occurred. This past March marked 25 years of imprisonment.

During my incarceration I have educated myself and worked tirelessly to help improve the lives of other prisoners, young people in society, and to bring attention to the shameful practice of sentencing children to die in prison.

I have been very moved by your courage and bravery since becoming the Bishop of Rome by speaking out against injustices that have been committed against children and the poor. Your actions have reflected a sincere follower of Christ whose life I believe other Christians should strive to emulate.

I admire your ability to help re-energize the Catholic church and change antiquated policies that need to be reformed to meet the demands of the time. You have a profound compassion for humanity and your actions have impressed upon the world the need for racial, gender, and economical equality.

I write to ask you to please publicly condemn the shameful practice of sentencing children to die in U.S. prisons. LWOP sentences for children are an unforgiving sentence that ignores the inherent dignity in young people. The U.S. is the last remaining country to impose this sentence on children.

I believe that the rest of the civilized world can shine a light on this cruel and unconscionable policy to influence the U.S. to one day make it an inhumane relic of the past. I contend that the voices of people who remain silent on the issue are complicit in the perpetuation of this cruel injustice.

It is my prayer that together we can galvanize people of conscience to encourage the U.S. to abolish the practice of sentencing children to die in prison and replace it with a policy that reflects the spirit of forgiveness and rehabilitation.

I have witnessed the transformation of countless prisoner lives during my incarceration. In over two-and-a-half decades of imprisonment I have never encountered a single prisoner sentenced to LWOP as a juvenile who does not regret the mistake(s) he made which resulted in the precious loss of life.

I reject the notion that any child is incorrigible or expendable. Children deserve second chances. Every parent, educator and most adults know that young people have an enormous capacity for change. All children can be rehabilitated if placed in an environment that genuinely seeks to foster that goal.

If we can shift the public perception about juveniles who commit crimes we can change the way they are punished for their actions in a manner that is sensible and humane. We cannot allow vengeful prosecutors to hijack the narrative of peace and reconciliation in our society.

We often hear believers in Christ ask the question, "What would Jesus do?" regarding a variety of issues. We need to transform this question from an empty slogan without substance to one that begs an honest, genuine response.

True followers of Christ know that Jesus would not condemn children to die in prisons. To do so would be diametrically opposed to everything he taught about valuing and protecting the lives of children as well as the concept of redemption.

It is in this spirit that I invite you to join the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and chorus of voices who have called on the U.S. to end the draconian practice of sentencing children to die in its prisons.

Please use your voice to help spare the lives of the 2,600 prisoners whose lives will expire in prison cells if LWOP sentences continue to be imposed on children. We desperately need you to lend your voice and influence to this campaign.

Thank you for your time and consideration and may you enjoy a blessed Easter in the coming days.


Efren Paredes, Jr.
Saginaw Correctional Facility
9625 Pierce Road
Freeland, MI 48623
United States of America (USA)