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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nature Hurdles Prison Barriers Designed to Separate it From Society

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

I arrived at the Handlon Correctional Facility nearly a month ago. It is a Level 2 custody facility located in the rural town of Ionia, Michigan.

The facility is home to an impressive effort referred to as the "Vocational Village." The Village is located in the educational building and consists of various vocational programs offered by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) to prisoners interested in pursuing trade certifications in horticulture, CNC machining, welding, carpentry, custodial maintenance, and other areas.

Calvin College also has a presence at the facility and offers non-accredited and accredited college programming to prisoners that is funded by philanthropists. Soon Jackson Community College will be creating a satellite division at the prison to make classes available for 200 prisoners which will be funded by PELL grants.

Throughout the compound are small vegetable gardens maintained by prisoners. Though small in size the gardens are large enough to give prisoners an opportunity to feel a sense of pride nourishing tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, and zucchini. Each day prisoners visit their gardens to care for them by watering, weeding and cultivating the dirt. Sometimes they spend time in their gardens solely to enjoy the peaceful therapeutic experience and observe the progress of their labor.

It feels good to walk past the vast array of produce and peer into the vibrant mosaic that comprises each garden. There is something that innately attracts us to the magnetism of these green pools of life. It is common to hear the frequent observations made by prisoners as they pass by the gardens daily and comment about the cycles of change and growth the vegetables undergo. These communal acknowledgments reflect a collective appreciation for the sustenance nature so generously yields.

There is also an impressive array of flower gardens that are the product of the facility's horticulture program. The gardens artfully decorate the grounds giving them a more humane aesthetic. They are beacons of illumination, an oasis in the desert of suffocating blight that casts its dark, ugly shadow over the prison.

The past couple weeks I have frequently seen a hummingbird flying around two flower gardens located close to each other in an area of the prison that remains largely undisturbed by people. I watch him with amazement while he effortlessly glides between various plants. His wings rapidly flutter as he delicately drinks nectar from a broad range of delectable flowers. Hummingbirds possess sacred value in Mexican culture and history. They embody powerful spiritual symbolism and are representative of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli.

After approximately one week of being at the prison I noticed a set of shrubs as I walked down a walkway. It was the same type of small green shrub my parents had surrounding our home. When I initially saw them I was attracted to them because they reminded me of the shrubs I hadn't seen in nearly three decades. As I approached them I was hopeful they were the same soft shrubs I remembered from so many years ago. As I reached out to explore the texture of one of the shrubs I discovered I was right. It was indeed the same kind.
I departed the area the shrubs were located and thought to myself, "Nature is amazing. It has the capacity to leave indelible footprints in our memory that can last a lifetime." While it seemed like a strange encounter in some respects, the experience evoked childhood memories of playing on our lawn with my two younger brothers. It reminded me of the rocks that surrounded some of the shrubs and of memories of my father trimming them in the spring and fall.

I also recalled when I was mowing the front yard of our home the summer before I went to prison. As I mowed under the shrubs unbeknownst to me I pushed the lawn mower near a rabbit nest. The noise from the lawn mower prompted the bunnies to exit the nest and frantically scurry across the lawn.

A 15-year-old boy at the time, I was startled by what I observed and frightened that I may have run over the bunnies with the lawn mower. It was not an image I wanted to see. I quickly abandoned the running lawnmower and ran into our home to tell my father what occurred. He returned to the front yard with me, turned off the lawn mower, and together we scanned the yard for evidence of any harm I may have inadvertently caused. I was relieved to find that none of the bunnies were harmed and things were fine.

I never cease to marvel at how some of the simplest things can engender our minds to recall earlier experiences in our lives, even in prison. There is a deep yearning to experience things that offer us a sense of feeling liberated or evoke memories of when we were still living in society. Every semblance of freedom is enormously powerful to a person deprived of their liberty.

Prison causes people to appreciate small and seemingly insignificant things in life. It arouses thoughts of family, freedom, and the value of the awesome presence of creation and our interconnectedness. It also makes a person value looking out a window at the methodical movement of the sun as it inches incrementally across the sky, observe the wind as it blows gentle kisses at the leaves on trees, and enjoy the soft feeling of grass under their feet as they walk.

Another example is the presence of animal life. In society chipmunks are often a nuisance, especially for gardeners. In prison people spend hours observing them, feeding them, and sometimes even making them pets. Over the years I have witnessed prisons feed birds, squirrels, stray cats, and other animals they probably would have ignored in society.

During my incarceration I have met prisoners who only earn $10 or $15 a month from their prison jobs spend a few dollars each time they are paid to purchase peanuts for animals. This sacrifice generates a sense of self-worth and connecting with life and the world as a whole.

One prisoner I met a few years ago had served 60 years in prison. He was convicted of his crime when he was a teenager and sentenced to life without parole. By the time I met him most of his family members had passed away and the people he communicated with were largely prisoners. Because of this the only commissary items the prisoner received were donations from other prisoners.

I remember asking the prisoner if there was anything I could purchase from the commissary to help him out. His response to me was, "Just get me some trail mix so I can feed the chipmunks." Even a prisoner who had no means of income, and had spent over six decades in prison, cared more about feeding a small animal than himself.

When I was at the Muskegon Correctional Facility I used to place crackers, sunflower seeds, and cookies on my window sill. Each day small birds (including an occasional Blue Jay) and a squirrel would visit my window. When I didn't leave food on the window sill if the squirrel was hungry she would scratch on my window to get my attention. Over the course of time the animals grew increasingly familiar with me and allowed me to begin handing them the food instead of only leaving it on the window sill for them.

I am enjoying my connection with nature in a new setting. Each interaction is a calming, serene, potentially healing experience. Every moment is a jewel in time while enduring the monotony of daily prison life. It is an opportunity to detach mentally, spiritually, and emotionally from confinement even if only for a few brief moments at a time. As I so often remind other prisoners: They will never in life have this much time for reflection and deep introspection. Therefore, it is imperative that they take advantage of it and use it as an incubator for personal growth and development. 

Now if I can just figure out how to convince that little hummingbird to start visiting my window regularly so I can observe him more often that would be great.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stereotypes Can Prevent Acts of Kindness, Even in Prison

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Recently I was scheduled for an appointment with the Health Services Clinic at the Handlon Correctional Facility. When I arrived the waiting room was full so I stood in the hallway until a seat became available. A young White prisoner in his early 20s stood near me waiting in the hallway as well.

It was a busy morning. Several prisoners were waiting to inject their early doses of insulin, others were waiting to see the physician or nurse, and there was a long line of prisoners waiting to have their blood drawn to be sent to the lab for various tests.

As I stood waiting I glanced over at the younger prisoner who was standing near me in the hallway who I will refer to as "Mike." His hair was short and blonde. He was dressed oddly in a set of state blues. He wore his pants pulled up past his naval with his shirt tucked deep into his pants. I silently thought to myself, "He must not realize how funny he looks dressed that way."

As I was having these thoughts Mike looked over at me and said, "Good morning! How are you doing today?" His words evoked the thoughts in me, "OK, I get it now. He's either very new to prison or has some other issues," because being friendly to people you don't know in prison is uncommon. Usually prisoners who don't know each other avoid communicating. The exchange of pleasantries between complete strangers in prison is rare.

Despite my initial observations about Mike I responded saying, "Good. How about you?" His response was, "Great! Hope you have a good day and God bless you." He said it so abruptly it was as if he couldn't wait to convey those words to me. It took me by surprise. I wouldn't allow the kindness of his words go unappreciated though and responded, "God bless you too."

In nearly three decades of incarceration no prisoner has ever said these words before when speaking to me for the first time. The situation prompted me to examine things closer. There was something about it that summoned me to not just dismiss it as some odd encounter.

After a few minutes seating space became available in the waiting room so Mike and I entered the area and sat down. A short time later Mike was called to stand in line to have his blood drawn. As he stood waiting I overheard him ask an officer in the hallway, "How are you doing?" The officer looked at him strangely and responded, "Alright," then abruptly looked away.

Mike then told the officer, "God bless you and I hope you have a good day." The officer looked at Mike with a puzzled look on his face and said, "I don't hear that from prisoners often," and returned to what he was doing writing at his desk.

At this point my thoughts about Mike's earlier behavior were only being reinforced. Or so I thought.

Next Mike began to ask the officer a series of questions about fishing. The officer then asked Mike, "Didn't you go to the hospital recently?" in an effort to change the subject. Mike responded, "Yes. I have been going to the University of Michigan almost every month for the last few years."

I could hear the entire conversation and I was just taking it all in.

Mike proceeded to tell the officer, "I have a brain tumor and I was supposed to die three years ago. I'm not even supposed to plug things into electrical outlets myself because my tumor could burst from the current. That's why I am so happy every day I wake up alive because I could have died anytime within the past few years."

Hearing Mike's words crystallized everything immediately.

"That was the reason I didn't dismiss this situation as some crazy guy just being friendly in prison," I thought to myself. "I was supposed to receive an important lesson today about life and it was through the painful experience of a stranger I didn't even know."

Afterwards Mike went to get his blood drawn. As he was leaving the room where they were doing blood draws we passed each other in the hall and I made a point of telling him, "Take care." He smiled, nodded his head up and down, and said, "You too."

Life offers many opportunities we frequently miss because of distorted stereotypes we unfairly project, flawed perceptions, or an unwillingness to pause and analyze situations before reaching hasty conclusions. And, I believe it occurs more often than we think.

There is a scripture in the Bible that cautions people about how they treat strangers because they never know when they could be entertaining angels. While I am not equating Mike to an angel I interpret that scripture to mean not only may we encounter divine messengers of the Creator during our lifetime, we will also receive important spiritual lessons from strangers.

As we go through life we navigate the daily deluge of competing interests we encounter. We complain about everything going wrong in our lives and rarely take the time to be grateful for the positive things that transpire. We selfishly ignore the gifts life bestows upon us. In so doing we become self-absorbed and cheat ourselves by becoming indifferent to the fullness of life.

Taking things for granted can lead to our self-destruction. It is tantamount to erroneously telling ourselves everything good that occurs in our lives happens because we singularly made it materialize. The reality is that much more transpires in our lives because of our interaction with others, the cycle of life, and the Creator. It doesn't take long to discover that doing things entirely alone independent of everyone around us won't get us very far. We impose serious limitations on ourselves when we do that and set ourselves up for failure.

When we allow ourselves to see the potential in others, open our hearts and minds to the possibilities of goodness, and accept that life is too short to manufacture stereotypes, foster divisions, or ignore the inherent dignity in others we discover the richness of a vibrant world around us beckoning to be explored.

We become receptive to new ideas, information, and knowledge we previously erected barriers against. We grow and nourish our spirits in profound ways and begin to exercise our full potential instead of weighing ourselves down with the negative energies of life that prevent our upward mobility.

It's been a few weeks and I haven't seen Mike again. I may never see him again. What I will do, however, is share his story with others as a lesson for them to learn from, and as a frequent reminder about the importance of appreciating every precious moment of life.

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