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Friday, December 30, 2016

Exploring Freedom Through Free Verse Arts

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Six weeks after beginning a Free Verse Arts poetry workshop at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, prisoner participants are feeling a renewed sense of hope and inspiration.

Free Verse Arts is a collaboration between the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University, Ingham County Youth Services Center in Lansing, and the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility. It is lead by Project Director and RCAH Academic Specialist in Community and Socially Engaged Arts Guillermo Delgado.

The project provides a space to participants to use arts as a tool for community engagement and to foster positive social change in the prison system and beyond. According to the Free Verse Arts official Facebook page, "our goal is to shine a spotlight on the unseen and unheard." It is an ambitious undertaking that, though on its face some audiences may initially question its purpose, upon closer examination discover is a worthwhile and meaningful endeavor.

Professor Delgado was accompanied by several students from one of his MSU RCAH classes who assisted him with teaching and leading weekly exercises and projects which included learning to compose various styles of poetry, doing art projects, and creating journals an chapbooks. The MSU students were enthusiastically engaged in the workshop the entire time and exuded a positive energy. This helped some of the first-time prisoner participants be more comfortable and not succumb to the fears that threaten to shut them down when expressing themselves through their art and poetry.

Each week workshop participants read their finished poetry in front of the classroom and shared enlightening stories about thir personal growth. Their confidence grew exponentially as they developed new skills and discovered ways to explore their imagination and share it with others. Everyone present encouraged each other during readings and construction of art and poetry. They also fostered an enriching learning environment with helpful comments, finger snaps, and smiles. Laughter reverberated throughout the classroom during some of the entertaining poetry readings.

One prisoner in the workshop named Jaime Lopez Lorza stated, "Being in Free Verse Arts was a very motivating experience. I am grateful to have participated in the project. Professor Delgado and the students did a wonderful job guiding and teaching us steps to expand the creative aspects of our minds."

Lorza added, "The workshop taught me that my creativity is connected to past life experiences. Expressing those experiences not only helps me become a better person through introspection, it helps me also teach others valuable lessons in the process. Professor Delgado is a wonderful and inspiring human being. I am honored to have met him."

A workshop participant myself, it is always a great experience to witness how much prisoners can learn and absorb from art and poetry workshops. I have participated in art and poetry workshops conducted by other universities in the past and had the pleasure of witnessing their enormous impact on prisoner lives. Until I began participating in the workshops I had never created art or poetry, nor was I interested in it. The workshops awakened my creativity in ways previously unimaginable.
The Free Verse Arts workshop was mentally and emotionally liberating. For the two hours the class was held each week prisoners knew they would be in a space that nourished their potential in myriad ways. It was a time that allowed them to transcend the daily experiences of prison life and transform ourselves through the healing power of art and poetry. Unfortunately prisons themselves do not offer arts and poetry workshops. Such programs are made available to prisoners only from citizen volunteers.

Incarceration and isolation evoke painful feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, and loneliness. These things make it very difficult for prisoners to engage with others even in a space designed to help them (e.g., Free Verse Arts workshops). Prisoners often descend into depression as they struggle to resist exploration into the dark caverns of their past they find themselves incessantly trapped in. The fact that the workshops are able to connect with prisoners against this backdrop, and summon their creative genius, is a testament to the efficacy of them empowering people to explore their creativity and imagine a better future.

Professor Delgado recognizes the intrinsic value in others and the importance of the concept of redemption. His genuine interest in offering rehabilitative programs to adult prisoners and incarcerated youth are admirable and deserving of recognition. Though not the central theme of his work, he is creating a safer society by building a bridge between the community and prisons to help incarcerated men and children become better returning citizens.

It takes courage to do the work Professor Delgado and others like him do going through the rigors of entering prisons and youth centers. The same can be said for the students who joined him. They traveled nearly an hour each way to the prison weekly and were subjected to clothed body searches by guards -- a policy all volunteers who enter prisons are required to do. Still, they are sacrifices of time, personal space, and dignity that they chose to endure because they wanted to provide a life-changing opportunity to prisoners seeking to improve their lives.

By the conclusion of the workshop many lessons were learned by everyone involved. Prisoners were reminded that they are not forgotten, they are human beings capable of change, and with a little encouragement and genuine concern they can accomplish constructive things while incarcerated. They also learned that a life of service and kindness to others can reciprocate those actions in return. In other words, we can strengthen the fabric of humanity by projecting positive energy into the world and becoming agents of social change.

MSU students discovered that in the midst of a caged environment isolated from the world there exist people who became entangled in the criminal justice system but possess the capacity to not be defined by it. The students also experienced a semblance of what it can feel like to be deprived of physical freedom and denied privileges and basic enjoyments of life often taken for granted. It is a humbling experience that is certain to impact them for the remainder of their lives.

Prisons and legislators would do well supporting projects like Free Verse Arts that generate substantive results. Our state prison system would benefit greatly by making similar projects available at prisons across the state. These projects are investments in the future that can yield a greater return to the public for a fraction of the cost necessary to operate less effective programs. And, they make the community safer by rehabilitating returning citizens in ways that actually work.

The Residential College of the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University is becoming a leader in prisoner reformation through the programs it currently offers at the Handlon Correctional Facility. In addition to Free Verse Arts they are offering the Story Catcher's Drama Club lead by Dr. Lisa Biggs, as well as the My Brother's Keeper program lead by Program Director Dr. Austin Jackson. (Posts about the latter two programs are forthcoming.)

I want to extend a special thanks to Professor Delgado for bringing Free Verse Arts to the Handlon Correctional Facility and to Ricardo Ferrell for inviting you. I want to also thank all the MSU students who participated. I hope you take the lessons learned and use them to help generate social change throughout the world. To Madeline, the MSU student who assisted prisoner Lorza and myself during the workshop, thanks for the encouragement, support, and best of luck to you as you pursue your career path.

I strongly urge people to support Free Verse Arts and the work being done by Professor Delgado in prisons and youth centers. "Like" the Free Verse Arts Facebook page, share it with others, and encourage people to learn more about the project.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Unraveling the Juvenile Lifer Series on Michigan Radio

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

A recent series about prisoners being resentenced who originally received mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers") has been airing on Michigan Radio this week.

Michigan is home to 363 prisoners who previously received this extreme sentence which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is unconstitutional. The high court ordered re-sentencing for all 2,500 prisoners affected across the nation.

In their opinion the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the only juvenile offenders who can receive LWOP sentences are those "rare" cases where the person is "irreparably corrupt" and "incapable of change." They also added that such sentences should become "uncommon."

Prosecutors across Michigan responded to the high court by filing motions to pursue LWOP sentences again in 228 of the 363 cases rather than term of year sentences now allowed by Michigan law.

One of the subjects discussed Tuesday, December 13, on Michigan Radio was the conduct of juvenile lifers during incarceration. This was raised because some prosecutors seek to use it as one of the factors to consider what type of sentence to pursue against prisoners.

Former Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Director Patricia Caruso was featured on Michigan Radio to share her experience working with juvenile lifers when she was a Warden, MDOC Director, and President of the American Correctional Association.

During her interview Caruso stated that given everything she knows about the corrections department and prisoner reform she supports the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that imposing LWOP sentences on juvenile offenders should be rare and uncommon.

Caruso went on to say that many of the misconduct reports that juvenile lifers received that were formerly considered major rule infractions are now designated as minor rule infractions under the system's revised policy regarding misconduct reports. She added that juvenile lifers receiving misconduct reports reflects more about them being adolescents than about the potential for their success upon release.

Understandably, a few things have been missed during the Michigan Radio series. One subject is circumstances surrounding prisoner misconduct reports.

When juvenile lifers received misconduct reports they were still serving death-by-incarceration sentences. They were living each day with the reality that they were condemned to die in prison. Hope had been extinguished and many lacked a sense of purpose.

It would be misguided for people to offer that juvenile lifers should be judged by the darkest period of their lives when they were enduring despair and struggling to survive. Many were devastated, experiencing depressing, abandoned by family, totally isolated from the world, and undergoing other forms of trauma.
Another important issue to be raised is the number of misconduct reports prisoners receive for things they did not actually do. Prisoners share cells with other prisoners, and sometimes even several other prisoners in open dormitory settings. In this situation a prisoner can hide contraband (e.g., knives, drugs, etc.) in another prisoner's area without her/his knowledge instead of hiding it in their own area to avoid punishment if prison staff find the item. It is a rampant problem that corrections officials admit they cannot prevent or resolve.

Numerous misconduct reports have been written on prisoners because of contraband that did not belong to them. But because a staff member finds the contraband in a specific prisoner's area of control s/he has no choice but to write a misconduct report on the prisoner who is responsible for that area.

They have no latitude to decline writing it on the person even if they know the prisoner has no reputation of causing problems and may likely not be guilty.

Then there is the issue of fights and assaults. Many young prisoners receive misconduct reports for fighting because they were victims defending themselves against assaults by older prisoners or defending themselves from being robbed or extorted for sex or money. Young prisoners are often targets of aggression by older prisoners.

Some prisoners are also written assault on staff misconduct reports for not even committing an assault. They can receive an assault charge for moving during a clothed body search being conducted by staff, pulling away from a staff member after being handcuffed, or inadvertently bumping into a staff member, etc.

While there do exist incidents of prisoner fights or assaults that are inexcusable every situation is different and should be judged on the individual circumstances, not solely by the name of the charge filed against them which can be very misleading. These are just a few of many examples that occur related to prisoner misconducts that most members of the public are unaware of, including prosecutors and judges.

Three more points deserving of attention in this discussion are statistics related.

First, prisoners who have spent more than 20 years in prison who are released have a very low recidivism rate. That number decreases even further when the prisoner reaches age 40, is married, or has children. A prisoner in all four categories would be the lowest of all recidivism prospects.

Second, prisoners convicted of first-degree homicide who are released have less than a 1% chance of recidivating. They are statistically the lowest of all categories of prisoners to possibly return to prison. It is a fact that often goes ignored.

Third, studies show that there is no direct correlation between the number of misconduct reports prisoners receive and their success upon re-entry into society. There are many people who are simply unable to cope while living in a human cage for any length of time. A large number also suffer from mental health issues which exacerbate the situation further.

It is also worth noting that no misconduct charge, with the exception of the charge of homicide, has prevented prisoners from returning to society as productive citizens. The Parole Board releases thousands of prisoners each year who have received misconduct reports in their past. And, each year the vast majority of parolees successfully complete all the terms of their parole conditions. Juvenile lifers who are released can be equally successful.

When it comes to identifying the "rare" and "uncommon" cases that are eligible to receive LWOP sentences some ministers of justice are reluctant to answer the question. The U.S Supreme Court, however, made it abundantly clear. Their answer was the rare juvenile who is "irreparably corrupt" and "incapable of change."

I have never met a single juvenile lifer who was guilty of the crime he was convicted of that did not express remorse for his actions and deeply regret making the choices that lead to his incarceration. In every case he wishes he could undo the tragedy and readily admits that, if given the opportunity to go back in time, he would never make the same mistake again.

This is only one example that reflects the maturity many juvenile lifers have undergone leading to reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton stated on Michigan Radio that he wished the MDOC offered additional programming to juvenile lifers because he acknowledged they do not qualify for many programs due to the amount of time they were sentenced to. Ironically, he also attempted to argue that the majority of the juvenile lifers in his county are incapable of change.

Two questions should be asked: one, if Prosecutor Leyton believes juvenile lifers are incapable of change why does he wish the MDOC would offer them more programs; and two, why do psychologists reject any attempts to divine the future of juvenile lifers and claim they are incapable of change?

In his Stanford Law Review article, "Two Cultures of Punishment," Joshua Kleinfeld writes:

"A free will can reverse itself, a proud person can learn humility, a selfish person can learn to be fair. To say someone has a vice is not to say someone is ruined. There is space between the person and her shortcomings."

Any human behavior expert, parent, or teacher will admit that juveniles are capable of change in their lives. The issue isn't about IF they are capable of change, it's WHEN they will change.

Advocates for juvenile lifers to receive term of year sentences have never sought the immediate release of every juvenile lifer. They have simply asked for them to receive sentences that allow for meaningful parole consideration during their incarceration.

This would allow the Parole Board to receive jurisdiction over these cases and use their vast knowledge of rehabilitation to determine when, if ever, juvenile lifers should be released on a case-by-case basis.

A prisoner could receive a 25 to 60 year sentence and serve the entire 60 year maximum term. Only those persons who do not pose a risk to public safety and earn a parole through positive conduct will be released when the Parole Board deems appropriate. It is a fair approach that balances justice for all involved.

The Michigan Radio juvenile lifer series is doing a great job exploring the subject. I am hopeful the public will become more educated about all the facets of this important issue.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to LWOP in 1989. Incarcerated now for nearly 28 years, he is now 43-years-old. You can learn more about Efren by visiting and