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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Efrén Invites Prosecutor to Participate in Youth Deterrent Program

[The following is a proposal sent to Berrien County Prosecutor, Michael Sepic, from Efrén Paredes, Jr. in September 2019 inviting his office to participate in the creation of a youth deterrent program to help prevent and reduce youth violence in the county. To date Efrén has received no response to his proposal.]

RE: Youth Deterrent Program Proposal

Dear Mr. Sepic:

I am writing to invite your office to consider participating in the creation of a Youth Deterrent Program ("YDP") to assist at-risk youth in Berrien County.

Last month I moderated an event at the Lakeland Correctional Facility ("LCF") where we hosted DJ Hilson, Muskegon County Prosecutor and outgoing President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM). It was a very positive event that was widely attended and well received by Mr. Hilson, prisoners, and facility staff who were present.

At the event I asked Mr. Hilson to consider partnering with us to create a YDP which could be helpful to at-risk youth in his county. He expressed that he really liked the idea and accepted the invitation. I am currently gathering background and supporting documentation about similar evidence-based programs in the state to share with him.

YDPs currently exist at three Michigan prisons. They consist of representatives from various prosecutors' offices, members of law enforcement, and/or social workers accompanying a small group of at-risk youth to engage in dialogue with prisoners. They convene for a couple hours each month in a prison visit room where the public visits prisoners when the space is available outside of regularly scheduled visiting hours.

During YDP dialogues prisoners encourage youth to remain in school and avoid a criminal lifestyle. They also share stories about their lives, the consequences of making poor choices, and the harsh experience of incarceration. Prisoners are carefully screened to participate in the YDP by prison administrators. Close supervision by the team of people who escort the youth to the prison is present at all times.

The curriculum for training participants of the program is based on the work of Dr. William Glasser, Jr. His widely recognized training program was developed over 50 years ago. The primary components of Dr. Glasser's training program that would be utilized in our YDP include Choice Theory and Reality Therapy which are available in the book, "Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom."

All prisoners involved in YDPs are unpaid volunteers who donate their time and service to be a part of the program because they choose to. The benefits they accrue from their participation is helping transform the lives of young people, making our communities safer, and giving back to society by helping repair the harm they caused.

Participating also helps prisoners become better returning citizens by developing a deeper sense of humanity and appreciation for the sanctity of life on their journey to redemption. It not only aids in the transformation of their own lives, it also helps them model that transformation for many at-risk youth who embrace the belief that they can't be what they can't see.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 95% of all prisoners return to the community one day. Cultivating a working relationship between your office and prisoners from the county can help build an important bridge that provides the community -- and your office -- with important assets and resources. They can also become invaluable entry points into areas of the county you otherwise wouldn't have when they are eventually released.

If the proposed version of a YDP isn't feasible other options you may wish to consider include arranging to have prisoners speak to at-risk youth in real-time via video teleconferencing, over the phone, or forming a group of prisoners to write them letters or messages. Combinations of these could also be helpful.

In 2015 I was selected as one of 20 prisoners to participate in the Michigan State University My Brother's Keeper Program taught by Dr. Austin Jackson. In the program we received training to mentor at-risk youth in Grades 6-8 in the Detroit Public Schools. We also developed a peer-to-peer mentoring program to help young prisoners already in the carceral system.

I co-created and facilitated a conflict resolution workshop in 2013 alongside a psychologist, three social workers from Mental Health Services, and a prison counselor as then-President of the National Lifers of America ("NLA"). The workshop was instrumental in reducing violence in the prison and helping transform the distorted thinking and dysfunctional behavior of hundreds of prisoner participants of all ages and races.

That same year I helped develop the curriculum for the "Peer Enrichment and Parole Readiness" workshop, along with the Director of American Friends Service Committee, Natalie Holbrook, and a group of 15 other prisoners. The workshop is now being taught at six different prisons across the state.

My experience growing up between the ages of 15 to 46 behind bars and interacting with thousands of prisoners of all ages, races, and classes; and the knowledge I have attained from decades of researching criminal thinking, trauma, violence, adolescent development, toxic masculinity, and cognitive behavioral therapy, will be helpful making the creation of a YDP a reality.

Also helpful will be the skills I have developed mentoring at-risk youth inside and outside of prison; completing numerous self-help and rehabilitative programs; and voluntarily participating in over 100 therapy sessions with licensed mental health professionals during the past nine years.

With the rising tide of gun violence around the country by the hands of troubled young men I believe it is imperative that we tirelessly work to combat the scourges of racism, misogyny, and toxic masculinity. We can ill-afford to wait for additional acts of senseless violence to ravage our communities using weapons of war before exploring sensible alternatives to help solve the problem.

Simply jailing offenders after they have committed crimes, coupled with ignoring their dignity and redemptive qualities, has proven a dismal failure to preventing criminality. It is a reactionary response after harm is inflicted on undeserving members of the community.

Preventing the infliction of harm to themselves and the community is more prosocial and sensible than trying to repair the wreckage of recklessness and destruction of its aftermath. Waiting for crime to happen before acting often proves too late.

If incarceration alone truly prevented crime we would have eradicated it long ago and be the safest country in the world. No nation in human history has imprisoned more of its citizens with the frequency and duration that we have. Though we are 5% of the world's total population we house nearly a staggering 25% of its incarcerated people.

A large number of troubled youth are impervious to guidance from counselors, members of law enforcement, and even their own parents. Many of them, however, will listen to incarcerated -- and formerly incarcerated men -- who share their lived experiences and have traveled through the same corridors of criminality.

Proactive evidence-based programs like YDPs are effective because youth are able to interact with prisoners who can share stories with them about the horrors of incarceration and the consequences of making poor choices. They can also offer them myriad reasons they should change the trajectory of their lives and open the door to transformation.

An abundance of research shows that intrinsic motivation is nearly always a more reliable driver and durable predictor of positive behavior than anything extrinsic. This is among one of the many reasons it is so important to reach and provide troubled youth with much needed identity, purpose, and direction before it's too late.

The vast majority of prisoners want to help heal their communities from the pain and devastation they once caused. This is evidenced by several formerly incarcerated friends of mine who were originally sentenced to life without parole who have subsequently been released and returned to their communities.

Today they are mentoring youth, gainfully employed, pursuing college degrees, feeding the homeless, and some are even working closely with law enforcement to help make their communities safer. These men are no longer the dangers to society they once posed as impetuous, reckless, risk-taking teenagers.

Each day they are proving that no one's life experiences can be reduced to a single story. Prisoners are no more defined by their greatest accomplishment than they are by their worst mistake. It is a culmination of their lived experiences that defines them. Not a snapshot in time.

Men like this can help you reach troubled youth and detour those headed in the wrong direction. They can also help them explore the possibility of new horizons through engagement and helping them develop critical thinking skills, impulse control, and the value of emotional intelligence and sound consequential thinking.

Formerly incarcerated citizens who have spent decades behind bars gain a deeper appreciation and respect for freedom and the sanctity of life. By carving out opportunities from hardships they learn, grow, and change during years of separation from society, and by engaging in deep introspection which helps transform them in profound ways. Rather than only learning to do less of the bad, they also learn to do more of the good.

According to Stacey Abrams, thought leader and author of "Lead from the Outside": "The best ideas and policies are typically collaborative and those that succeed are the product of a community." This wisdom can help rescue our troubled youth, heal our communities, and replace the specters of intolerance and wrath with compassion and second chances.

I am hopeful you will give thoughtful consideration to this proposal and/or share it with any agency in the county receptive to seeing it materialize. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. I am receptive to having a thoughtful dialogue with you. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Efrén Paredes, Jr.
Lakeland Correctional Facility
141 First Street
Coldwater, MI 49036