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Monday, May 25, 2020

Juvenile Lifers Stricken With COVID-19 in Michigan Prisons

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
As Michigan leads the nation in the chilling number of COVID-19 deaths occurring inside its prison, 196 incarcerated people sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for crimes they were accused of committing when they were children ("juvenile lifers") are in prisons waiting to receive new resentencing hearings.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of all 2,500 juvenile lifers affected nationwide. In Michigan 363 people were originally affected by the ruling.
The high court stated that juvenile offenders who are not "irreparably corrupt," "incapable of change," or do not "exhibit such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible" cannot receive a LWOP sentence again when they are resentenced. Those who do not fit this criteria are candidates to receive a term-of-year sentence making them eligible for release one day.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "Deciding that a juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society would require making a judgment that [s/he] is incorrigible -- but incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth and for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence."
The court added, "Life without parole foreswears the rehabilitative ideal. It reflects an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society, at odds with a child's capacity for change." (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2465 (2012))
Michigan is now shamefully home to the largest number of juvenile lifers in the nation. Thirty-seven states now either prohibit LWOP sentences for children or have not imposed the draconian sentence since 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the sentence for minors.
Eight years after the landmark ruling there are still 196 Michigan juvenile lifers waiting to be resentenced. Over 80 of them have already served at least twenty years behind bars and ten of them have served over 40 years. They are still awaiting resentencing hearings because prosecutors delayed the process by filing motions seeking LWOP sentences in each case nearly four years ago.
This means each person must receive an expensive mitigation hearing to determine whether or not they are candidates to receive a LWOP sentence replete with psychologists, brain science experts, mitigation experts, and other necessary expert witnesses at taxpayer expense. The total costs, including attorney fees and court costs, will likely exceed $30,000 for each person. Some have already cost as high as $70,000.
It will cost the state a conservative estimated total of $5.7 million to conduct all the mitigation and resentencing hearings. And, each year juvenile lifers remain imprisoned, taxpayers are paying an additional $30,000 annual cost of incarceration per person. All this is occurring in the midst of the highest unemployment rate and worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The first 190 juvenile lifers who were resentenced over the past eight years received an average sentence of 30 years. Of that number over 100 of them have been released and none have reoffended. Their zero percent recidivism rate is currently the lowest of any demographic released by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Parole Board.
The average overall recidivism rate for offenders in Michigan is currently 29%, according to the MDOC. The national average recidivism rate is closer to 60%.
"Research shows that individuals released after having served very long sentences, including life sentences, have the lowest recidivism rates of any category of previously incarcerated individuals." (R. Weisberg, D.A. Mukamal, & J.D. Segall, "Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California." Stanford Criminal Justice Center (2011)).
Two weeks ago a friend of mine named Jesse Hayes was released from prison after serving 31 years behind bars. He and I grew up together in prison and have known each other for many years. He was a juvenile lifer arrested at age 16 in Oakland County and is now 47-years-old.
Like me, Jesse spent the majority of his teenage years, all of his 20's, 30's, and most of his 40's in prison. He is one of the fortunate juvenile lifers to have been resentenced and afforded an opportunity to be released before contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to observe Jesse grow and mature from a troubled teen into a responsible, empathetic, forward-thinking man who maintains a positive outlook on life and enjoys helping others. His evolution did not occur in a straight line, however. In life, it never does.
During the earlier part of our incarceration Jesse and I were housed in the most volatile and dangerous prisons in Michigan. We were often the youngest and most vulnerable people there having to defend ourselves against attempts by older incarcerated people to assault, steal from, extort, and exploit us. Because of our young age we were seen as easy prey.
Despite the barrage of negative events we experienced we managed to navigate through the treacherous waters of adult prisons and emerge stronger and wiser. And through it all we never gave up hope that one day we might be able to return to our families and regain our hard fought freedom.
Jesse's family stood by and supported him during his entire incarceration and they are helping with his transition as a returning citizen. He is doing well with his adjustment and will be an asset to his community. He will be among those who maintain the zero percent recidivism rate for juvenile lifers who were given a second chance.
In recent months several juvenile lifers have contracted COVID-19 awaiting their resentencing hearings. One of them was resentenced and died in April awaiting his release which would have occurred this month. Six other juvenile lifers have also died in custody waiting for their resentencing hearings over the past eight years previous to the COVID-19 crisis.
One of the juvenile lifers who has contracted COVID-19 at the prison I am presently located, the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF), is a long-time friend of mine from Flint, Michigan, I have known for 30 years named Simba Senghor.
Simba and I met at the Riverside Correctional Facility Reception and Guidance Center (RG&C) in 1989 when I was working as a porter in the intake area at that time. I was tasked with keeping the area clean and also passing out clothing to new people who were entering the prison system.
We were both arrested at age 15 when we were too young to receive a driver's license, enlist in the armed forces, or enter a theatre to watch a Rated R movie. And though we were too young to visit a prison at the time of our arrest, we were sentenced to die in one.
During the past three decades I have witnessed Simba's growth and evolution since he entered the prison system. No longer the impetuous, myopic, risk-taking kid he was back then, today he is a responsible 47-year-old man who has engaged in years of introspective work and self-education.
Earlier this year I invited Simba to attend Kwanzaa and Black History Month programs I co-sponsored along with other men at LCF who were a part of the organizing committee. We had the honor of hosting Dr. Jamie Monson, Director of the African Studies Program at Michigan State University, and a team of her amazing staff and students.
Simba and I were profoundly impacted by the messages of our esteemed guests. They were monuments to years of investing time learning and teaching our peers about African, Black, and Latinx history, culture, and identity at a number of different prisons in Michigan.
Me being selected by our peers to be a presenter at both events was a special moment for both Simba and I. It demonstrated that through serious study and discipline we can share a stage speaking about the same subjects as world class scholars in their fields even from inside a prison. It also affirmed that the work we have been doing has tremendous value to the world beyond what we have seen and experienced behind prison walls.
Prior to COVID-19 infiltrating the prison I saw Simba in the general library perusing through several books Dr. Monson donated to the prison. We discussed something from one of the books and our enthusiasm about Dr. Monson's willingness to offer continued learning opportunities to people at LCF through the African Studies Department Outreach Program.
Simba and I both appreciate the value of using education as tools to transform lives, and we understand the detrimental affects that can stem from their paucity. We remain inspired by the timeless wisdom of people like Oliver Wendell Holmes who once wrote, "Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions."
Prosecutors argue that people like Simba are irredeemable because of crimes they were convicted of committing decades ago. They ignore the reality that the crimes are snapshots in time of who they were when they were minors. They don't tell us who the person is today after years of incarceration, maturity, and participating in a number of rehabilitative programs.
"Research suggests that more than 90% of justice-involved youth will no longer engage in crimal behavior by the time they reach their mid-20s." (Elizabeth Scott & Laurence Steinberg, "Rethinking Juvenile Justice" 38 (2008))
These individuals are often identified as adolescent-limited offenders, whose antisocial behavior typically starts in adolescence and declines as they mature into adulthood. Thus, less than 10% of justice-involved youth will continue to engage in criminal behavior past their mid-20s.
In the first ever national survey of victims' views on safety and justice titled "Crime Survivors Speak," published in 2016 by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the report found that 61% of victims prefer "shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation to prison sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible."
The report also found that for every victim who prefers the criminal justice system focus on punishment there are two victims who prefer its focus on rehabilitation, and 89% of victims prefer more investment in school and education to more investments in prisons and jails.
Each person is a culmination of their lived experiences and decisions. They are not defined by any one event, nor by their best or worst choice in life. The problem is that many prosecutors become obsessed with people's crimes and their cynicism prevents them from acknowledging their inherent dignity and redemptive qualities.
People learn, they grow, and they change. Everyone is a work in progress. No one is the same person in their 40's and 50's that they were in their teens. No one is the same person they were when they committed their crime even a year later. To believe that they are defies reason and common sense.
I was arrested in March 1989 in Berrien County at age 15 and sentenced to LWOP. I am now 47-years-old and to date I have spent over two-thirds of my entire life in prison. My arrest occurred at the height of the pernicious propaganda campaign when criminologists, lawmakers, and prosecutors were branding juvenile offenders as "superpredators."
A month after I was jailed the Central Park Five were arrested in New York City, the subjects of the Netflix documentary film series "When They See Us." In the midst of the national media firestorm surrounding their case I stood trial only three months after my arrest.
Four other juveniles admittedly involved in the planning or commission of the same crime I was charged with were sentenced as follows:
* 16-year-old named Alex Mui received an 18-45 year sentence for Armed Robbery and had his homicide charge dropped in exchange for testifying against me;
* 17-year-old named Eric Mui received two 18-45 year sentences for Armed Robbery and Second-Degree Murder in exchange for his cooperation with the prosecutor and police;
* 16-year-old named Jason Williamson was charged as a juvenile and received a six month sentence for Armed Robbery; and
* 16-year-old named Steve Miller, who admitted being involved in the planning of the crime and participating in an attempted Armed Robbery two days earlier, was granted immunity by the prosecutor in exchange for his testimony against me and others in the case.
All four individuals were older than me at the time of arrest and the two who received the 18-45 year sentences were released 15 years ago. I am the only person who was charged in the case who still remains incarcerated. I have served nearly twice the amount of time as the 17-year-old who plead guilty to Second-Degree Murder and Armed Robbery, and 62 times the amount of time the person did who received a six month sentence in the case.
Despite my circumstances during the past 31 years I have dedicated my life to education, becoming a problem solver, sound consequential thinker, and selflessly helping enrich the lives of others through education.
According to Dr. Akbar, author of "Community of Self" and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Florida State University, "A male is a biological creature. A boy is a creature in transition. And a man is a person who has arrived at a purpose and a destiny." His words have been a lodestar serving as a reminder of our perpetually evolving transcendent nature as human beings in life.
Among my accomplishments are proudly organizing to help create a Latinx charter middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, co-founding the first MSU My Brother' Keeper Prison Outreach Program, and co-founding -- the largest online Latinx social justice organizing platform.
I am also a Literary Braille Transcriber certified by the U.S. Library of Congress. For 13 years I transcribed print textbooks into braille for blind and visually impaired children around the globe. Additional accomplishments can be viewed at
In 2008 the Berkeley City Council in California passed a resolution condemning my sentence as a human rights violation, and in 2016 LATINA magazine named me as one of four Latinx people in the nation deserving of clemency.
I enjoy support for my release from current and former MDOC employees, filmmakers, a former juror from my case, national organizations, legal scholars, Directors of various university Latinx Studies Departments, authors, community leaders, one of the nation's leading wrongful conviction investigators, and others.
Five years ago I was one of five people whose cases were featured in the documentary film "Natural Life." The film was about the issue of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in Michigan. Last year my case was also the subject of the documentary film installation "Half Truths and Full Lies." The installation was produced by award-winning filmmakers Tirtza Even, Meg McLagan, and Elyse Blennerhassett.
Over 750 people have signed the "Free Efrén Paredes, Jr." online petition expressing support for my release and asking that my resentencing judge impose a term-of-year sentence in my case proportionate to what others similarly situated have received. The petition is available at
Despite the national attention my case has garnered I am not the only juvenile lifer who has done positive things with their life. Many others have also and continue to do so to this day. I am just fortunate to have an enormous support network, as well as a platform and access to resources to share our story. Other juvenile lifers could do similar things if they did as well. I am emblematic of what their potential can be if they had equal access to the same opportunities.
If released I have a home to go to in Van Buren County where I would live with my wife of seven years and our school-aged daughter. I also have a strong support system consisting of family, friends, and amazing supporters and grassroots organizers who have poured their hearts into helping raise awareness about my case for many years.
During the past year I have been participating in an extensive, in-depth interview with a journalist and book author to provide the public with a detailed portrait of what life looks like for someone who has been incarcerated for decades since the age of 15.
In the interview I answer questions about the legal process, my experiences growing up in prison, social justice activism, how I've educated myself, the mental and emotional impacts of incarceration, fatherhood, never before publicized aspects of my personal life, and many more issues. The series is available at
People have asked me why I believe juvenile lifers have managed to maintain a zero percent recidivism rate, and what sets them apart from other incarcerated people.
The reality is that before any of them were released they spent decades behind bars haunted by a death-by-incarceration sentence. They opened their eyes every morning feeling the enormous gravity of the sentence they were serving and went to bed each night with the frightening reminder that they may never again experience living life as a free person in society.
The trauma of incarceration and countless daunting experiences since they were kids is forever seared into their memories. The women and men who have been tormented by these events, and now given one chance to experience freedom for the first time in their adult lives, is not something they will throw away.
These individuals will work diligently to be law-abiding citizens and do the jobs that many others are unwilling to do. They will also volunteer to help people and learn new experiences. One such person is my friend of nearly three decades from Detroit named James Thomas.
James was arrested at age 15 and served 31 years behind bars. Since his release he has been active in the community doing a number of projects offering spiritual guidance for a ministry, and serving as the Transition Specialist for Chance for Life (CFL), and Co-Coordinator for Nation Outside (Detroit Chapter).
Since his release James and a team of volunteers from the Detroit area have been providing free food to people living in Inkster. In recent months they have been able to provide boxes of food to 500 families by coordinating with city officials due to the enormous need because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Last month James and other volunteers passed out Easter bags to 400 children in Inkster and 230 children in Detroit so the children could enjoy some semblance of normalcy and not miss out on Easter this year due to the Governor's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order. For Halloween James and other volunteers hosted a Safe Haven Community Night, creating a safe space where children could trick-or-treat without fear of being harmed.
Another former juvenile lifer named Kimberly Woodson from Detroit is also doing impressive community engagement work since her release after serving 29 years in prison. She has been a powerful voice for incarcerated women and the need to abolish LWOP sentences.
As Executive Director of the non-profit corporation Redeeming Kimberly, she helps connect returning citizens from prison with resources that can assist their transition back into society. She is also a Canvas Manager for Michigan Liberation, a Regional Connector for ICAN (Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network), and is happily married.
But the title Kimberly holds most dear is that of being a mother. Each day Kimberly basks in the glow of her beloved two-year-old daughter who brings her tremendous pride and joy. She maintains a positive outlook and encourages people to never give up hope or lose their faith. Kimberly believes, "As long as you are breathing, you can be redeemed."
Many juvenile lifers who are released from prison could be a tremendous asset to judges and courts to mentor troubled youth and make their communities safer. Young people are more inclined to listen to -- and be deterred from a life of crime -- by those who understand them and have been in their shoes before than people who haven't.
Another friend of mine, José Burgos, a former juvenile lifer from Detroit released from prison in 2019 after serving 27 years knows this firsthand. He participated in youth deterrent programs and mentored at-risk youth for several years while he was in prison.
He devoted a great deal of time transforming lives and working to help young people become a better version of themselves each day to avoid the pitfalls he endured growing up that lead him to prison.
During his incarceration José learned to embody the words of Victor Frankl who once wrote, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
Today José works for an agency assisting returning citizens who were former juvenile lifers with their transition back into the community. He is also a Regional Connector for ICAN (Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network).
Since his release José has been a panelist on various forums discussing the juvenile lifer issue, mass incarceration, and the need for prison reform. He and Kimberly Woodson are also regular guests on "The Elena Herrada Show," which airs on AM 910 Detroit Superstation.
Each of these former juvenile lifers are people anyone would be proud to have as a neighbor if they took the time to get to know them. They deeply value their freedom and are committed to living the remainder of their lives proudly serving their communities.
The National Academies of Sciences summarized the research on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and found that "long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure." (National Research Council, "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences" (2014)
The online petition, "Support Michigan Prison Reform," contains a 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform that has generated over 6,000 signatures and continues to rise daily. The petition includes a proposed reform related to juveniles serving mandatory LWOP sentences which calls on lawmakers to:
"Abolish life-without-parole sentences for all juvenile offenders or, alternatively, grant the Parole Board jurisdiction over prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles, and make them eligible for meaningful parole consideration at least every two years after they have served 20 years. S/he would be parole eligible after serving 15 years if convicted of the lesser offense of aiding and abetting, and not as being the principle perpetrator of the crime."
The Support Michigan Prison Reform petition is available at
The Convention On the Rights of the Child, the world's most widely supported international treaty, provides that imprisonment be used only as a "measure of last resort" for juvenile offenders, and "for the shortest approriate time."
Over 100 organizations, professional associations, and faith-based groups (or houses of worship) have also expressed support to end the pernicious practice of sentencing children to LWOP sentences. Supporters include the American Correctional Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, National Black Police Association, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name a few. A complete list of supporters is available at
To date over 3,300 incarcerated people in Michigan prisons have contracted COVID-19 and 59 of them have died. At the prison I am housed nearly 800 incarcerated people have contracted the virus and 22 people have died.
Michigan juvenile lifers should not still be incarcerated where they are unable to social distance in crowded dining halls and housing units, and are being forced to risk their lives each day trying to avoid contracting deadly diseases like COVID-19.
There has been a 700% surge in strokes in men my age due to COVID-19, and men have been found to be nearly twice as high as women to become infected with the virus in some geographical areas. There is also new evidence that people living and working in densely populated spaces are becoming reinfected with COVID-19 after they have recovered.
Many juvenile lifers will continue being subjected to tremendous risk of dying or experiencing irreversible neurological, brain, kidney, heart, or lung damage, and recontracting the COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed for months to come if they remain incarcerated.
According to Tarika Daftary-Kapur, Ph.D. and Tina M. Zottoli, Ph.D., "In terms of risk to public safety, juvenile lifers can be considered low-impact releases." ("Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience," 10. Montclair State University: 2020).
Sentencing bodies can dismiss meritless motions filed by prosecutors who are seeking LWOP sentences against juvenile lifers being resentenced and proceed to resentence the cases before them to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars, precious judicial resources, and time.
They can also grant personal recognizance bonds to juvenile lifers while they await their resentencing hearings and place them on GPS tethers. They would still remain under a form of incarceration with their families or friends, only rather than being held in vectors of COVID-19 transmission, they would have a humane opportunity to social distance and protect themselves from contracting the deadly disease.
Alternatively, Governor Gretchen Whitmer also has an opportunity to resolve the eight-year gridlock that juvenile lifers have been unfairly and cruelly subjected to by commuting the sentences of each person to a 25-year minimum sentence, which would conform with MCL 769.25a. The maximum end of the sentence is a 60-year mandatory term.
If the Governor commuted these sentences not a single person would be released. It would only grant the Parole Board jurisdiction to begin reviewing the cases after they have served 25 years and give the Parole Board the authority to release them after considering a number of factors.
The Governor could also ask Attorney General Nessel to take the cases over and withdraw the motions seeking LWOP sentences submitted by prosecutors, and allow judges to impose new sentences. She is authorized to do this because prosecutors have clearly demonstrated the inability to be fair and unbiased, and have abused their authority for years.
In either event the Parole Board would use its wealth of resources to determine whether or not each person could be safely returned back into the community as it does for thousands of people it releases each year. Anyone that does not fit that criteria could remain incarcerated for up to the 60-year maximum term.
Based on the overwhelming success juvenile lifers have had who have been released, commuting the sentences of juvenile lifers would be an evidence-based, data-driven safe decision by the Governor. It would also be economically sound and morally correct.
We would be wise to put into practice the words of Aryn Siler, author of "Buried Alive," 17 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 293 (2013), who urges us to reject the dark fatalism of throwing away the key on juvenile offenders and replace it with rehabilitation rather than "a long, drawn out, meaningless, tortuous, and hopeless existence unto death."
(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is a blogger, thought leader, and social justice changemaker. He has been featured in various TV news, radio show, and podcast interviews to discuss the COVID-19 crisis in Michigan prisons. His interviews and ongoing series about this and other social justice issues can be read at

Friday, May 22, 2020

Final Installment of Juvenile Lifer Interview Series with Efren Paredes, Jr.

by Necalli Ollin

For the past year-and-a-half Efrén Paredes, Jr. has been participating in an interview to provide the public with a detailed portrait of what life looks like for someone who has been incarcerated for decades since the age of 15. It is the most extensive, in-depth interview published of a juvenile lifer in the nation.

In the interview Efrén answers questions about the legal process, his experience growing up in prison, social justice activism, toxic masculinity, spirituality, and how he's educated himself. He also discusses mental health, the mental and emotional impacts of incarceration, and much more.

In the final installment of this interview Efrén shares never before publicly revealed aspects of his private life, fatherhood, marriage, and his thoughts and plans about the future, if released. He takes readers on a fascinating journey allowing them to see how he interprets the world, solves problems, and tirelessly works to push the boundaries to improve the lives of others inside and outside of prison.

The interview is especially helpful to policymakers, people studying criminal justice reform, anyone trying to understand what juvenile lifers experience in prison, attorneys defending juvenile lifers at mitigation and resentencing hearings, and even sentencing bodies who will determine the fate of juvenile lifers at resentencing hearings.

For years Efrén has selflessly written about prison and social justice issues. He has also chronicled the stories and experiences of incarcerated people. Throughout it all he has kept his personal life private and out of the media spotlight. After 18 months of being interviewed we finally gain insight into Efrén the person like never before.

According to Efrén, "The interview has had a tremendous impact on many lives and we've received a lot of positive feedback." He adds, "I allowed myself to open up and be vulnerable for the interview so people could learn and benefit from my lived experiences, including my pain and personal failures. It was difficult at times, but in the end I'm grateful I did it."

The final installment of the interview series can be read at and can also be read in its entirety at You are encouraged to read this riveting interview and gift to us all, and share it widely with others in your network.

#FreeEfren #JLWOP #AbolishDBI #HTFL