A Life Behind Bars

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“An inmate at the Michigan department of corrections, Muskegon correctional facility. If you feel you’re being victimized or exploited by this prisoner, please contact GTL customer service at 855 466 2832. To accept this call press 0. This call is from a corrections facility and is subject to monitoring and recording. Thank you for using Global Tel Link.”

Family and friends of Efren Paredes know this recording well.

This is what greets you when you receive calls from inmates in the Muskegon correctional facility in Michigan, where Efren has been locked up since 1989.

Paredes was 15 years old when he was sentenced to spend the rest of this life in prison, without the possibility of parole. His defense lawyers call this a “slow death sentence.”

Now 41, Paredes is one of at least 2,500 others who were sentenced as minors to spend the rest of their lives behind bars in the United States – one of the only countries in the world that still allows this type of sentencing.

Paredes and his lawyers have been challenging his sentence for some 26 years, but have continuously been denied pleas for pardons and appeals.

“I just wanna be free,” Paredes told teleSUR via telephone. “I’ve been asked by different people ‘where would you go?’ but … I just wanna be able to sit on a lawn, I want to be able to walk out of the front door of my house and sit on the porch and just relax, you know.”

Paredes’ phone conversations are limited to 15 minutes before the connection is cut off, but he’s able, and eager, to call back and go through the whole recording process again – what has become a normal part of his life.

However, Paredes has not let the severe barriers of his situation defeat him. He has spent most of the last 26 years studying and has become an active advocate for social justice – both inside and outside of prison. Despite the challenges, he has also been able to build a family.

Paredes met Maria Zavala while she was working with him on his case, and the two continued to work together on other social justice issues. Drawn close by their mutual passion and activism, they were married in prison on July 25, 2013.

“It feels great, I’m married to a wonderful woman who has a great career helping other people,” said Paredes. “She’s an incredible person and she’s helped me to be a better person each and every day.”

The two continue to work together on various causes, and are particularly active in the Chicano-Latino community, since they both have Latino backgrounds. In Paredes’ case, both of his parents are of Mexican descent who migrated north to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families.

“What I really want to do is spend time with my family, that’s my primary goal,” said Paredes.

Now, he and his family are waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could change everything. The top court is expected to rule on a case that could open up the possibility of parole, not only for Paredes, but possibly thousands of other juvenile lifers across the country.

Since he was 15 years old, Paredes has seen little more than the inside of a jail cell, surrounded by concrete walls and metal bars.

Throughout his last 2 1/2 decades in prison, Paredes has not allowed his mind to be as restricted as his physical world. He put himself to studying and teaching fellow inmates, and in the last few years he has become an active voice – both inside and outside the prison – in the fight to abolish juvenile life sentences without parole in the U.S.

When Paredes was arrested as a teen, he was an honor role student, with no criminal record. Since that time, he’s been telling the same story – he was at home with his family watching TV the night a convenience store was robbed and the store clerk shot and killed.

It took the courts only three months to try Paredes and find him guilty of two counts of murder and one robbery charge, a ruling that also determined the 15 year old was unreformable and deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of parole.

“There’s been time when it’s been a struggle to deal with the pressures of incarceration,” Paredes told teleSUR. “But I’ve never ever felt defeated … I’ve never lost hope, I’ve never lost faith.”

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that still allows minors to be sentenced to prison for life – even as the United Nations has deemed this sentence a human rights violation.

Through the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) established a legal framework to protect children around the world. Articles 37 and 40 deal specifically with the topic of juvenile life sentences without parole, banning this and any other practice that may prohibit children from reintegrating in and assuming a constructive role in society.

Almost every U.N.-affiliated country has signed and ratified this treaty – all, that is, except the U.S, Somalia and South Sudan.

The U.S.’s stance on the issue “embarrasses me greatly,” Stuart Friedman, Paredes’ defense lawyer, told teleSUR.

“One of the things people really need to understand is that life in Michigan means you will die in prison unless the governor pardons you,” Friedman said. “It doesn’t mean 10 years, it doesn’t mean 15 or 20 years, it means you die in prison and the number of pardons or commutations that Michigan has granted on those is relatively low.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court made a decision that raised the hopes of thousands of juvenile lifers across the country.

In Miller vs. Alabama, the top court ruled 5-4 that juvenile life without parole sentences violated the 8th Amendment in the U.S. constitution – the law that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling banned mandatory life sentences for minors, which were at one point automatically applied to minors who were found guilty of capital crimes such as murder or felony murder.

Though this ruling changed the way minors will be sentenced in the future, it did not stipulate whether it could be applied retroactively –rather, the courts left that decision up to individual states. So far, 11 states have ruled in favor of retroactivity, but five have ruled against, including Michigan.

“I was very disappointed in that decision,” said Paredes regarding the 2012 ruling, “because I knew that the result was gonna be a prolonged battle in court to deal with the retroactivity issue.”

Paredes was right. But three years after Miller vs. Alabama, juvenile lifers are anxiously awaiting another Supreme Court review, which could apply the retroactivity ruling nation wide.

Throughout his almost three decades behind bars, Paredes put himself to studying as much as possible, learning the ins and outs of his case, the legal system in general as well as other topics like Latino history. He also learned how to read braille and for a long time transcribed texts for blind people.

In her recent documentary Natural Life, filmmaker Tirzta Even explores the lives of five people who were sentenced as youth to life without parole and the devastating circumstances of their lives behind bars. One of those participants was Paredes.

Life inside is “very rigorous and monitored,” Even told teleSUR. “But I know that Efren always manages to include in his day, hours and hours of research and conversation.”

“I think Efren is never defeated by anything,” said Even. “[It’s] striking in how he copes with the prospects of his own sentence and the sentences of the people like him.”

Friends and family regularly send Paredes books, magazines, newspapers and academic articles – what he proudly shares with “everyone who’s interested in learning and growing.”

He has been in charge of workshops and done lectures for inmates, sometimes for classes as big as 20 to 30 people. The topics range from understanding how legislation and the court system functions, to the value of culture and history for Chicano and Latino people, to issues such as effective communication, how to manage relationships, and the importance of staying connected to friends and family on the outside.

“Statistics show that people who stay in the most contact with friends and family members and members of the community on the outside are the ones who are less likely to be recidivist,” Paredes told teleSUR. “So getting them to understand that and exert energies in that direction … is a real positive thing.”

Yet despite all the positive energy Paredes has put into his time behind bars, he will still never be eligible for parole under the current legal system.

Friedman is part of an umbrella group of defense lawyers in Michigan who have been actively fighting for prisoners’ rights, saying they should be given a meaningful opportunity for parole.

“(Efren) is one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever represented,” Friedman told teleSUR. “I have no question that if he was released he would become an exemplary citizen,” added the attorney who has been representing Paredes’ for over 10 years.

Paredes was also sentenced at a time when the nature of criminal sentencing was changing in the U.S, particularly for youth. In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. saw a crackdown on crime involving youth while jurists began to try minors in adult courts, eliminating many of the distinctions between the two, and began to hand out harsher punishments.

At the same time, the courts started handing out harsher sentences, shifting their focus on punishing for the crime, rather than rehabilitating the person. In The Changing Purposes of Criminal Punishment: A Retrospective on the Last Century and Some Thoughts on the Next, author Albert Alschuler attributes this penal reform to the reason why the U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the western world.

According to Friedman, the conditions inside Michigan prisons are “not pleasant,” to say the least. The lawyer described the jail as horribly overcrowded, usually run by violent gangs, with inmates often forced to pay extortion money not to be preyed upon. In addition to the prisoner on prisoner violence, private food providers have also been caught serving food contaminated by rat droppings or maggots.

“It’s a horrible life,” particularly for those who enter the system at 15 or 16 years old, Friedman told teleSUR.

Michigan has one of the highest numbers of juvenile lifers in the country – second only to Pennsylvania. According to Michigan law, teenagers as young as 15 years old are automatically tried in adult courts for murder cases, and go directly to adult prisons if convicted. This often leaves them more vulnerable to violations and aggressions.

In the film Natural Life, other juvenile lifers confess to seeing rapes, abuses and suicides in prison, as they break down into sobs.

“Had I not come to prison, I would have never been exposed to that type of violence, that type of aggression. Repeatedly, over and over, week after week,” said Paredes in the documentary.

Inmates also experience a kind of psychological abuse, surrounded by constant chaos and noise, either by prison guards or other inmates, and a lack of consistent sleep.

“I think that one of the things we don’t understand is that you think that maybe you can resort to this kind of inner space,” filmmaker Even said. “That’s part of what was shocking to me … is that even your inner life is invaded with noise that is part of this prison … so you can’t even contain your own space against and despite the (physical) space that you’re in.”

In the landmark case Miller vs. Alabama, the defense largely tried to show that fundamental differences exist between juvenile and adult brains, and therefore must be treated differently.

Using psychological research put forth by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, they showed that juvenile brains are not as developed as adult brains, and therefore youth don’t grasp the consequences of their actions as much as adults do. The defense also argued that youth are more susceptible to peer pressure, and that a youth’s character is not as “fixed” as an adult’s. Studies also show that juveniles show a much higher likelihood to reform.

Based on that, attorneys also argued that the 8th Amendment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions,” saying life without the possibility of parole was cruel and unusual punishment.

When the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Miller, it agreed to ban the “mandated” sentencing of life without parole to juvenile offenders who committed capital crimes – although it still allows for the option of such sentencing. Jurists are now required to take individuals and their backgrounds into account, rather than apply a blanket sentence for the crime.

Even, who had already started filming for Natural Life and was deep into interviews with juvenile lifers at the time, said, “When [the ruling] happened there was a wave of hope, there was a sense that maybe something was changing.”

However, this slowly started to dissipate when the realities of the U.S. justice system set in and some states ruled against applying the ruling retroactively, Even added.

Additionally, the top court left open the possibility that these people could be re-sentenced in the same way in a retrial, which has been the case in several states, including Illinois where Even resides.

“Recently somebody was re-sentenced the same way, which I think is maybe the most cruel kind of gesture allowing that hope to surge and kind of bring it back to the same position,” Even told teleSUR.

In Paredes’ case, the situation is complicated further since he has maintained his innocence over the years. This makes his chance of parole difficult since parole boards want to see that a person convicted has shown “remorse.”

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall on the issue of retroactivity and will probably rule before the court’s summer break in 2016, said Friedman. If they rule in favor of retroactivity, Paredes, as well as thousands of others, will have to go through a re-trial and hope that a jury grants him the possibility of parole and then plead his case in front of a parole board.

The U.S. government has been forced to address the issue of prison reform in the country, where high and long-term incarceration rates have become increasingly expensive for the state. Moreover, the criminal justice system has faced a barrage of criticism for institutional racism, particularly after the high-profile killings of several unarmed Black men and boys at the hands of white police officers this past year sparked a nationwide movement against social injustice.

President Barack Obama has recently acknowledged these issues, and granted clemency to 46 people who were serving “unduly harsh sentences,” 14 of whom were serving life behind bars. Hillary Clinton, who is currently campaigning for president, accused the legal system of being “stacked against those who have the least power and are the most vulnerable” in a speech at Columbia University in April. She also spoke directly about the need to end juvenile incarcerations without parole.

Friedman agrees that Paredes’ case is a challenge, but is optimistic that the Supreme Court will come out with a favorable ruling that he can work with.

“I’m guessing that they’re going to go our way, but as I said before, it’s coming down to one vote of one jurist, and that’s going to affect the lives of thousands of people,” said Friedman. “And as bizarre as that may sound, that’s the criminal justice system.”

Paredes also seems optimistic about the possibility of a favorable Supreme Court decision.

“Right now, it’s a really dismal situation in the U.S,” said Paredes, noting the billions of dollars that are spent each year to support the system of mass incarceration in the U.S, at the expense of public services and infrastructure.

“But I think change is on the horizon,” he added.