NATURAL LIFE

A conversation with Efren Paredes Jr. about yesterday, today, and tomorrow behind bars


How is it that we can be erased from existence while we are still breathing?

Natural Life, an experimental video installation and film by artist Tirtza Even, illuminates a world that is seemingly very unnatural. It’s about a man-made underworld — a world far removed from what may come to mind when you hear the word natural: earthly, sustainable, beautiful, just, good, true, etc…

In US law, natural life is a legal term that describes how a life ends. A death that is natural is a destined death — it’s the ending we all supposedly would be lucky to have after a life lived fully. It’s a death caused by the inevitable dismantling of our bodies into invisibility. There is nobody to blame, no tragic accident, nothing to push back against. Just the beautiful tragedy of being impossibly alive, of being born into a body that will decay, of being carbon that got lucky, of disappearing forever.

Although most of us will live and die a natural life, I have only heard the term used to describe a person who has received a life sentence, or a sentence to die in prison. That means you are not eligible to even be considered for parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

It is a life where death stares at you in the face every day. It is a life that challenges the human instinct for survival.

Natural life is cold, lumpy oatmeal at 5:30 am. Natural life is the colour and taste of concrete. Natural life is noisy and stark. It’s not being trusted. It’s being in your cell for count at 5am, 11am, 3pm, 7pm, and 10pm — no matter what. Natural life is never being able to see the night sky again. It’s being afraid to sleep at night because sleep is too close to death. Natural life is a death sentence.

Natural life is being told that the world is not for you, anymore.

In the U.S., we don’t even really know how many people die behind bars each year — the data is incomplete and ambiguous. There is no streamlined data collection process that can be applied to collect data from state prisons, federal prisons, private prisons, and juvenile detention centers. Estimates suggest anywhere from 4,400 to 7,000 inmates die in jail and prisons every year. This does not count suicides.

This is our criminal justice system.

The Natural Life film introduces five people who will spend the majority of their lives in prison. Incarcerated as youth, they share this fate with over 2,500 prisoners in the United States who are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed when they were minors. The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows Life Without Parole sentencing for youth.

In particular, the film highlights Michigan’s notoriously harsh legal system. Incarcerated since1989, Efren remains hopeful that he will live in the free world one day.

We spoke with Efren following the screening of Natural Life at David Weinberg Photography’s Try Youth As Youth exhibit — beautifully curated by Meg Noe, in partnership with the ACLU of Illinois.


Who is Efren?

In 1989, at the age 15, Efren Paredes, Jr. was convicted for a murder and armed robbery. The crime took place in St. Joseph, Michigan, at a local store where Efren was working at the time as a bagger. According to Efren and his family, on the night of the crime, Efren was brought home by the store’s manager after completing an overtime shift there.

It was around 9:30pm — a long day. He came home, heated up a slice of pizza his mom left out for him, went up to his parent’s room to catch up about his day, and then went to bed. It was just like any other spring evening.

Meanwhile, the store was robbed and the manager was murdered.

Efren is the correct spelling, not Efren, as indicated here as throughout his prison records. Source: http://www.naturallifefilm.org/characters/

The case against Efren was based primarily on the statements of other youths who received reduced charges and sentences in exchange for their testimony. Efrén’s mother and his younger brothers all claim that they had witnessed his return home before the murder was committed. Those testimonies were discarded. Efrén was sentenced to two life without parole sentences and one parolable life sentence. Efrén is currently 42 years old.


The conversation with Efren is transcribed below. Listen to the conversation, learn more about the movement to free Efren here.

Tirtza Even holds the phone, on speaker with Efren, to the audience. Natural Life film screening — Try Youth As Youth, David Weinberg 2015.

Tirtza:

Efron, the last person featured in the film, is about to call us any minute and answer questions. The calls from the prison are broken into increments of 15 minutes. Sometimes they are going to be a little difficult for you to hear. The idea is that you really can ask him the questions about his story and the story of juveniles like him. He is open, utterly open to any kind of questioning on any front, any issue.

There is no censorship that you should put on yourself. You can ask what he eats, you can ask what he went through, you can ask if he is innocent. Anything that you want to! Know that he is open and that he is out there to be talking to you.

Tirtza:

Hello?

GTL automated recording:

Department of Corrections. Speaking, correctional facility. If you feel you are being victimized or extorted by this prisoner please contact GTL customer service at (855) 466–2832. To accept this call, press 0. Your current balance is $ 88.28 cents. This call is from a corrections facility and is subject to monitoring and recording. Thank you for using Global Tel-Link.

Efren:

Hello.

Tirtza:

Hey, Efren! We’re here. You’re live. So, there is a big audience and they have questions for you.

Efren:

Thank you, you guys for having me. Thank you for screening the film. I think it is very important that the public view the film and learn about the information in there so that they can be educated about the facts surrounding juvenile life without parole issue.

It’s important because for so long, we really haven’t not had a voice. And the only perspective on juvenile lifers that the public has heard about have been filtered through the media and the narratives of police and prosecutors who often support juvenile life without parole sentences and have abandoned the concept of redemption altogether, unfortunately.

My name is Efren. My story was featured in the film — I believe it was in the last segment. I’m currently serving a life without parole sentence. I’ve been in prison 26 years. Actually in 3 more days, will be 26 complete years. I’ve been here since I was 15 years old.

The case against me is primarily based on circumstantial evidence and on the testimony of other juveniles who sought to receive lenient sentences and reduced charges in exchange for providing statements against me.

Unfortunately, when it comes to wrongful convictions, it can take a long time for evidence to surface of innocence and for information to be revealed and exonerate the person.

It’s not uncommon for someone to spend twenty or thirty years in prison, trying to vindicate themselves. That is pretty much where I am at right now — continuing to work on that. Also, in Michigan, we’re working on trying to end juvenile life in prison without parole sentences altogether.

Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.
Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.

Tirtza:

Thanks, Efren.

So, let me open it to the crowd here and see if anyone has questions. Again, it can be from the most petty to the most large. Efren is open to answering anything.


Efren:

When people talk can you please come closer to the phone?

Audience:

What would you like to see happen for juveniles charged to life in prison without parole?
Tirtza Even holds the phone and mic for an audience member asking Efren a question.

Efren:

What we would like to see is simply juveniles who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, be given a meaningful opportunity for parole consideration.

No one is asking for all the juveniles to be released. No one is asking for sentencing to be overturned. All we are asking for is that a system be put in place in each state that allows these prisoners to earn an opportunity for parole. I think they can do that is by maintaining a good prison record, doing positive things with their lives, understanding why they went to prison, and what they can do to stay out of prison.

We need to have a mechanism in place that allows a second opportunity for juvenile lifers.

We are not asking for a guarantee for release, but an opportunity for release. We think that is a fair remedy for the situation.

Other countries do not sentence youth to die in prison. They are giving youth an opportunity to show that they can be redeemed. We believe that as a nation that prides itself on human rights and preaching to other countries to the world about the value of human rights, that we should begin right here at home by treating our children with dignity.

Tirtza:

Thank you. Any more questions?

Audience:
Hi, Efren. Can you tell me how what you are doing now with the film, how it is affecting or changing your life in prison? Are you getting people to jump on the cause with you or are you pretty much alone on this, inside?

Efren:

We have some great supporters who have been working with me for a long time to vindicate my name. The film has had a huge impact on generating interest not only in my case, but also on the issue of juvenile life without parole.

It has led people to become more interested and to start asking questions, trying to be helpful out there and building communications with us. It has had a really good impact on my case, particularly and on the juvenile life without parole issue as a whole. And again, the big reason is, is that film really highlights issues that have been ignored for a long time by the public and by policymakers.

Audience:
Hi, Efren. My name is Carrie. I don’t actually have a question for you, I’m just having a really emotional reaction to hearing you speak, to picturing where you are right now, while we are in this beautiful gallery, and where you have been for 26 years.
I just want to say, thank you, for agreeing to talk with us tonight and to agreeing to be a part of this evening.

Efren:

Thank you. I do want to say something to that. Being here for 26 years — for some people that is a lifetime. Some of you in the audience, I’m sure are not even 26 years old. And I’ve been here your entire life. I’ve spent more time in prison than I spent as a 15 year old boy in society.

In just 4 more years, I will have spent twice my life incarcerated than I did as a free juvenile. And I hope that the experience that you had viewing the film will move you into action. And that you’ll want to try to be a part of bringing an end to human rights abuses that are happening against children and to trying to remedy the situation.

And I can tell you that everyone’s voice is very important. Just speaking out against this issue, hearing information about the film and my case, talking about how to improve the criminal justice system’s treatment of juveniles is huge. I mean, we live in an age of social media now. Where you can share your stories, where you can post a comment, post a link to the film, post a link to my website, or to my Facebook page. And trying to get people to learn about it and get them to speak out about it.

There has been movements all over the country that social media has created. They have created change: moveon.org, change.org, colorofchange.org. All those different things are having an impact on the world. And we can do that very same thing.

You know, we can take that very energy that we have, the disappointment about what is going on, the pain about what is going on — and we can channel that into a positive way to do something that can end these sentences against juveniles. You know, give these people a second chance.

Thank you.

David Weinberg speaks with Efren as Tirtza holds the phone and mic.

David:

Efren, this is David Weinberg. I actually own the gallery that we are gathered in tonight. I want to add my thanks to you for being involved in this and for helping us understand the issue a little bit better.

“Since you’ve been to prison, how many other kids or teenagers, have come to prison that you have gotten to know?”

Efren:

There are a little over 350 juvenile lifers in Michigan. I’ve come to know dozens of them during my time here. Everywhere I go, whether it’s been at this prison or at another prison, I’ve come to understand that there are so many reasons that these young people (who are now older, many of them have spent decades in prison) deserve a second chance.

One of the things that I talk to people about, is that the people who have served this type of time or who have received this type of sentence, have the lowest recidivism rate of all people in prison — less than 2% of people have returned to prison.

Half of the people that the film indicates, were not the people who actually committed the murders in their case. Many of them were mislead or influenced by older people. Many of them grew up in very difficult homes. They had a very difficult upbringing. Growing up with drugs, alcohol, violence…

History teaches us that people are a product of their environment. For young people in particular, they are unable to extricate themselves from those types of environments because in many cases, all they have ever known is that kind of life.

So working with them in here, educating them, getting them to understand… [cut off by time warning from automated recording]

GTL Automated recording:

You have one minute remaining.

Efren:

… what landed them in prison, and the types of things that they need to work on within themselves. Developing themselves as better human beings so that they can enter society as productive citizens is what I emphasize when I communicate with them. I try to educate them in other areas in life as well. Some people need to be in prison for longer periods of time than others.

In many instances, even 10 years, 15 years, is a lifetime for a child who was only 15 years old when they committed the crime.

Tirtza:

Efren, Do you want to call us back?

Efren:

Yes, I’ll call back.

Tirtza:

Great.


ACLU Spokesperson:

While he is calling back, can I just say two things?

One, in terms of ways to show that you have rehabilitated yourself is participation in programs while you are in a facility. Because of budget cuts and priorities, there are some places where there is no opportunity to participate in programming because there is no programming available.

So even if we got this bill passed into law, there is still work to do.

Two, is that there is the opportunity to visit people who are serving life without parole. For some of them, they are not able to have access to their family members — so if that is something you are interested in, just let me know.


GTL automated recording:

Dept. of Corrections, speaking — correctional facility.
If you feel you are being victimized or extorted by this prisoner please contact GTL customer service at (855) 466–2832. To accept this call, press 0. [pressing key sounds] Your current balance is $ 85.08 cents. This call is from a corrections facility and is subject to monitoring and recording. Thank you for using Global Tel-Link.

Efren:

Hello.

Tirtza:

Hey, Efren! We’re with you.

Efren:

Okay.

Tirtza:

I was wondering if you can tell people a little more about your story? I mean the film only touches on parts of it. Maybe you can tell people about everything that happened.

Efren:

My case is uh, well it’s always a challenge for me to talk about my case during this time of the year for me. But, that is why I called. I called to talk to you. It all began for me in 1989…

I had no juvenile record, no previous arrests. I was a high school honors student. I’d never been in trouble before.

I was arrested for the murder and armed robbery of a store manager who worked the evening that I worked. It was a Wednesday night. I wasn’t even scheduled to work that night, in fact. I was called to work by the same manager because someone else had hurt themselves that evening — another bagger. So my mother agreed to let me work that day.

It was a busy night. It was coupon night. I was working as a store bagger — as a bag boy. Later on that night because of how busy the day was, the store manager asked me to stay overtime. After calling to ask my mom permission, she agreed to it. In return, he agreed to drive me home.

Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.
Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.
Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.

So I worked that evening. I worked a little overtime — probably about twenty, twenty-some minutes overtime. After 9 o’clock in the evening, the store manager drove me home. Then he returned back to work.

Sometime between the time he returned (according to police reports) and the early morning hours of the next day, he was… uh… murdered at the grocery store. The grocery store was robbed.

I was home the entire night. I had never left the house. When I arrived home, I went into the house. My mother told me there was some pizza in the microwave. I went to heat some pizza up for a little bit. I went into my parents room and I talked to them for a few minutes about my day and then I went to sleep.

The next day I woke up and found out that the store manager who had drove me home that night had been robbed and murdered.

I was taken to a county jail. I never spent any time in the juvenile system. All my time was spent in an adult jail. The majority of the time was in isolation under a light that was never turned off on me. It was left on me 24 hours a day.

I was never allowed to go to school or exercise or do really anything —or to even have access to the law library.

After that, I ended up going to trial…

A couple of the juveniles that had admitted their involvement in the crime by pleading guilty to robbery, testified against me. They gave conflicting statements and tried to claim that I was with them on the night that they planned the crime. One of the juveniles claimed that I was with him the night the crime happened.

The information they gave was not only false, but it was conflicting on so many different levels. But, because of the area (it was a predominately white area, 98% white) all of the investigative police in the case were white. The victim was white. Eleven of the jurors were white. The judge was white.

I was the only non-white employee at the store. Everything that could have went wrong seems to have gone wrong — as a consequence of that and of so many things…

There was prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecutor allowed a juror foreman to be seated on my jury who knew the victims aunt in my case. He had been told by the victim’s widow in my case twice, that they knew him, and they still allowed him to be seated on the jury.

Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan. On the right: Donnie Logan, who served a life without parole sentence since age 15; was commuted by the Governor at age 55.

There were people who were providing false testimony at the trial, to try to bolster police credibility at the police department. A lot of things went wrong. Anyone who knows anything about wrongful convictions knows these are the kinds of things that go wrong.

We’ve fought hard for nearly, going on three decades now to try to remedy this situation. And a lot of information has surfaced.

People that have been in prison with the guys who were on my case (who were also arrested and who testified against me) have come forward saying that they told them that I had nothing to do with this case. They used me as an excuse because they did not want to be charged with the crime. There is other information that has surfaced as well to help vindicate my name.

This is a case of factual innocence. It is not a case of, you know being illegally innocent. I was not at the scene of the crime. I had no involvement in the crime. I had no knowledge of the crime, whatsoever.

Again, people see this all the time — they see it on television, they read it in newspapers. Generally people who are arrested first (as how the juveniles in my case were arrested initially) get deals or more lenient sentences if they talk to the police or the prosecutor who is trying to close the case. They talk [and can say anything] in exchange for the opportunity to be released earlier from prison.

Tirtza:

Thank you, Efren. Any other questions here?

Audience:

For anyone may in the free world may be experiencing a sense of hopelessness, what advice would you give them?

Efren:

I would tell them that there is so much to look forward in life. People have no idea what it means to be robbed of their dignity, of their freedom, of the things that they enjoy doing in life. You should be grateful for every opportunity that you have.

The opportunity to walk down the road. The freedom to open your front door and walk out to your mailbox. The ability to get on the internet and go on the information superhighway and learn about things around the world. The ability, if you are a spiritual person, to go and spend time at a place of worship, to be able to be able to listen to the music that you want.

There are so many freedoms that people take for granted and there is no reason why you should ever be without hope. Even in here, even though I was condemned to die in prison and never walk out of this prison again alive, I have never accepted that sentence. And since the age of 15, and now I am 42 years old — I’ll be, I’ll be 42 next month…

All this time I have never ever given up hope. I have remained confident that one day I will return to society. I have remained confident that I will vindicate my name one day.

There is just so much good in life out there. You know, there is no reason to ever not have hope. Even in your darkest moment, know that there is an opportunity for growth there. There is an opportunity to learn from that dark spot. And out of the darkness are born the most beautiful things in the world.

The most cherished gifts of life are born in those dark spots. Opportunities are born in those dark spots. We challenge ourselves to do better. We know that after every dark night, there is going to be a bright day. After every rain, thunderstorm, horrible weather, there is going to be sunshine, there is going to be a rainbow. Life is like that. So, even when there is some difficulty, even when there is some turmoil in life, know that it gets better.

Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.
Still image from Natural Life. Try Youth As Youth — David Weinberg Photography, 2015. Reenactments in prison cell shot at an abandoned prison in Jackson, Michigan.

It will always get better. Yeah, there are going to be difficult times. Yeah, there are going to be challenging times. But the way that we interpret each of those experiences and the way that we respond to them is what you keep.

That is what is going to define us as a person. That is what will define each and every one of you in your own lives. We are much greater than our worst mistakes. We are much greater than any mistake in our lives.
We are a culmination of our life experiences, which is one of the reasons that I say that children deserve a second chance.They are much better, they are more than just one experience.

When we think about defining people, if we cannot define a person by their greatest accomplishment, that doesn’t define them for all their life, then we certainly cannot condemn someone for one mistake.

Tirtza:

Just to add to that, I can testify that Efren doesn’t just say it, he really lives it. All these years that we have been talking on the phone and I have been going through my ebbs and.… there were definitely moments of despair. Or you reach an impasse in accessing facts or assembling footage or figuring out the way to tell the story…

He was always kind of the light, and hopeful. An advocate for hope. So he really is the embodiment of the thing that he is now speaking up for.

Any other questions? Anyone?

Audience:

What do you want to do with your life if you are released?

Efren:

I’m a certified literally brail transcriber. I would like to continue transcribing books from text into brail for blind and visually impaired children. I would like to speak to at-risk youth and try to encourage them to go to school, stay out of trouble.

I would love to talk to people about life, in general…

Just like we had a conversation tonight, I think that there is a lot that I have to offer people about the issues of hope, about survival, about building a stronger self. To learn about ourselves and identify our strengths and weaknesses, so that we become better people.

I would like to go to college. I would like to study psychology. I would like to return to my family. Spend time with my family. Reunite with them and…

GTL automated recording:

You have one minute remaining.

Efren:

… be a family again.

Tirtza:

So, I think we are running out of time here. But this was wonderful. And thank you so much Efren, from everybody here.

Efren:

And, I ask that if there is anyone who would like to help, please visit my website, please visit my Facebook page. Please visit the fundraiser for the film that we are making about my case.

Tirtza, perhaps you can share that with them?

Tirtza:

Yes, I already have. Definitely! If you can pick up a flyer at the end of the room, that would be wonderful.

Efren:

That would be so helpful. Please contact me you know, if you would like to help work on this issue together.

Tirtza:

I can give people information if they would like to contact Efren directly… [cut off]

GTL automated recording:

Thank you for using Global Tel-Link.

Tirtza:

Thank you so much everybody.


To connect with Efren you can email him or write a letter.

Efren is in Michigan (a level II facility — the lowest level he can access due to his life sentence). You can also email him through Jpay (to do so you must set up an account and donate money to buy stamps or minutes if you’d like to talk to Efren) or write him a letter. Efren has daily access to his email and often responds back within 24hrs.

To email Efren via JPay, go here.

Locate Efren on the inmate locator by selecting Michigan as the state and use Efren’s prisoner number: 203116.

To write Efren via U.S. mail send a letter to:

Efren Paredes, Jr. #203116
Muskegon Correctional Facility
Muskegon, MI 49442.