March 15, 2010
Like many people in their 30s, Efrén Paredes Jr. has a lot of friends online (more than 3,400 on Facebook). Unlike most people online, Paredes is incarcerated at a Michigan state prison, and he has no access to the Internet.
Nevertheless, his Facebook account is frequently updated with links to news on youth incarceration, immigration and other topics affecting Latinos. His Twitter and mySpace accounts are equally active with tidbits on what he's feeling in the moment. And his website and blog are brimming with information ranging from updates on his case to Latin American politics. In response, people across the country are now writing letters and signing online petitions on his behalf asking the Michigan governor to release him.
To pull this off, Paredes relies on pre-Web 2.0 tools: the phone, a typewriter, even pen and paper.
He has regular phone calls with family members and supporters, who decide what links to post about his case and other issues on his Facebook account. Paredes writes blog entries using a prison typewriter. His family and members of his advocacy committee, The Injustice Must End, then post his writing online.
Most recently, they've also started a social justice directory project as a fan page on Facebook called "Efrén's Social Justice Directory." Through the directory, progressive organizations can connect and share information about their work.
"I feel like I'm helping to breathe life into something that...gives voice to people who don't have the courage to speak for themselves or the ability," said Paredes in a phone conversation from prison last November.
While there are a handful of prisoners who maintain active websites with the help of family members, it is uncommon to see efforts on this scale, said Ashley Nellis, policy director at The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for prison reform.
Like many people living outside of prison, Paredes uses his Facebook and Twitter accounts for different purposes.
His Facebook page is teeming with political information, while his Twitter account is more of a collection of personal insights into the prison system and spiritual survival. One such tweet reads: "Crushing the silence of darkness with the reverberating voice of consciousness."
Paredes, who's 36, has been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole since 1989, when an all-white jury found him guilty of killing a manager at the Michigan grocery store where he worked. According to his family, Paredes was an honors student, and the conviction was primarily based on testimonies from other teenagers, one of which was later recanted. His 1989 trial also took place in the wake of allegations that five young men of color had raped a jogger in Central Park. The separate case ignited a racialized media frenzy about the need to punish youth more severely. (For more about Paredes's case and young people of color sentenced to life in prison, click here.)
In prison now for 21 years, Paredes has earned a doctorate in religious philosophy and certification as a Braille translator. He's also tutored other prisoners and led two Latino political education organizations, working with fellow prisoners to hold regular Raza Studies classes and host progressive activists to speak about their work. With the help of his community offline and online, he's reached out to activists and organizers who support prison reform and an end to life without parole for youth.
Through his activism inside, he linked up with Favianna Rodriguez, a Bay Area-based activist, artist and cofounder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization. Paredes became a founding member of Presente.org, and information on their campaigns is regularly posted on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Paredes, Rodriguez said, has helped her understand "how you can activate a national base of people who can be sympathetic to your cause. I think that's what good organizing is. You push to make your message universal. He does that."
Paredes's entry into online organizing began in 1997, when his family launched 4efren.com with information not only on his case but also on the issue of youth serving life sentences without parole. The shift in recent years to social networking sites was a great help for him. It has allowed him to reach more people, specifically Latinos, with information on his case and the larger inequities affecting the Latino community.
Last year, the Facebook Data Team reported that about 9 percent of its users are Latinos, and since 2007, Latino Facebook users have grown faster than the social network's overall growth. A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report showed that 18 percent of Twitter users are Latinos. "We [Latinos] are a force to be reckoned with. We need to learn to harness that and do the best with it. On every front I try to do that," said Paredes.
Through the work online, Paredes has connected with different student groups like MEChA, a national Chicano student organization, and he's received the support of well-known Chicano professors and activists like Carlos Muñoz Jr., Betita Martínez and Rodolfo Acuña. Bloggers like Nezua of The Unapologetic Mexican, have also supported his release through blogging and vlogging.
Offline, his advocacy committee uses cell phones at rallies and organizing meetings. At Michigan State University, Paredes spoke directly to more than 70 students at a rally through a cell phone amplified by a speakerphone about the criminal justice system.
Thanks in part to his savvy online activism and the committee's on-the-ground organizing, more than 150 supporters showed up to Paredes's public parole hearing in 2008. The Robert G. Cotton Correctional Facility, where the hearing was held, was standing-room only. Although parole hearings are usually just one and a half hours long, his was nine hours, according to a spokesperson for the Michigan Parole Board. Supporters stood for the hearing wearing "Free Efrén" T-shirts and holding signs as the parole board considered his release. The board, however, refused to release him.
Even with a successful campaign and thousands of supporters, prison presents unexpected challenges. Last December, Paredes was put into solitary confinement after some officers accused him of being involved in "criminal activity." Officials with the Michigan Department of Corrections said they would not disclose the details of the case until there are actual charges.
Now, he writes his blogs and essays by hand and puts them in the mail to his family and friends. Where the turnover used to be a few days, it now takes about a week to get his writing posted. He was also transferred to a different prison after the allegations were made. The facility is more than three hours away from his family, which makes their in-person visits a lot less frequent.
With roughly 60 core members and thousands of supporters online and offline, Paredes and his supporters have not given up, and he remains committed to the possibilities of the Internet as a political tool. "This is how we empower the community. This is how we give political voice to the Latino community and unite us in a way that we have never been united before," he said.
Leticia Miranda is a writer based in Oakland, California.