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As COVID-19 cases in state prisons climb, one inmate shares what life is like inside

 Efren Paredes Jr. with his wife Maria Zavala and their 10-year old daughter.
Courtesy of Maria Zavala
Efren Paredes Jr. with his wife Maria Zavala and their 10-year old daughter.

Physical distancing is essential to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. But in prison, it's nearly impossible. That's left inmates like Efren Paredes Jr. afraid for their health and safety. Paredes is one of nearly 1,400 men incarcerated at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater. More than half of them have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Paredes tested negative for the virus, but he says he’s deeply worried because the prison facilities do not allow for physical distancing. Buildings are crowded and inmates are often shoulder to shoulder.

Beyond the physical limitations of the space, Paredes is also concerned about how people in charge of the facility are making decisions. Until recently he claims, approximately 150 inmates continued to gather for meals cafeteria-style until “200 people contracted COVID-19 and 9 people died here.” Now, food is packaged and taken to the men in their units.

“It wasn’t until the tests were administered last week, that robust testing, that they were able to get a grip on what was going on,” he said. “Before that, they were pretty much flying blind trying to mitigate and contain this pandemic here.”

Paredes was sentenced to life in prison when he was a teenager. He’s been incarcerated 31 years.  His case was close to being reconsidered this year because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled sentencing a minor to life in prison without a chance of parole was unconstitutional.

“Hopefully I can be resentenced. Hopefully sometime this summer or maybe in the fall, but it’s been a grueling, agonizing process.”

For years, Paredes has been advocating for prison reform. He hopes the severity of the pandemic helps to shed light on the issues within the justice system.

“What this has exposed, I think, COVID-19, is how dangerous prisons are to public safety. They’re a public health risk. They’re a human rights catastrophe,” he said.

Stateside reached out to the Michigan Department of Corrections. No one was made available to respond to questions about conditions in the prison. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

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