WRITTEN BY ALISON SKILTON
“I’m from the Bronx. My name is Johnny Perez. At the age of 21 I was arrested for robbery in the first degree and sentenced to 15 years in prison.”
That’s not the story you would expect to hear from an average college student. But Perez is far from average.
16 years ago, Perez was sent to prison. And this May—after an inspiring 180-degree transformation—he will be the first student to graduate from SFC’s Post-Prison Program.
After Perez’s release in 2013, he began his studies at SFC as a Criminal Justice major during the Fall 2014 semester.
“While I was in prison I discovered the transformative power of education,” Perez told SFC Today, “And as a result, I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about the world around me. I came to appreciate education in a completely new light then the one I had in my neighborhood growing up,” he continued, “I served a total of 13 of those 15 years. I started my educational journey in prison, and I hope to complete it here at St. Francis.”
Perez began his education while in prison through a non-profit program called Hudson Link, which seeks to increase access to higher education for inmates in New York State. SFC is one of the colleges connected to the program.
SFC has a uniquely positive outlook on education for formerly incarcerated individuals, and Perez was drawn to the school because of that Franciscan attitude.
For many formerly incarcerated individuals, prior criminal records prove to be a tremendous barrier from accessing higher education and securing gainful employment despite any progress they have made towards bettering themselves while incarcerated.
“So one thing about education is that education is not a privilege, education is a human right,” Perez continued, “St. Francis recognizes that—not only in eliminating the box on the application asking about criminal records, but also being welcoming of people from all different backgrounds.”
Since his release, Perez has become a vocal advocate for humane incarceration practices, and holds several positions within various reform organizations. “I wear many hats,” Perez said, “My day job is, I work for the Urban Justice Center, which is a non-profit law firm. And what I do there is that I help people get back into society, I help them reintegrate.”
He frequently travels around the country speaking about prison reform, most notably at institutions like NYU Law School, Fordham, Princeton, and the UN. “I’m often invited to talk about policy reform, prison reform, education in prison, solitary [confinement], and eliminating the collateral consequences of having a criminal record,” he said.
Perez also serves as the Co-Chairman for the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, an organization that he relates to all-too-well after having endured three years in solitary confinement himself. “I do a lot of advocacy work around solitary and trying to eliminate solitary and replace it with a more humane accountability tool,” Perez said. “A lot of it is about raising awareness about what goes on behind those barbed wire fences. […] I agree that we should hold people accountable for their actions,” he continued, “I just feel like we should treat people humanely in the course of holding them accountable.”
He was also recently appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission, an organization which is investigating policing practices in New York City and State, specifically focusing on the disparate effect NYPD policies have on communities of color.
But before Perez became the community advocate he is today, he traveled down a dark and torturous road that too many Americans are currently facing. He was housed in a cell that had a small window facing a brick wall—when he was lucky enough to placed in a cell that even had a window. Barely the size of his outstretched arms, it was teeming with rats and infested with roaches, staffed by a team of Corrections Officers that only paid attention if an inmate was dying—or worse yet, already dead—Perez said.
Perhaps more taxing than the physical conditions was the mental anguish that Perez and his family had to endure during his incarceration.
“Prison is a very dark place, and not just in lighting,” he told SFC Today, “It’s dark in personalities, it’s dark in humanity itself—not in just the structure of the prison but in the way that people are treated. […] I cried a lot. […] It’s really emotionally exhausting to be inside of a space created to break down human beings.”
“I had to fight,” he continued, “I fought a lot, not only with other people, but also for my sanity, for my humanity, for my dignity. There was times when I wasn’t uncuffed for visits with my mother and she was forced to just rub her face against mine through the gates on the visiting floor.”
“Incarceration doesn’t just effect the person who’s incarcerated it effects an entire community, starting from the nuclear family,” he continued. His newborn daughter—who was just two days old when Perez committed the robbery—was left without a father for the first 13 years of her life, time with her that Perez concedes he can never get back.
“She has a lot of anger and resentment, and she was around abandonment,” Perez said. “Our relationship is not as good as it could be, it’s not as good as it would have been had I not have been incarcerated. I try to mend the pieces little by little.”
Perez’ journey from what can only be described as the bowels of hell on earth to the enlightened community activist he is today serves as a lesson for all of us—not only about prison reform, and not only about Perez himself—but about the power that education has to teach us about our shared humanity.
“Returning to society after incarceration, it’s really hard to become re-acclimated and to become a regular citizen,” Perez said, “And education helps a person normalize and re-assimilate back into society. If we believe in justice, if we believe in equality, if we believe in fairness, if we believe in love, we must also open up the doors of society to social mobility, social prosperity, allowing all people access to higher education.”