MF 47 – Contemplating torture in solitary confinement with Johnny Perez

Johnny Perez is a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project (MHP), a civil legal services firm that provides legal and social work services to people with serious mental illness. At the Urban Justice Center, he is assigned to MHP’s Safe Re-entry Project, where he works with people with mental illness and histories of incarceration, to connect them to the services in the community that will assist them to attain better measures of recovery and gain the stability necessary to avoid further contact with the criminal justice system.

Mr. Perez also works to change unjust policies and practices in the criminal justice system through his participation in the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network. Johnny is also a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.

Drawing on the wisdom of thirteen years of direct involvement with the criminal justice system, Johnny has testified at the NY Advisory Committee to The US Civil Rights Commission about the inhumane treatment of teenagers in solitary confinement in state prisons and city jails. He is a sought after speaker having been invited to speak at Cornell Law, Fordham University, Amnesty International, and at the American Justice Summit where he discussed the cycle of incarceration with Nightline News anchor Ju Ju Chang.

Johnny is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at St. Francis College while also completing his first nonfiction book: Prison: The Upside Down Kingdom.

(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)

What were some of the events that led up to you spending 3 years in solitary out of a 15 year prison sentence?

The first time I landed in solitary I was 16 years old, and ended detained in Rikers island here in New York City for gun possession. Ended up incarcerated for 8 months for having a gun on me. While I was in Rikers Island, I got into a fight with an individual over the phone. If you don’t belong to a gang, you can’t use simple entitlements that every person that’s detained can use, like using the phone. Johnny got into a fight over the phone and as a result was given 60 days of solitary confinement.

One of the things that made the situation worse, was that the person that brought the food, breakfast and lunch, belonged to the same gang of the person I fought over the phone with. So for the first two weeks, I didn’t eat breakfast and lunch as a result. As a 16 year old it was challenging, lot of psychological and physical adversity as a result.

 

As an adult when I was 21 years old I was sentenced to 15 years of prison for robbery in the first degree in which I served 13 years of that, with a total of 3 years in solitary confinement.

My reaction as an adult was a whole lot different as an adult in solitary then as a teen. Now, years later, I’m a re-entry advocate at a non-profit law-firm at the early justice center. I’ve dedicated my voice, past experiences to creating alternative solutions to solitary confinement.

Can you tell me what that was like to be in solitary confinement?

The cell is very small, very quiet, maybe about the size of a small parking space. I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my arms out horizontally and touch both walls in a lot of the cells I’ve been in. During the summer, the walls start to sweat it’s so hot. During the winter, it gets so cold you have to keep your head under the covers. Except you can’t do that, because every hour an officer walks by your cell, to make sure you’re alive and according to protocol, they have to see your skin. They leave all the lights on during the night and day too for security purposes, so it’s hard to sleep with the light on.

It disrupts your circadian rhythm…

Yes, greatly, to the point where you lose track of time and even the dates. I’d try to keep a calendar to keep track of the days. Because one of my fears was that I would be there in prison for longer than I needed to be.

As a teen, 16 years old, still creating my identity, figuring out who I am. And to be placed in isolation, you begin to absorb some of the oppression in the sense that your self-esteem is damaged, you tell yourself, maybe I am a criminal, maybe I do belong here. You get thoughts of suicide and these kind of things, you think to yourself maybe people won’t miss me if I’m gone.

I felt my self as a teenager very overwhelmed with anger. Anger against authority figures, anger against the circumstances, anger against myself. I punched the wall a lot, I cried a lot, did a lot of push-ups, punched the wall a lot, screamed a lot. I sang.

And at the same time, you could hear everyone around you as well going through something similar?

Yeah, although it is very isolated, everyone in every other cell is doing the same exact thing I just mentioned. So when you put all these sounds together, the sounds itself is enough to to frustrate a person. You hear correctional officers who can’t even stand the noise from even working there, with the people kicking and screaming, and kicking the doors simultaneously.

Other times it gets very quiet also, so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. Your last meal is at 4:30 in the afternoon, next meal at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of times you can get a misbehavior report if your’e caught saving food. If you get this misbehavior report during solitary, you will get more solitary time. So it’s not uncommon to find someone who’s been sentenced to 90 days for testing positive for marijuana, and then end up 5,6,10 years, or decades even from receiving these back to back misbehavior reports.

So for holding a little bit of food, that is somehow a crime, even though in real life outside of prison that would never be considered a crime?

Absolutely, it’s considered contraband..So if I save 4 slices of bread and my milk, and then they come on a cell search, not only are they taking it, but I’ll receive a misbehavior report for holding contraband in my cell. It’s up to the officer’s discretion. But in their rationale is that if this food goes bad, then I’m harming my health. So they’re protecting me and doing something to prevent harm to myself.

As an adult I didn’t internalize a lot of the oppression that I faced. I became more extroverted and outspoken about the injustices, and began to think critically, to question the system. I began to think critically about exactly why we live in a country where it is OK to do this to people.

I remember the only person I’d have contact with was the officer that brought me food everyday. I did a combined 3 years for a number of infractions. Most of them was testing positive for marijuana. I think the most time I did at one time was one year, for testing positive for marijuana.

I asked myself, why we live in a country where it is OK to do this (putting someone in solitary for a year for testing positive for weed). Why are people not more concerned about this. It wasn’t until I was released, and started doing this work, I realized that people just don’t know.

Part of my job is to raise awareness about these issues, using my personal experience, to educate, and to compel people into action. This is an issue that is affecting about 100.000 people across the nation. 5000 alone in New York. We hear about a lot of the successes, but they’re just incremental change. When Obama says, we’re banning solitary for juveniles. Later to find out that there are only 27 juveniles in solitary on the federal level. You start to ask yourself how much change is actually happening on this issue.

So Obama changed the rules for juveniles and solitary confinement on the federal level, not the state level right..

Yes, so I always warn against incrementalism, where we change a small piece of the puzzle, but the entire picture still remains the same. So while no juveniles in the future won’t be placed on solitary on a federal level, that piece of legislation won’t do a whole lot as it relates to solitary reform. I will say that some states have followed suit, and placed their own limits on solitary on the state level. We’re very happy about that of course.

Virginia recently banned juveniles with mental illness from solitary. Here in New York we some progress as it relates to how much time spent in these cells. But the United Nations Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Juan Mendez deems anything above 15 days of solitary confinement amounts to torture (which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions). And here in the US we hold people in solitary a lot of times indefinitely.

The US signed the Geneva Conventions where torture is prohibited…

Absolutely. But our prison system is not reflective of that. When you have a person like Albert Woodfox who was recently released after 42 years of solitary confinement. 42 years! I still have personal friends who are in solitary confinement still from when I was with them in these human cages.

At what point is our system going to reflect our human values?

Some of the reactions that people can get when put in solitary confinement that they’ve found from the statement titled “Harmful Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Just seven days in isolation can cause a host of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, rage, irrational anger, fears of persecution, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, self-mutilation and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in electrical activity in the brain. ” Do you see that happening with most people?

Yeah, it happens to a lot of people. A lot of times, people are placed in solitary for completely minor offences. 4 out of 5 offences where people are placed in solitary are for minor offences. It could be testing positive for drug use, having contraband in their cell. Could be tobacco, frying pan, cell phone, cash… And then they are place in solitary. There are people placed in solitary for violent acts. But those instances are far and few in between. While they are there, because we place very vulnerable people in solitary. Such as people with mental illness, or kids (like in New York one of two states). Women who are expecting children. Or elderly people, people who are developmentally disabled.

While they are there they suffer the psychological ramifications of being alone for extended periods of time.

Are they following a protocol for putting someone in solitary, or is this totally up to the discretion of the warden or prison officer?

Both. A lot of the times,  the facility has already outlined infractions or behaviors that would land one in solitary in the first place. We’re also fighting that on that front. People should not go to solitary for testing positive for marijuana. They need drug treatment instead.

So the prisons have these guidelines. But then the hearing officer, or officer that writes this report in the first place, they have unwieldy discretion on who they send, how long they send them for, and even which type of solitary they send them to.

So there’s no third party that reviews the rationale, or decision used to send someone to solitary?

No, except that you can repeal a decision…but in practice an appeal doesn’t work like it works on paper. For example, when you get sentence a year in the box for testing positive for marijuana. Then when you get there, they say OK, here is your year, and you can appeal for 30 days. Except when you get to your cell, there is no writing paper, there’s no pen. The supplies only come by once a week. And you have to have it in within 30 days. A lot of times the men and women going to jail feel so defeated that they don’t just don’t even put in an appeal in the first place.

For those that are fortunate enough to have the stars aligned where they can actually submit an appeal, they find a lot of times are often denied at the facility level, and they have to appeal to the court. And the problem with that is that a lot of people in prison haven’t necessarily taken the bar exam to represent themselves in court. They don’t know how to file these court motions, like article 78, etc.

Additionally here in New York state, for you to access the law library, you have to ask for whatever documents you need 24 hours in advance. Then when you get a book, like the jailhouse lawyers manual, which outlines different court motions in laymen’s terms, you might find the book missing, or a chapter missing, or the officer doesn’t feel like giving out law library materials that day, or that week. So that makes it very difficult to appeal the decision, and to bring that decision in front of outside eyes, outside of prison.

And you have no outside representation that can help out, you basically have to represent yourself?

You definitely have no representation at the hearing stage, and even on the appeal stage. Which is another issue we try to fight as the campaign for alternatives to long-term isolated confinement. Due process is not suspended. You can’t isolate someone without due process. We do it in our court system. Except that in prison due process is really non existent. We have people who can’t speak English being sentenced at hearings that are completely in English! That’s a huge problem. People should be alarmed and concerned about what is going on in these prisons.

And this brings back to what you spoke about earlier, that you are not treated as a citizen in prison. This message of you’re less worthy than a citizen, is not just literal in your face, but also in terms of trying to find representation or recourse…

Yes, unfortunately we send people to prison (it’s supposed to be) as punishment, but nor for punishment.

Except that once people are placed in prison, people are faced with all these different kinds of adversity, injustices. And it’s justified by saying that if you don’t like it, they say, you shouldn’t have come to prison in the first place. But there is a problem with this ideology. I’ll give you a case study to show you what is wrong with this ideology..Mister Kalief Browder, who passed away. This was a young man who was 16 years old, who was literally picked up from the streets of New York, accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island, one of the worst jails in the nation, spends 3 years in prison, two years in solitary.

Later on, footage was revealed that he was routinely pulled out of his cell and beaten by correctional officers, put back. Beaten up by gang members, while officers just stood by watched and laughed. He attempted to commit suicide a number of times, yet never received any mental health treatment or psychological attention as a result of these suicide attempts.

Then one day, they dropped the charges. They said, we’re sorry we got the wrong person, three years later. 6 months after Mr Browder was released, he committed suicide.

He was permanently damaged in there…

Yes, permanently damaged.. So I want to say, that when we say, hey if you don’t like it you shouldn’t have gone to jail. People should know that not everyone who goes to jail, A, goes to jail for something they actually did, or B, for something that warrants the punishment that they received. A lot of time the punishment is not proportionate to what it is that they’re even being accused of.

And in those cases where it is justified to remove this person from society, people need to understand that prison IS the punishment. They’re not sent for additional punishment at the hands of people who have sworn to protect them. Which is what’s happening right now. 

So getting back to when you were in solitary, how did you cope? You mentioned someone who committed suicide. But you came out with a different maybe attitude or resilience that you had…What was it that you had in prison that kept you going?

I want to say hope…I looked around my environment and said, people are dying here…I don’t want to die inside of a cell. My mother didn’t give birth to me to spend my days locked inside of a human cage. And a lot of times people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. For me, my source of strength was my daughter who was born 2 days before I was arrested and sentenced for 15 years. And my mother, who has loved me unconditionally, even when I behaved in ways that I didn’t deserve to be loved.

While in the cell, not only saying I need to survive for them, but also saying, I’m not going to succumb to this environment. I dreamt a lot, slept a lot, fantasized a lot, thought about winning the power-ball, and how I would fire every single correctional officer in the nation (laughing) and hire new people who really care about people. I exercised a lot, and wrote a lot as well. In the back of my bible, the back of the books from the library, on toilet paper. And then all of these writings, once I got back to the general population, I added them back to my journal.

This hope that I am more than just another person who’s inside of a cell. And have so much potential, and I’m not going to succumb to this. And today I am who I am, not because of solitary but despite solitary..

In solitary the writing is kind of a reflective practice, did you have any other reflective practices, or did you struggle with a lot of thinking…

Yeah, in prison your memory fades. That’s why in prison people like pictures because it reminds us. There were a lot of times where I thought back to an event that happened, but I didn’t’ remember correctly the way it actually happened. And it wasn’t until maybe I wrote to my mother, and she’d say that’s not how it happened. What are you talking about? It happened more times than I care to admit. Part of it was thinking, am I losing my mind here, am I creating these alternate realities and fantasies?

Which later I found out that is exactly what I was doing. For me to survive the environment, I had to get out of the environment, even if it was just psychologically closing my eyes. So the way I survived solitary was by using my imagination. There was an article written on that process, by Nautilus Magazine. How we use our imagination to detach or escape from an environment, so we don’t succumb to the environment. People who’ve gone through war and experiences like that, use similar visual exercises to cope with an environment. I didn’t know that I was doing that at that time.

A lot of us do meditation practices to get beyond the walls of our thinking, the walls of our minds as my teacher puts it. So it sounds like your imagination allowed you to get past these walls that were limiting your thinking. And in many cases people they think very little of themselves. It sounds like you were able to break through that constant messaging that puts you down…or as they might say, “put you in your place”, but really isn’t. 

Yes, and unfortunately, a lot of people that are placed there, don’t have the capacity. They succumb to their environment. I’ve heard correction officers tell a detainee after they say, “I feel like hurting myself”. And the correction officer says, “come back to me when you actually hurt yourself…”.

Another case that happened, mister Bradley Ballard, this individual needed constant insulin shots, and the correction officers completely ignored his pleas to receive his medication. At one point one correction officer was kind enough to go to his commanding officer and say, “Hey, this guy, really might need some attention, we should take a look at that. ” The Sargent tells the correction officer, “is he dead yet?”. The reporting officer said, “No…he’s not dead, this is why I’m coming to you…”. The supervising officer then said, “Come back to me when you have a body, don’t come back here until you have a body.” Two days later, Bradley Ballard was found dead in his cell.

That’s real mean spirited management, is this taught somehow in the culture, is it systemic? 

You’re right, it’s not in the training, how to not have failings. It’s more like, a lot of well-intentioned officers, a lot of whom I’ve met through my incarceration. I’ve met a lot of good officers. Except that, they would rather not rattle the cage. They wouldn’t stand by and watch injustices happen, but because they value their job, or don’t want to get fired, they just don’t get in the way.

Officers are taught that we’re criminals, we shouldn’t be trusted, we are criminals, we shouldn’t be spoken to, shouldn’t be said hi to. So it’s definitely deeply embedded in the culture. Except not every officer subscribes to this culture. At least not proactively, but sometimes by allowing things to happen, I would argue that it’s also just as detrimental and bad.

Yes, Silence is also a choice…

Yeah…I like that..

You mentioned treating people like people earlier.. and this culture of you can put them down, because they’re not people develops in a prison culture..

And it reflects itself in the language a lot. You might hear officers say things like, “how many heads, how many bodies do you have?” Completely dehumanizing language. The problem with this dehumanizing language is that there are things I can do to a “criminal”, that I wouldn’t do to a, “father”. There are things I can do to an inmate, that I couldn’t do to a, “son”. 

Once a person is viewed in such a dehumanizing way, then an officer feels justified and OK with for example, not giving you toilet paper for a few days, or not unclogging your toilet for a week. Or, “Here’s a cold tray of food, so what that it’s 3:30 in the afternoon, I’ll see you tomorrow at 7:30….Oh you want to hurt yourself? Well, you’ll figure it out..Don’t come back until you actually did.”

Then justify it, by saying, “these people committed horrific acts, they should not be given any pity or compassion.” Being compassionate or compassion is not something that you do, it’s something that you are…

I’m not sure if the department of correction can measure that on the way in. (laughing).

Have you seen any prison examples where that is taught or instituted, where there is emphasis on the humanness rather than making people less human?

Yeah, there are prisons that I’ve been exposed to who, “treat people like people”. What that means, is that they make sure that they have contact visits, educational resources, adequate mental treatment if and when they need it. Where they uncuff people during therapy sessions. This goes a long way, to be uncuffed when having therapy.

Really protecting and upholding the person’s dignity and worth…Something as simple as asking someone how they’re doing today…goes a long way. And really acknowledging a person’s humanity and presence. In prison, “how are you doing?” is not a phrase that’s heard often. 

I want to say here in New York we’ve been moving towards that, a lot of restorative justice. A lot of step-down programs from solitary. Giving people the opportunity to get these treatments and educational resources while they’re in solitary. Except that it takes legislation to move towards that goal, and not just the sheer will of the people.

Basically prison used to be just punitive, what do you see happening towards a prison system that is instead of just punitive towards one that is rehabilitative?

Yeah, right now across the nation, criminal justice is very sexy so to speak. States are really taken a look at their systems, and saying, you know what, is our system as humane as possible. And if not, how can we make this better?

I’m just glad and honored to be alive during a period where it feels like people don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

So we’re seeing a lot more progressive changes in states moving towards not only rehabilitating people, but also equipping people with the tools, knowledge and information to make them productive citizens once they return to society. In addition to correcting a lot of the systemic parts that also people face once they’re released. Because it is not just the person, but also the systems that this person has to interact with that determines whether that person will recidivists (becomes a repeat offender) or not.

And so this rate of recidivism…A successful prison would be a model where the rate of recidivism is way lower, and prisoners correctly reintegrate back into society and become productive, there are models worth following right?

I’m not sure how I feel about the term “successful prison”. I even ask myself, do correctional facilities “correct” anything? When speaking to different journalists, they’ll say, “Johnny, prison was good to you…You are educated, eloquent, you work at a law firm, you advocate for people, you all of this, and you did 13 years in prison.”

I always say that we need to find a way to invest in people, not prisons. 

For the people that are impressed with my journey, I’m only an example of what happens when you invest in people, not prisons. I discovered the power of education while incarcerated. I took college courses while incarcerated. Now kudos to Obama for the recent pilot program affecting about 12 thousand people across the country who will be exposed to higher education in the form of Pell Grants.

But a lot of that came despite the adversity, not because the adversity.

When I think of a successful prison and what that would look like, it would be prison in which the prison invests in the people inside the prison. Not in security, cameras, or fancier handcuffs. And more educational programs, drug treatment, mental health treatment. How can we empower this person. How can we make sure this person has housing and employment upon their release. Let’s help this person make more responsible decisions….

Would part of the solution be to take the profit out of the prison industrial complex? That’s a big part of the problem right?

Yeah, definitely. I think about my daughter who is 15 years old, and my future son. Do I want to bring my future son into a country where people profit from incarceration, oppression, profit from injustice. And if I’m up for parole and I come in front of a warden whose receiving money to keep me inside of a cell. What is least likely to happen? What’s most likely to happen? And what is actually going to happen?

What would you do to take profit out of the equation?

I would definitely not allow the privatization of prisons. I don’t think that any person should be able to make prison a business. Even though state run correctional facilities also have a piece of corporate America in them. People who are incarcerated work for pennies on the dollar. I worked for 15 cents an hour for over 10 years. Doing work that had I been doing it out in the world, it would have paid $20 dollars an hour.

And yet, how much does it cost to warehouse people, 170 thousand dollars a year?

Yeah, Rikers Island cost 170 thousand dollars a year to warehouse (chuckles), or hold someone in his/her cell. And these same people work for 15 cents an hour. If you give me a young kid who has made irresponsible decisions, and a 170 thousand dollars. Not only would I give this person Ivy league education, buy him or her a nice home and car, and still give you back a 100 thousand dollars left over.

So in the end, society would be way better off just investing in that person, instead of investing in this prison industrial complex…

Yes, huge, huge. And I ask myself why we’re not already doing that.

You’d think that especially the bean counters, the people who are saying money matters, they’d be saying, why wouldn’t we invest money in these persons, thus save society money, rather than giving prisons more money to keep the person longer in prison, thus costing the tax payers more….

Part of the problem is plain old corruption…Every now and then the veil is lifted. You might hear about a judge who is receiving kickbacks from a private for-profit prison for sending juveniles there. And we’re shocked when we hear these stories. Advocates and people in the prisons would say hey, you’re just now finding out about it. I’m just really glad criminal justice reform is on people’s radar, and people are finally getting tired and don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

When you have the pope and the president saying, we need a better system, we need to reform our criminal justice system. It makes people perk up, and say wow, maybe we are over incarcerating people.

2.1 million people locked up in our nation’s prison. 65 million have a criminal record on file. (80,000-100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the US where they spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells, with little to no human contact for days or even decades.) Most of these people are disproportionately people of color…who come from low-income neighborhoods, who have little to no educational or financial resources. Or opportunities, and ending up finding themselves warehoused in a cell for days, weeks, years, decades at a time.

People of different races are singled out, vs, for example on a college campus where someone does the same thing, and receive no punishment. Whereas someone in a poor neighborhood does the same thing, and can end up in solitary…

Yeah, absolutely, I think about drug possession and drug use. I think about in my neighborhood for example, there are 24 hour porn shops, and 24 hour liquor stores. As if people from my neighborhood have gold laying around to pawn at 3 am in the morning. I think about the countless people who’ve gone to prison for drug possession and have gone to solitary for drug use. I’ve been to plenty of college campuses where drug use is rampant, except that there no one ends up going to jail. But in other places people do end up going to jail. It’s not necessarily that certain people get singled out, it’s that the system favors white people over people of color.

Unfortunately this is what goes on. Think of the recent case of the young man from Stanford who was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexual assault. And I think about, if he was a person of color, would he have received 6 months of jail? Of course I would never know, I would argue he’d have received a much different sentence than 6 months.

I believe it…so what challenges do you face as re-entry advocate?

There are challenges that I face right now in the work that I do. And that is that I’m always trying to humanize the people in prison. But the systemic change has to come from these different systems that people have to interact with once they return to society. Specifically parole, or HRA, which we call Human Resources Administration, where people receive food stamps and different benefits and entitlements. Medicaid, social security. These systems really work against the people that return to society.

I have people who have been released who are given addresses to buildings that don’t even exist anymore. I have clients who parole says, I don’t want you to work, to go to school. I want you to only take anger management, and once you are done with that, then we talk about you getting a job. And that’s a huge problem.

The other part of the challenge is changing the culture enough to where the policy changes.

A lot of times these policies are created by people who have no experience with the prison system, have never been in the system, or have even come in contact with the people in this system. And yet they are allowed to create policy for these people. So part of my challenge is making people aware of the value of having the voices of people who are directly impacted in the work that they’re doing, when they’re having these policy discussions.

Because between theory and practice there is a huge space. And in order to close that space you need the voices of the people who are directly affected by the issue, who have lived through it. Who can say, hey, that policy doesn’t look like that in real life, that’s never going to work. But here is how we can make it work. 

And a lot of times we’re excluded from these conversations, because again, we’re not seen as qualified, we’re not seen as believable in a lot of senses. And just not really brought into the conversation. 

So how would you be able to get into the conversations?

Just invite me (laughing)…

Legislators know that there are advocates who are pushing for different reform. We constantly contact legislators, we contact government officials. We contact people in different spaces who are either engaged in new initiatives, or who are exploring ideas about whether alternative incarcerations, sentencing, bail reform, things of that nature. And we say, hey this is what should happen. So instead of saying, thank you for your opinion, why not say, why don’t you come and join us for this meeting that we’re having on how to actually formulate this. 

I will say it has happened in some spaces, specifically Rikers Island. I’m on an adolescent advisory board here in NYC. I’m part of the bar association, on the community and re-entry committee, one of the people who’s not a lawyer. But they see the value in having us (the people who are directly affected) part of the conversation as it relates to reform.

They’ve really come to terms, and see that hey, we’re not going to get this right, until we make sure that the people in this cell also have a say-so into how this is going to turn out. And some spaces this is successful, and other spaces you’re invited, but not listened to.

Its just for lip service, just for show….

Yeah, to say, we had Johnny Perez there, formerly incarcerated, and he was part of the discussion. But every suggestion I made was shut down.

Another thing I wanted to ask, you mentioned if you hand someone a paintbrush, they will paint…expand on that a little bit. 

This is the idea that criminals in prison are incorrigible individuals, criminals are born criminals, not made. And because of that, you have whether correctional services, or legislators, or even government officials, who believe that people can’t change. I would argue that people can change, they can change as long as they’re alive. Regardless of age. But because of this ideology, the idea is that we should educate people in prison. Because if you teach this guy who’s in prison for burglary, if you teach him computer skills, he’ll just become a computer hacker…

Just a better burglar….right..

Yeah..instead we should not teach them…because if you know there’s no change in this person. Where the reality is that if you teach me computer skills, I’m more likely to become a computer engineer, software engineer, or IT specialist. I won’t become a computer hacker. I’m not innately born a criminal.

That is one, then two, a lot of times, we stamp people with one label based on one chapter, or one act in their life. And for a lot of people, the difference between a lot of people in prison, and people in society is that the people in prison where arrested, and a lot of people in society have YET to be arrested.

I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who are either doctors, lawyers, etc. who’ve put their hand in a cookie jar at some point in their childhood, or early teens. except that they had the resources to not succumb to the criminal justice system. And have this lifelong blemish, or scarlet letter behind them.

Or they simply were not found out…

Yeah, exactly… or it never came to the light of day.

Or maybe because they grew up in a higher crime neighborhood where there is a lot of police presence already watching….You’re more likely to be found out with your hands in the cookie jar if you grow up in certain places.

Yeah, we know street crime is prosecuted at a higher degree than corporate crime. I don’t have to remind people about Enron and Mr Madoff. But those are far and few in between.

But the paintbrush is..I was at a board of corrections meeting, and one person proposed an art program, art therapy in prison. Who knew, let people paint! But a official said we can’t have this program, because we can’t have people take paintbrushes and create weapons out of them and kill each other. My eyebrows went up, wait a minute, people don’t automatically see a paintbrush and see a weapon!

Anything can be a weapon when you think about it. The person has to decide to do so. So saying we can’t have paintbrushes, because they will create weapons out of it, is to say these people are incorrigible and can’t be changed and are born criminals. No..criminals are made due to a number of different environmental and psychological factors. A lot of different variables go into that. Not just born…

And we also have a habit of telling someone, “You are a criminal” instead of, “you had criminal behavior” at one time. That alone is coming back to where words can be very powerful if you say, your identity from now on is just that. Because then they might start believing that, which also doesn’t help…

Exactly, and I think that was true for me as a teenager. The environment was sending me messages. Solitary was sending me a message of worthlessness. Of this is who you are, this is how you should be treated. And then after a while, I said well, if I am a criminal, then you know what, then I’m going to be one.

And real quickly when you go into prison, you learn it’s a completely different world, it’s an upside down kingdom.  Where everything that you believed was true, is backwards. People do not value respect, people don’t value diplomacy, people do not value walking away from a conversation. People do not value just being able to talk things out. Violence is really the law of the land. Both for people doing time, as well as the correctional officers. They don’t talk things out, they talk with their batons.

You learn that for me to communicate, you have to communicate with violence. This is the language of the land here. When someone is constantly exposed to that for 10, 15, to 20 years. Then when they return back into society, they still operate by those norms. And that is how this cycle continues, this labeling theory cycle.

In prison, did you also find a lot of people turn towards religion as a way to cope?

Yeah, I found that people turn to religion for a number of reasons. In addition to coping with the environment, and this unbearable reality. The kind of let go, and let God take care of it so to speak of. Part of doing time is to come to terms with hopelessness. I know I mentioned hope before in solitary before. But also hopelessness in the fact that there is nothing I can do about this situation. Like absolutely nothing that I can do about it. All I can do it, is accept the situation.

So your’e not struggling against it the whole time…

Yes, that’s self talk. When I first went to prison, I had to tell myself, “Johnny, you’re not going home for the next 15 years.” This is your home for the next 15 years. Stop thinking that someone is going to open your cell someday, and say we’re going to let you go. It’s not going to happen. And I had to reprogram myself. And a lot of time, it’s saying, hey, God there’s nothing I can do about it, please take care of it. God if you give me another chance, I won’t do it again. That kind of thing.

So people turn to religion to help cope with the environment. And then people also turn to religion for feelings of warmth, to feel inclusive, and feel loved in a lot of senses. To feel they’re not alone, even though they’re in a crowded room.

Do you find that that they still maintain that relationship once they come out of prison into society?

A lot of times yes. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve found faith in prison, and then once released, they stay with their faith and their religion.

In terms of addressing the root problem, why do some turn towards a life of crime..how can we address this?

There are a number of different issues. I think policing is part of the issue. The way that some neighborhoods are policed and others are not. In my neighborhood, I get mobile police towers, other neighborhoods, they get community gardens. Again I have 24 hour porn shops, and these poverty pimps who pray on people needing things.

I definitely think that the resources that are allowed into the communities, except that it is not.  When I was 16 years old, I wasn’t trying to decide to if I should go to band camp or karate school. I was trying to decide which gang to join, how I’m going to run from the cops. How I’m going to walk to school and keep myself from being bullied.

And then when I was in school, the messages I received from my own teachers weren’t positive. I cut school as a teen constantly, except that every year I found myself being passed to the next grade. I don’t know how I passed this, I never did any homework. I probably showed up about two weeks out of the school year, and here I am going from the 8th to the 9th, and then into the 10th, and 11th grade. How is this possible?

And then as an adult you realize that teachers were just passing the problem along. I found myself in the 11th grade with an 8th grade reading level. Where the teacher says, oh you didn’t do your homework, well it’s OK, you’ll probably end up in prison anyway…

So they’d already given up on you in high school…

Oh yeah, without a doubt. So let’s talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline. When you go in school, and our schools resemble prisons. You have to go through a metal detector, the’re are armed guards there. I can be arrested inside of school, if the teacher deems I’m being disruptive in class. How I’m suspended constantly for behaviors that other students might not be suspended for.

Next thing you know here I am, I have a criminal record from engaging in school. Then once I get in front of a judge for another infraction, I already have psychologically been exposed to these restrictive environments in a sense.

I think the policing, the education, and I bring it back to the resources that are afforded in these communities. There is nothing to do for people inside a lot of these impoverished communities.

I wonder what would happen if we were to infuse these communities with the resources, financial resources, human resources, opportunities. For people to take advantage of them. Instead of feeling like, I have to sell drugs to help my mother feed my three brothers. Which is the reason the first time I went to jail.

I hope something like that happens. It is very complicated in reality to implement that. 

And then we can talk about alternatives to incarceration. When people are arrested for  a certain crime, you should not go to prison. You should not go to jail for using drugs. You should not go to jail because your behavior was a direct result of your mental illness. You should not go to jail, because you’re sleeping on a park bench, because your homeless. You should not go to jail for hopping a turnstile on a train, because you can’t afford to pay $3 dollars to get on the subway. Except that you get arrested, fined $100 dollars and run through the system.

And I ask myself, have we criminalized poverty? Have we criminalized mental illness? And people are going to jail not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are.. .in a lot of different cases. 

Yeah, lot of things to solve, a lot more problems to solve. I would envision an island instead of filled with boxes, have an island with gardens, wood-shop, every kind of possible skill that could be taught there. And then I imagine people coming off that island very different than an island with boxes on it.

Yeah, places like this jail in Sweden. People there are so humanized, they don’t even have fences there. And people are not running away, because there is no fence. Places in India where the officers don’t use handcuffs.  Where people willingly go to the precinct with the police officer, and are held accountable for their actions!

We can rethink our entire system beyond where it is now, in a way that empowers people. And protects and upholds their human dignity and worth. and is very directly reflective of our human and American values.

And would be a lot cheaper!

Yeah, millions and millions cheaper. I think the last estimate I read was a total of 270 billion dollars on the criminal justice system, out of that 80 billion dollars a year are spent on incarceration criminal justice system as a whole. Police, corrections, and courts.

And this cycle keeps on going unless you have some advantages right now, like you could self-educate your way out of the cycle…

Yeah, and to have the support of people who say, we’re going to invest in this person. This person has potential.

I told a reporter from the times the other day, the entire time I was in prison, for 13 years straight, day in and day out…Not once did I meet a person who was incorrigible, who could not be changed, who was deep down a criminal. I met people who had so much unrealized potential. I’m talking about so creative, so smart. I know scholars who don’t have PhD. Who have studied subjects for the last 10-15 years because there is nothing else for them to do. And they’re so smart, but they would never see the light of day. 

And I ask myself…Imagine…if the cure to cancer was stuck inside of the head of a person who is sitting inside of a cell, who is not being allowed the education to bring the cure into fruition. There is so much unrealized potential inside of our prisons. 

If we were to invest in these people….our society as a whole, not only the moral fabric of our society would be upheld, but our society would be furthered by the accomplishments these people would make. 

Yeah, I totally agree (laughing)

Anything else that I missed that you would like to get off your chest that you think people should know about incarceration?

I think I said it all, but I would emphasize for listeners who have never been exposed to the system or come in contact anyone who has been affected…People should know that a lot of people are in prison just because they haven’t given the opportunity to do better. And they can’t do better, unless they know how to do better.

So definitely education is part of the conversation. And the other part of the conversation is that there are no bad people. There are people who may commit bad acts or irresponsible acts. But we can’t subject one person to relegate one person to one chapter of their life.  We’ve all made mistakes, whether we’ve been caught for that or not. Whether we’ve been held accountable for them or not. This could be your reality. You can also be subjected to this system.

And the reason people should care because 95% of the people who are in prison right now, are going to be released one day. Tomorrow, next week, next year. And they are going right into our communities. There is people in your community who may have criminal records who you may even be surprised that have a record, but have never mentioned or told you about their record.

Until we see people as people, we will not treat people as people. 

Thanks for bringing light to this issues. For giving me a voice, to help me amplify my voice and reach a wider audience about these issues. I’m always available to answer any questions, and am available to do presentations  in person, across the country to talk about these issues.

Thanks so much

Resources

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Johnny Perez quotes:

We are not saying you should not hold someone accountable, we are saying there is never a time in… Click To Tweet

“Prisons are there to take away the prisoner’s liberty, but solitary confinement strips them off their humanity. ”

“If we shift our focus towards rehabilitation, we would not only reduce our prison population, but give people the tools to live meaningful and successful lives.”

“People are deserving of love in prison.”