Higher Education: It Changed My Life

The question of how higher education has changed my life is a question of not only cause and effect, but one of light versus darkness. I see ignorance as a state of darkness and education the illuminating light that so often eliminates it. My relationship with higher education has been an example of this battle; however, to truly appreciate the cure one must first understand the disease.

The worse part of living in a state of ignorance is not knowing about it. That was the situation I found myself in for many years, oblivious of the fact that I did not know that I did not know! As a result, I applied criminal solutions to my problems, reacted aggressively when confronted by others, and often gave up on myself when challenged beyond my comfort zone. Eventually, at the tender age of twenty-one, my self-defeating behaviors restricted me to a concrete cell for the following fifteen years.

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NYDOCCS Release ID/ Photo by Allegra Abramo

I would like to say that receiving such an unbearable sentence served as a catalyst for change in my life, but I cannot. Like any pattern of behavior that takes shape over the course of many years, I continued to break the law despite the contradictory evidence against it around me. It’s important to understand that at the time I did not see my behavior in a negative light. This was mainly because I always shifted responsibility of my actions to others. As a result, I felt justified in my actions and that only served to perpetuate my behavior.

It wasn’t until I tried to do the right thing for the wrong reason that I received the right results. I signed up for the prison’s college program with the idea of spinning a positive light on all the negative behavior I was involved in. Instantly, I knew that I was in a different arena, but instead of quitting like my past indicated, the thought of leaving prison early motivated me enough to continue in the program. Before going to college I was not interested in education. School was were the squares and smart white people went to become lawyers and doctors. I never completed the tenth grade and my General Equivalency Diploma was the result of paying someone ten packs of unfiltered Marlboro Reds to pass the exam for me.

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Photo by Allegra Abramo

In prison, having reading material is the armor that protects you from the second-by-second attack on your soul that constant repetition can sometimes be. College gave me more protection from monotony that I could have ever hoped for. Within the first semester I traveled the world from inside my cell. I traveled alongside Martin Luther King Jr.; cried with Holocaust survivors; argued the philosophy of laissez-faire with Adam Smith, and even visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I also learned the meaning of new words and terms like multi-generational poverty, culture of violence, and synapse. Before college, I thought serendipity was a dancer at a gentlemen’s club, and a dichotomy was a type of surgery.

After some time, the funniest thing happened…I began to pull my pants up! I started to see opportunities where before I only saw challenges; stepping stones where before only obstacles were in sight; and college where before I only saw prison. I guess you can say that my paradigm shifted. The more I learned, the more I realized that I needed to learn more. The more I began to know, the more I came to the conclusion that I did not know anything at all. More importantly I began to see my behavior through the lens of responsible people, and slowly I became uncomfortable with some of the irresponsible behavior that I once felt so at home with. I could no longer use the N-word because I was conscious of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I refused to continue smoking marijuana because I now knew the effects on the brain, and above all else, I felt compelled to break the cycle of ignorance and poverty within my family by being the first to complete a college education!

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Photo By Allegra Abramo

It has been four years now since the sound of steel gates slamming shut has filled my ears every night before I fell asleep. Today, I am the Director of U.S. Prison Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a membership organization committed to ending U.S.-sponsored torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. I add value, insight, and leadership to existing campaign efforts working to end the torture of solitary confinement, while building the capacity of religious leaders and directly impacted communities to engage in education and advocacy in the United States.

Sometimes, when I visit people prior to their release, they stare down at the handcuffs restricting the movement of their wrists and say, “You have no idea what it is to be in this hell hole.” I usually don’t self-disclose my past to people I work with, but the hopelessness in their eyes, the frustration painted on their faces, and the smell of their fear motivates me to tell them my story. As I share my past experiences with them I can see their eyes begin to widen with hope, their shoulders raise in confidence, and their smiles shine with joy as they come to realize that I am a living example of the past not dictating the future. An example that nothing is impossible.

So when I’m asked by anyone, how has higher education helped change my life? I can sincerely say that it has changed my life by changing who I am. I could not be a better father, employee, son, volunteer, advocate, or student, if I had not become a better person first. And as a result of higher education changing my life, it has also changed the life of the people who I come I contact with. 20170213_102704

Special Thank you Hudson Link and St. Francis College.

Lesson From Behind the Wall

In prison a person loses freedoms that are usually taken for granted by people in society.wp_20140701_008He or she is forced to revert to a child-like state by becoming dependent on correction officers for nearly everything. The loss of autonomy and individuality are instantly lost upon entering prison.

New prisoners will be shocked to know their hair will be completely shaved; their clothes swapped with uniforms to identify their new subordinate status; their names will be stripped from them and replaced with Department Identification Numbers. As a one officer at Downstate Correctional Facility put it, “You are no longer who you thought you were. You are now itemized inventory and property of the New York State Correctional Services. That means that I am your mommy, your pappy, your higher power. You do not do anything without my permission, that includes walking, talking, eating, shifting. If I catch one of you so much as even chocking your chickens without my permission you’ll regret it. Do I make myself clear?”

The dehumanization of prisoners begins when new arrivals are assigned identification numbers which they are forced to memorize and recite at any given time. It soon becomes clear that the I.D. number, which is used for everything from receiving mail from loved ones to using the phone, is more important than your name, social security number, and even birth date. Some prisoners have recited their DIN numbers so much that they can recall their DINs from previous prison visits.

This process of dehumanization is further evidenced by the treatment of prisoners by the guards. Correctional officers sometimes ignore, neglect, and even physically and verbally abuse prisoners on a daily basis. They are trained to adhere to pre-set rules, regulations, and policies that do not consider the human element of their jobs. Some officers despise prisoners or are not happy with their jobs so they exert their frustrations out on prisoners.

Other guards are born and raised in predominately white neighborhoods and a prison setting is the only time they have come in contact with other racial or ethnic groups, which make up most of the New York Prison population. When combined with stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media these guards are almost conditioned to treat prisoners in an unethical and dehumanizing manner.

It is also important to point out the idea of retribution. It is a common belief that most people break the law in order to come to prison. Some people victimize innocent people in the commission of their crimes. Correctional officers may feel justified in their treatment of prisoners. As if they are paying them back for their crimes; however, it is not the responsibility of the officers to hand down any punishment to the prisoners, society has bestowed that duty on the judge that handed the prisoner his or her sentence in a court of law before a jury of peers.

Depending on the prisoner’s self-esteem, coping mechanisms, emotional stability, mental capacity, and intelligence, the guards’ behavior can greatly affect the prisoner’s psyche and shape his adjustment to the institution, and ultimately upon their return to society.

The number one idea which will greatly affect a prisoner’s time in prison is to come to accept that although there are many injustices within prison walls, there is nothing in his, or her, power to change that. There are countless stories of prisoners who spent their time trying to change what they could not change—only to lose their minds, fall in deep depressions, even commit suicide. By focusing on the things they cannot change, some prisoners find themselves constantly frustrated, dissatisfied, stressed, and physically sick. Let’s not ignore the hair loss that sometimes accompanies stress, and the wrinkles that come from constant worry. This is one of many reasons why prison is filled with young men who have lost their hair and look twice their age.

The first lesson learned by person during incarceration is to channel energies into the only thing can be controlled: Reactions to event as they happen!

In his book A Man ‘s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl shared his experience as a hostage in a Nazi Concentration camp during World War Il. During his stay he was forced to work under some of the harshest conditions known to man: The guards were constantly abusive to say the least, he would go days without eating a single slice of bread, and he was forced to work long hours in cold weather without wearing socks. All of this, after he lost his family to the same conditions, or to cold-blooded, racially motivated murder. Frankl came to the conclusion that the Nazis had stripped him of everything except one thing: His ability to choose how he would respond to the uncontrollable event in his new existence.

Know this: No one can control you, but YOU! You are the author of your life, creator of your thoughts, and architect of your circumstances. No one can force you to feel sad, frustrated, happy, or angry without your permission. In the face of unchangeable and uncontrollable circumstances the only power you have is how you choose to respond. Do not, by any means, cede this power to anyone or anything.This means  you can also decide how to interpret or view any situation. You have the power to see an opportunity where others will only see challenges; happiness where others see only sadness.

One of the mental tactics that I used throughout the thirteen years of my incarceration was to reframe the situation. If I came across a difficult person—whether an officer or another prisoner—instead of becoming frustrated or angry, I would tell myself that here was an excellent opportunity to practice patience and develop tolerance. In fact, if there was one characteristic that I acquired during my stay in prison it was the ability to withstand pain, inconvenience, and hardship without complaint. Some people call this characteristic resilience, a very useful character trait to have in the real world.

You’ll find that by focusing on the things you can control rather than on the things that you cannot, your time in prison will become easier to manage. You will also find that your perspective of time will change and as a result your sentence will speed up. You will no longer focus on not being able to go home when you want, or why your family has yet to respond to your letters, or the harsh treatment by officers. Instead, you will look at your goals and consciously work to accomplish them and then set new goals. Since the goals you set for yourself are attainable and not impossible to accomplish (in other words they are within your control), you will be confident that you can achieve them. This confidence will translate into a feeling of happiness on a daily basis—an important key to doing time.

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2016 Freedom Celebration & Recognition Awards

The average American takes his or her freedom for granted. After surviving thirteen years in prison, I have come to appreciate the small things this world has to offer. One such pleasure is Freedom. The irony is that I use the word freedom very loosely as I am still very much under correctional supervision. The reason I celebrate the day I was released is because for years I truly believed I would spend the rest of my life locked inside of a human cage.

On October 5th, I once again celebrated freedom, but this time by acknowledging the work of two people who have works hard to provide opportunities for other people and have worked to shift the narrative of what it means to be justice involved. The night was filled with  hugs, spoken word, and a sense solidarity as advocates from all over New York City gathered to celebrate freedom. I will be forever grateful for the people who attended!

Throughout my journey I have learned that is important acknowledge the work of people not only when they reach greatness, but also on their way to greatness. Especially if they are making a difference which goes ignored by others. For this reason i decided to highlight Julia Steele Allen and Roy Waterman. Both are so deserving of recognition and are people who not only care, but are examples of the change we wish to see in the world. Congratulations to them both.

 

 

Sometimes people believe in us more than we believe in ourselves. That outside conviction and belief, in turn, infects us with renewed self-belief and we find ourselves doing what we once believed to be impossible. And so the people who filled the rooftop at one point or another, throughout my reentry journey, not only believed in me and my potential to do great work, but saw past the man I was to the man I had become. I will forever be grateful for having people so dedicated to criminal justice, but also for empowering me in ways I never imagined.

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Society thinks people with criminal records are incorrigible, unable, and unwilling change. This could not be further from the truth. During my prison travels, most of the people I have met committed crimes because of two reasons: Financial necessity and/or ignorance. When one, or both, are eliminated people change, and usually for the better. The reason I decided to change my life was because I came to understand my actions within he context of my environment. It’s not a coincidence there is a 24 hour pawn shop in my neighborhood, when no one in my neighborhood can afford gold. Many of friends with criminal records have come to the same conclusions. Today, they are talented poets, comics, business owners, founders of nonprofits, professors, and high-level executives at multi-million dollar companies, and some of the most honest & loyal people you will ever meet. However, some people would never know, because they cannot see past their criminal records, the way the dress, or the socialization of societal institutions like the media or their class privilege. I say, get to know us by the entirety of our lives, and not by the ignorance of our past decisions. I, Johnny Perez, am only one of millions!

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In prison, one learns to numb oneself. You have to teach yourself not to feel; to go against the very thing which makes us human: The ability to feel a range of emotions. Your inability to numb yourself can be the difference between surviving or succumbing to your environment. If you’re not careful, it becomes difficult to feel again. For years I did not allow myself to cry, to feel, to love, not because I did not know how, but because my surroundings did not allow me to. Today, I feel comfortable feeling a range of emotions and it’s at times like that Wednesday when I feel the most free because I allowed myself to be overwhelmed with emotion. …..and you know what? If felt good!

To a stranger it was just another fundraiser. People who were getting together to raise money for a social justice cause or be in a space hoping to engage in a conversation which will move their career forward. To me, it was more than that. It was a room filled with people driven by immeasurable passion and conviction. A room filled with survivors and those who have helped them overcome the challenges of an unforgiving society. Including me.

If I am successful, then it is because of the people who I keep around me. The people who support me, trust me, and believe in me to do what others believe to be impossible. Sometime I ask God, “How did I get so lucky? Why God, have you smiled on me with your greatness when I have caused people harm in the past?” I don’t know why exactly, but I do know I have a responsibility to all of you to continue following my passion by being the example of  what can happen when we believe people can change. I will do this by launching the Reentry Advocacy Project (ReAP)  to continue the work I have done in the last two and a half years. Additionally, to expand that work by giving justice involved people the tools to not only reenter society successfully, but also help them uncover the advocate within before release. Imagine that!

I value and appreciate all who attended and who made it possible for others to attend. With your continued help,  guidance, and support I will do for others, as you all have done for me. Special Thanks to April Hinkle for her unwavering support. Because of her this event was a huge success.

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Also a special thanks to Edward Fernandez for providing the music, Devon Lloyd for making sure everyone had a drink in hand, and Kaila Pulinario for such delicious food; so sorry the photographer missed all of you.  Also to Ju Ju Chang for sharing her journalism experiences and lending her voice to such a magical evening. Thank you all!

See you all next year…  At the launch of ReAP! 😉

Justice Is My Passion

Today is the day I have finally been waiting for all of my adult life. I am finally being uncuffed and released into the world, which for what felt like a thousand lifetimes, I could only dream about. It feels so surreal, almost like I am dreaming except that the smells, the colors, the realization that I can walk pass those barbed-wire fences without getting a bullet in the back of my head, make it that much more satisfying. I have been through so many challenges living as a prisoner and ward of the state in the last nearly thirteen years, that sometimes I wonder how I even survived it all. Solitary confinement for a total of three years, the constant dehumanization, not being able to see my daughter who was born two days prior to my arrest a life time ago; all of which would break a weaker person; yet here I am today doing the George Jefferson walk past the metal gates of freedom. 

In the beginning, I remember not being able to fathom how I would complete a fifteen year sentence for robbery. When I received the first ten years in Manhattan I stared out the window of the bullpen I was held in after seeing the judge and could not control the water leaving my eyes and traveling down my twenty-one year old face. The pain and confusion was unbearable. I could not understand or grasp how, or better yet, why I would place myself in such an impossible predicament. Right at that moment, at that very second, promised myself that I would not only do my time in prison, but that I would see this as an opportunity to work on myself myself and attempt to become the best version of myself. JohnnyBoy had to die and Johnny Perez had to emerge in his place. Now, today, I am walking out a better man than when officer Mackenzie captured me, hogtied me , and brought me to the 46th precinct in the Bronx while saying ‘look what I caught’.

I hope that I never forget all the pain that I have been through and more importantly all the pain that I have caused because God help me if I do.  

-Written September 19th, 2013 9:01 am

Welcome to my website. The above is an actual journal entry from my journal which i wrote hours after my release from Bare Hill Correctional facility after completing 12 years, 10 months, and 9 hours in prison from the age of twenty one years old. It is the wisdom, the pain, the questions i asked myself during that journey which has equipped me to create new statistics and accomplish what I once could not even imagine.

People always wonder how does a person work up the nerve to rob someone else. The truth is there are series events which occur long before the decision to gamble with your life becomes a reality. See, for years I felt powerless, over circumstances, other people, shit, even myself. But when Fast Eddie let me wrap my teenage fingers around the handle of a gun, it transformed me little by little just like the black suit did to Peter Parker in Spiderman! Small incremental changes make for an astronomical transformation over a period of time. Isn’t that the bases for geology? Well, before I knew it I was so deep into my criminality that my mother once gazed deep into eyes and whispered, “Give me back my son!”

The criminal lifestyle only leads to three places: Prison, physical death, or symbolic death. The first is the lesser consequence of the three, yet some people would prefer the latter over prison. The second is the ultimate consequence, irreversible, avoided, and highly likely. The third is the most common of all because it can take many forms. A man sentenced to fifty years in prison is just as good as dead. the same goes for a man who decides to, “shoot it out with the police if they ever come”. A person applying criminal solutions to their problems cannot change these consequences no more than he can change the number of stars in the sky, and trust me, he will try! However, behind every story of failure, pain, and falls from grace, there is an equally inspiring story of redemption, triumph, and greatness.

I was born in Havana Cuba in 1979 at the height of Fidel Castro’s reign over the country. A year later, after given the opportunity to start a new life in a new country, my mother (only 18 years old at the time) migrated here to the U.S. She carried my one year-old self in her arms leaving all of our family behind.

I don’t know exactly when it was that I was seduced by the same streets that ended up raising me, but I know I was young. Maybe eleven or twelve. My first crimes involved stealing cars for joy riding. We would steal them and use them until the gas ran out before stealing another one to get us wherever we were headed. By “we,” I mean my friends and me. After a few stints in D.F.Y. (Division for Youth), I eventually stopped stealing cars, and had moved on to selling drugs. In a sense, I fooled myself into believing that I was doing something different when, in all actuality, I was doing the same thing in a different way. Years later I would learn that Albert Einstein defined insanity this way.

Selling drugs was something I did to buy myself the expensive clothes that I valued so much, and that my mother could not afford on a McDonald’s salary. I could never tell how much the experience of helping people kill themselves has affected me, but I suspect that at the time I lost a bit of my soul along with every nickel bag of inhumanity that I sold.

Eventually the relationship between my mother and I deteriorated and I ran away (it wasn’t the first time). Being homeless at thirteen years old I gave in to the allure of a criminal lifestyle completely. I had no supervision, no responsibilities, and only the influence of my so called friends would help me navigate the labyrinth that is the streets. Combined with the fascination of expensive cars, flashy jewelry, and all the trappings that my role models on the corner so proudly displayed; it wasn’t long before I became a “threat to public safety.”

For as long as I could remember I continued to believe that I could get away with committing crimes despite all the contradictory evidence I faced daily. At one point I was arrested and released almost every month for about a year. But just like an addict that develops a tolerance for drugs, I developed the same tolerance for crime. What was difficult to do at one time, had become easy. Eventually I began to carry guns, and forcibly taking other people’s property.

On November 28th, two days after my daughter was born, I was arrested for armed robbery in the 1st degree. A year later I was sentenced to 15 years in a NYS prison. I was 21 at the time.

During my stay in prison I developed a relationship with myself. When you’re locked in a cell by yourself long enough with no one to talk to, eventually you’ll end up having conversations with yourself. There was no escaping from the demons that had constantly chased me, and I could no longer hide behind a haze of marijuana smoke. As a result, I had to face the person I had become. I remember becoming disgusted with myself for the way I treated my family, friends, complete strangers, and for becoming the opposite of what my mother had hoped for me so many years prior.

There are three events that have forever changed the trajectory of my life: Falling asleep in my future girlfriend’s building’s hallway while I sold crack; placing a gun to the head of a cashier in a convenience store in Harlem, NY; and reading As A Man Thinketh written by the great philosopher James Allen. Once I learned that I, and only I, was in complete control of my actions; and that no one, thing, or circumstance, was responsible for how my life was turning out, then the world shifted.

I began to read every book I could get my hands on, and eventually signed up for the prison’s college program. Through education I began to see opportunities, where before I only saw challenges; stepping stones where before I only saw road blocks; and I began to see things in the world that I would have never fathomed existed, although they’ve been in my face my entire life. Inside that cramped 8 by 10 foot cell I argued the meaning of life with Socrates, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., mourned with Holocaust survivors, compared cheese cake recipes with Martha Stewart, and cried with Trayvon Martin’s mother!


As of this writing it has been three years since I was locked in that human cage staring at the barbed wire fence I dreamed of one day never seeing again. So much has changed……

And the only thought that constantly invades my mind is “I am not the man I should be, I’m also not the man I need to be, and neither am I yet the man that I know I could be, but thanks God that I’m not the man I used to be!!!” For this reason: JUSTICE IS MY PASSION