Johnny Perez served time in and out of jail from the time he was 16. From 16 to 21, he was in and out of Rikers Island in New York City.
At 21, he went to prison for robbery. He spent time in 7 or 8 different prisons -- Upstate Correctional (he did a lot of solitary time there), Clinton, Downstate, Rikers, and Auburn. He served a total of 12 years and 10 months in prison.
He now has become an advocate for youth and someone who regularly does press and speaks with policymakers and politicians on how prison policy should change (and how it affects real inmates). He has done press on NPR and other national outlets. He was an advisor to The Guardian on their virtual reality (VR) Solitary Confinement piece (which debuted in April 2016).
As he puts it, "prison is an upside-down kingdom. It is a second-by-second attack on your soul."
Q: What was it like going to Rikers as an adolescent?
Perez: It was very difficult and it’s the same now. It’s gang-infested. You walk in and you literally have to decide which gang you’re going to join. You had Bloods, Crips, Kings, and traditional gangs, but also groups who moved like gangs -- guys who were all Christian, guys who were all Muslim. Even you had people who they banged together because they didn’t belong to any group, so they decided to stick together and they ended up being some kind of group by default. Being alone was not an option and increased the likelihood that would be victimized.
Adolescents can be cruel. Very cruel. Some people were made to sleep on beds without mattresses because this big tough guy decided he wants to sleep on two mattresses. Trying to navigate all of that -- different personalities, different gangs, just trying to make sure you don’t get cut. There was a lot of people getting cut left and right. A lot of gang initiations were that you had to cut somebody. So a lot of people would go into Rikers and come out of there with cuts on their faces.
So going through that -- and on top of that -- the fact that you’re in prison and you have this case you’re trying to fight. Which you might not even necessarily understand the charges against you. For myself, on Rikers Island for a gun charge, for gun possession, and I don’t know shit about the law. Nothing. Nothing at all.
You go to the people, and they go - yo, go to the law library. Trying to navigate the legal system from inside of prison. And Rikers Island is difficult. You have to be escorted everywhere. Sometimes if the cop doesn’t feel like taking you to the library, then you’re just not going to go. And he’ll say you were offered and you refused.
The fact that you’re fighting this case from the inside and don’t know anything about the law. You’re ignorant about the law, your lawyer is not responsive, you’re dealing with the gangs and all that. Then you got the correctional officers themselves who can be very abrasive. I’ve been in fights before and the C.O. was just sitting there watching. Or been assaulted by correctional officers. I’ve bought drugs from correctional officers, who then in turn threaten to put me in the box if I didn’t pay them on time.
If you were to strip everyone on Rikers Island naked -- take their badges away and all that -- you would literally not be able to tell the difference between who was the person being detained for a crime and the person who was supposed upholding the safety and order of the facility. You would literally not be able to tell.
In my experience, a lot of the hardship and injustice and whatever happened to you came at the hands of guards. Not even at the hands of other people who were incarcerated.
Because once you learn the culture and how to navigate the prison system as it relates to people doing time, time gets a little easier.
Q: Differences in prisons? Rikers versus Sing Sing?
Perez: Some jails are better than others. But at the end of the day, you’re still in jail. In some places, you get guys who have done 20, 30 years and they don’t want to be bothered -- retired gang members if you will.
Rikers is just so -- it has a deep-seated cultural violence. From upper level executive staff all the way down to the most lowest person on the totem pole.
In my experience with other prisons, with Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility (which is closed now) -- it was a pleasant experience, if I can use that adjective. I educated myself, I taught classes. Counselors were responsive. In that environment, you had the aging population I mentioned before -- and in that environment, people just want to go home -- that’s it. It’s over.
With Rikers, a lot of people are facing charges or just starting their sentences off. So get a guy who just gets sentenced to 20 years who might be a gang member, who just doesn’t care about anything. Just doesn’t give a shit. That person is going to behave different than someone who has already done 20 years and is about to see a parole board next year. And that reflects itself in the population as it relates to fights and violence and things that occur.
Q: Adolescents in adult prisons? 16 or 17 going to an adult facility seems dangerous.
Perez: At Rikers Island they separate the juveniles. But when they go upstate -- they’re housed all together.
I didn’t do prison time as an adolescent; I did it as an adult. But as an adult I can tell you I mentored a lot of the young kids coming upstate for the first time and there is that pool. So part of it is that some of the young kids that go upstate -- part of the danger is with gangs, they see young people as fresh recruits. The young kids believe what they’ve seen in movies and the media about prisons, so they think -- okay, I have to get a knife as soon as I get upstate. And the gangs feed off that. And they recruit them.
Another thing -- beside them being naive, no matter how smart they think they are -- there’s the sheer physicality of it all. A lot of these kids -- are like very small. And in prison -- I hate to say it -- but you have to be able to hold your own in a lot of senses. So you take a place like Upstate Correctional Facility, they were double-celling / double-bunking people completely different in height, weight, religion, race. So you can put a guy who is 6’3, 250 pounds in a cell with a younger kid who might be 17, 18 years old and weighs 150 pounds. The practice was supposed to stop on the books, but a lot of the officers to kind of get their kicks or whatever -- they might purposely put two people like this together.
Q: What was your first day in prison like? Do you remember it? (The first day you went to max.)
Perez: Specifically, the first day -- looking at the facility itself -- the Upstate Correctional Facility. It has five buildings, four of them are solitary and one is a workers’ building where the prisoners work. The place itself was imposing. All of the things that were fed to me by the media and the experience of being on Rikers for about a year before going up there -- I just thought ok, this is like Rikers to the 10th degree.
I walked inside the cell and I had my pillow and a little bag with toiletries and a towel and stuff like that -- and I was 21 and the person they put me in the cell with was 50. He was an older man. And he had already been in prison for about 20 years. The first thing he said was -- where you from?
Well, first you should know that -- he’s Puerto Rican and light-skinned. And for me -- I speak Spanish; I’m Cuban. But you wouldn’t know it. If you didn’t know I speak Spanish, you would think I’m African American. And I’m very dark-skinned. So his reaction to me -- under his breath he said something in Spanish -- he didn’t know I understood. In Spanish he said: “they put a Black guy here.” So I was like put off -- like oh shit, this might be a problem.
He was cordial. But he was really assertive in the way in which he spoke to me. He said: Where you from? I said: I’m from the Bronx, how about you? He said: I’m from prison.
I said: What do you mean you’re “from prison”? He said: I’ve done 20 years. And I’m going on my 21st year next month. Immediately I felt intimidated -- I mean this guy has been in prison for 20 years. And here I come, don’t even have a mustache yet. And I’m coming into what feels like his space -- even though it’s a double cell. It still feels like it’s his space. Even the bed I was supposed to be using, he had all of his clothes on it. So my side of the table, he had a whole bunch of stuff on. And he’s not moving anything. He was sitting on the bed watching the T.V. having a conversation with me and he’s not moving and neither is he looking at me. He’s watching the T.V. So finally I said: Which bed is mine? He said: That one. Pointed to it. I asked: This clothes are yours? Or did the last guy leave them? I knew they were his, but I was just trying to you know. He said: No, they’re mine. I’m going to move them in a minute. Wait til this show is over.
So I sit on the toilet because there was no other place to sit. So I sit on the toilet and wait. But what it was -- was a power thing. Like: I’ll move it when I want to move it. I don’t care if you’ve been on the bus for the last 8 hours or 9 hours. People ride from Rikers all the way to Malone County -- that’s like a 10 hour [ride]. So it was a power thing.
Finally he moved it and we had a conversation - oh is this your first charge? What are you in prison for? - that whole thing. I remember I was scared to ask him questions. I was like this guy is probably in here for homicide or killed somebody or something.
But we actually ended up becoming friends. He kept me out of lot stuff. He ended up protecting me from a lot of things. I remember one time -- someone tried to extort me, and he was like - no, don’t, leave him [that guy] alone. He taught me a lot of things. He was like - you got 15 years to do? You’re going to need to change a lot of the things that you do now.
And I didn’t realize how naive I was until he brought some things to my attention. He really taught me a lot about doing time. That was the first day upstate.
Q: I know you spent time in solitary confinement. How long?
Perez: I went to solitary the first time for testing positive for marijuana.
I did a total of 3 years. The longest period was 10 months.
The first time I went for testing positive for marijuana -- they gave me 90 days in the box and the first time I went I really didn’t start feeling it until a month later. But into the second month, that’s when the restlessness set in.
You can look out the window, but the window is facing a brick wall. The cell is very small. I was double celled at the time because they have double-cell solitary. Me and my bunkmate ended up fighting. I told him at one time: I know everything there is to know about you. And I’m not in the mood to talk right now.
He said some things. I said some things and we locked horns. But the funny thing was that we were fighting for like half an hour and the C.O. never came. And after we fought, we were still in the cell together.
It was a real difficult time. Food comes about 4:30pm in the afternoon. The next is breakfast at 7 o’clock in the morning. You get two books a week. I was at a point where I could read a book a day. I was fortune enough to have magazine subscriptions -- that’s what really kept me alive in a lot of ways. I had a bunch of magazine subscriptions that my family had paid for. So every week I was at least getting one or two magazines. Because intellectual stimulation in the box is key.
Even writing -- I can tell you right now -- the pen has enough ink for exactly 4.5 pages. After that, you’re on your own. I say that because I wrote a lot when I was in solitary. I kept journals for a lot of the years I was incarcerated. But paper and pens can be hard to come by.
Q: What did you most look forward to, on the day-to-day?
Perez: So when I got to Downstate Correctional Facility and I got my time computation sheet in October 2001 that told me I’m not going to be released until September 19, 2013 at the earliest -- I sat down on my bed and after I finished crying for an hour, I said, you know, I had to train myself to forget about the street.
Really seeing the confirmation in the form of paperwork and going through this whole process where they shave your hair and this whole dehumanizing process -- it set in. Okay, I am not going anywhere. Like this is it.
I remember what I ended up looking forward to every day were things -- like I got really involved in the prison population. I got a job at the law library, I went to workout, other times I had a job in the kitchen and these small little things are the things I would look forward to on the day to day.
On the weekly, I would forward to a visit that might be coming or maybe even a certain TV show that comes on, or the fact that there might be something out of the norm, outside of the redundancy that prison is.
Later in my bit, I ended up teaching classes and I looked forward to meeting with my class and teaching them and giving them exams and things like that.
Once I started going to college, I would look forward to going to class.
I never looked forward to going home until it got closer. I remember the exact day -- of the halfway mark. Like 6 and half years. And I remember thinking from this day on -- I’m counting down. And the idea overwhelmed me. That I was coming back to a society that I never even lived responsibly in as an adult. I never had a job or an apartment or a credit card or anything like. And I said I really need to prepare myself to come back to society. And a lot of that redirected what I was doing with my time incarcerated.
The last year -- the anxiousness of just wanting to get out was so overwhelming. At one point - I remember thinking, I should just go to the box for the last 8 months. I don’t know, because in certain jails people play what are called “set up games.” Where if a guy knows that you’re going home, he might put a knife underneath your mattress and go to the correctional officer and say: hey, this guy just tried to stab me, I’m scared to death. He flashed a knife on me.
So then the correctional officer will go search the cell. Find it, and that’s an automatic new weapon charge -- and you’re automatically doing more time. So people rarely talk about when they’re leaving, their release dates and things like that. And then -- there’s the fear if people find out. Even with the correctional officers themselves.
I might not like being in the box, but I know as long as I just stay my ass in the bed -- like I can make my release date. Because my biggest fear was losing my release date. Like they were going to come to me and say: Johnny, just kidding, you have to serve 5 more years.
Q: What most needs to be changed about the U.S. prison system? What would help it be better?
Perez: I think it’s that we don’t see people in prison as people.
Dehumanization is so deeply embedded in the system.
When you get to reception - they shave your hair, your facial hair, the hair on your head, they take all your clothes away, they make you jump in this cold ass shower, it’s like the coldest shower you’ve ever felt and you’re supposed to stand there and they spray you with this thing that supposed to get rid of lice if you have it or whatever. Then they throw this towel at you and then they tell you to get dressed. It’s like literally -- I remember sitting there watching this process. You have people who are walking around naked. And I’ve never been comfortable with showing my body off, you know? To complete strangers?
The hair - they’re going to cut - [the hair on your head], your pubic hair and your underarms. Now that I think about it, which I’ve brought up in the past with other journalists I’ve spoken to, if me - a 35 year old man - was to force a 16-year-old to take their clothes off and bend over and cough, not to be vulgar or whatever -- but I would probably go to jail for that. I would probably be facing some kind of legal consequences. But that’s what routinely happens -- before a visit, after a visit, during transfers, during cell searches. And you become so desensitized with having to take your clothes off -- after a while, you don’t even realize, you’ve internalized a lot of this stuff.
So being in that situation -- hey take your clothes, bend over and spread 'em -- you just feel so vulnerable in a lot of ways. And it’s so dehumanizing.
And the dehumanization is embedded in the policies, but it’s also embedded in the ideologies that a lot of the correctional officers have. And I’ve never been to a training for C.O.s, but I literally believe that they tell them: Yo, these are criminals and don’t worry about it and everybody did something to get here.
I’ve had C.O.s tell me: I can do anything I want to you. And nothing is going to happen.
And it’s reinforced when a C.O. does beat up somebody and they aren’t held accountable and you see them walking around like it’s nothing. So that reinforces the idea of [the correctional officer thinking]: I will literally kill you in here [a guard speaking to an inmate] and [it’ll be] nothing. It’s the idea [that C.O.’s have] of: I am justified because you broke the law. And if you really want sympathy and pity, then you never should have robbed anybody, Johnny. You didn’t have pity when you had a gun and demanded money from somebody or whatever.
These are the underlying issues.
So to change the system, I think we first have to change the hearts and minds of the people who run the system.
And we can do it in a lot of different ways. I think just recently it was talked about changing a lot of the language: “ex-con,” “felon,” “criminal,” “inmate,” “prisoner” -- and all these other adjectives. And instead just calling people what they are: people.
People used to ask me: If I don’t say “inmate,” then what am I going to say?
Well, say: People, people in prison, people doing time, criminalized people, people with justice involvement. People.
How prison sticks with you
Perez: When taking into account -- when the collateral consequences of having a criminal record are taken into account -- you realize that every sentence is a lifelong sentence, and that felonies are forever. You can go to prison for a year and you’ll be suffering the consequences of that involvement for rest of your life. Having this record. You are never really free from it. Never ever ever.
His biggest fears in prison
Perez: I had two of the biggest fears in prison. And I think I developed it in solitary. This happened around 2005, around Hurricane Katrina -- I don’t know if you remember that -- but in New Orleans, some of those correctional officers in those jails down there, they left. And they left people locked in their cells. And there were stories of people drowning inside of their cells. Because nobody let them out. So, one of my fears in solitary was that the C.O.s would just go home and not come back, and I would think: How would I get out of here? There’s literally no way of getting out and I would just die of starvation eventually. That was one fear.
And then the other fear that I had was -- I knew I had a release date since I went upstate -- I knew what my date was, but somehow that I would lose that date. Because there were people around me -- a good friend of mine, he went upstate with 3 years and ended up doing 20.
And I’m like: I do not want to come up here with 15 years and end up spending the rest of my life here. My life -- I was not made to live inside this human cage.
On policymakers and legislators
Perez: There’s a disconnect between policy and theory and policy and practice. And the reason for that is that the people writing the policies don’t know or rarely come in contact with the people who are affected by the same policies that they are writing. So there’s that disconnect. So in order to close that gap, you have to involve people who are directly affected by the system or have been in the system. Bringing them into the conversation as these policies are being formulated. Allow them to guide you and look at what needs to change, and allow them to look at what does this policy look like in practice. And not every legislator is open to that. They say - we have our data, we have our researchers, we have our educators. Except that none of them have ever done no time. Which makes reform even that much more impossible.