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. 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.
Through his participation in the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network he works to change unjust policies and practices in the criminal justice system. 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, The United Nations, and at the American Justice Summit where he discussed the cycle of incarceration with Nightline News anchor Ju Ju Chang.
In addition to recently becoming a 2015 Opportunity Agenda Fellow, Johnny recently collaborated with The Guardian to 6’x 9’, an immersive solitary confinement virtual reality experience which was accepted into this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
He expects to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at St. Francis College while also completing his first nonfiction book: Prison: The Upside Down Kingdom (working title). Connect with him via http://mrjohnnyperez.weebly.com
You can also connect with him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/johnny-perez/95/503/202/
Faith is the belief in things yet to be revealed. It's also a mandatory ingredient for those who are in search of greatness. It is no wonder, then, why so many people who set out to succeed fail. It's not easy to believe in something so wholeheartedly (in the face of contradictory evidence or no evidence at all) yet continue to behave as if what you believe to be true actually is true. I strongly believe in the deepest corners of my heart that I can achieve ANYTHING my heart desires. This belief is so strong that I refuse to acknowledge anything to the contrary. If you believe in your own greatness, efficacy, ability, and capabilities to the same degree in which I believe in mine, then you know no truer words have been spoken. This ideology is what has allowed me to survive thirteen years of incarceration. I hope people who are directly affected by social injustice find the own voice they desperately need to invoke complete systemic change through my efforts. I am only one of millions!
I was born in Havana, Cuba in 1979 at the height of Fidel Castro’s reign over the country. A year later, after being given the opportunity to start a new life in a new country, my mother (only 18 years old at the time) migrated to the U.S. She carried my one-year-old self in her arms, leaving our entire family behind. I don’t know exactly when I was seduced by the same streets that raised me, but I know I was young- maybe eleven or twelve. My first crimes involved stealing cars then taking them out for joyriding. A “friend” and I would carjack people and drive until the gas ran out, then steal another one to get us wherever we were headed. After a few stints in D.F.Y. (Division for Youth), I eventually stopped stealing cars and moved on to selling drugs. In a sense, I fooled myself into believing that I was doing something new; in actuality, I was simply seeking a similar way to continue earning easy money. Years later, I would learn Albert Einstein defined insanity by doing the same thing and expecting different results.
I sold drugs in order to buy myself the expensive clothes I valued so much and that my mother could not afford on her McDonald’s salary. I could never fathom how much enabling users to hurt or kill themselves affected me, but I suspect I sold a bit of my soul along with every inhumane dime bag. Eventually, the relationship between my mother and I deteriorated, and I decided to run away (it wasn’t the first time). As a homeless thirteen-year-old, I completely gave into the allure of a criminal lifestyle. I had no supervision or responsibilities, and I was armed with nothing but the influence of my so-called friends to help me navigate the city labyrinth. 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 believed I could get away with committing crimes despite all the daily obstacles proving the contrary. At one point, I spent one year getting arrested and released almost every month. 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 rob people of their property.
On November 28, 2000, two days after my daughter was born, I was arrested for armed robbery in the first degree. A year later, I was sentenced to fifteen years in a New York State prison. I was twenty-one at the time. I developed a relationship with myself during my stay in prison. When you’re locked in a cell long enough with no one to talk to, eventually you’ll end up having conversations with yourself. There was no escaping the demons that constantly chased me, and I could no longer hide behind a haze of smoke. As a result, I had to face the person I had become despite being disgusted with myself for the way I mistreated my family, friends, and complete strangers. My destiny seemed to be the opposite of what my mother expected when she fled Cuba with me in her arms.
There are three events that 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 Harlem convenience store; and reading As A Man Thinketh by the great philosopher James Allen. I learned that I, and only I, am in complete control of my actions. No one, thing, or circumstance, was responsible for how my life had turned out. The world as I knew it shifted with this discovery.
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 started seeing opportunities in areas that were previously a challenge for me- stepping stones where I only saw road blocks. I began to see things in the world that I would have never known existed, although they’ve been right before my eyes throughout my entire life. Inside that cramped 6 by 9-foot cell, I argued the meaning of life with Socrates, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., mourned with Holocaust survivors, compared cheesecake recipes with Martha Stewart, and cried with Trayvon Martin’s mother.
It has been one year since I was locked in that human cage, staring at a barbed wire fence and dreaming of breaking through, never looking back. So much has changed……
Now the only thought that constantly keeps me up at night is, “I am not the man I should be, I’m also not the man I need to be. I am not yet the man I know I could be, but thank God I’m not the man I used to be!”