Johnny Perez is the Director of U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an organization focused on ending U.S.-sponsored torture, and in particular, the eradication of solitary confinement. A number of us at The Lives of Men have encountered Johnny as he tirelessly works toward reform and speaking out for the men of color who — just as he did for 13 years — existed within the harsh landscape that is the criminal justice system. We’re more than proud to have him share his perspective and wisdom with us -- and you.
When was the moment you realized you wanted to follow your path?
Upon my release, I volunteered to speak to youth at the Police Athletic League who had criminal justice involvement. These were kids who were just like me when I was 16 years old, trying to navigate a confusing world which did not value me or empower me to become great. I shared my journey of incarceration with them and allowed my vulnerability to become a strength in those conversations. I connected with them instantly.
Their questions echoed their fear, confusion, and lack of understanding of the larger world beyond the neighborhood they grew up in. I became a regular volunteer facilitator and, to this day, many of them still call me for guidance. It was in those conversations where I came to realize that our society needed people like me to lead; to use the wisdom of my experience to teach, to compel, to enact change. In a sense, my path chose me.
And, what were some of the obstacles you encountered?
The obstacles I encountered are the ones I still encounter today:
Collateral consequences of having a criminal record. Many times it is not as obvious as people may believe. It can be as simple as a prejudgement of who I am. My character has been questioned long before I have had an opportunity to introduce myself. I went on 50 job interviews where I believed I was the most qualified candidate and every time I left emotionally defeated.
Backward ideologies centered on racism. Many people believe criminality is not learned, but inherent, intrinsic at birth. They never take into account the environmental factors which influence people to apply criminal solutions to poverty, violence, systemic oppression, and institutionalized racism.
What would you say are the successes and shortcomings of the media's portrayal of men of color?
Shortcomings include the shortage of positive representations of men of color, besides being portrayed in a negative light. I rarely see men of color portrayed as leaders, fathers, owners, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors. When it does happen it is usually by networks which are targeting the black community like BET, for instance. The news usually fails at this as well, by portraying us as criminals or highlighting irrelevant facts to the news story. When another innocent black man is shot by a white police officer there is usually a fact about the victim's criminal record if he or she has one … The list goes on.
What is a current topic or news story that most resonates with you at this moment?