Johnny Perez: Fighting to Survive

He said, “Johnny, you’re going to the butcher
shop.” I said, “Butcher shop? What- what do you mean. What do you mean am I going to the butcher
shop? What – what are you going to house me in the
kitchen?” I was 16 years old and I was, uh, arrested
for gun possession. And if you’re wondering why a 16-year old
would be carrying a gun it’s because in my neighborhood we could not, y’know, call police
officers. We find our ways, we find ways to police ourselves. And there I was sitting in RIker’s Island,
uh, I always heard about Riker’s Island but had never been there. And the correctional officer says, “Perez,
you’re going to the butcher shop.” I said, “Well I didn’t know that they had
mattresses inside of the kitchen.” He said, “No, the butcher shop is actually
the housing area what you’re going to.” I said, “Well, why d- well, why do they call
it the butcher shop?” He said, “Well they call it the butcher shop
because this is where most of the sl- most of the slashings in this jail happen.” I don’t know what was more disturbing to me
at that time. I don’t know if it was the fact that this
information was coming from a correction officer or the fact that he said it with a smile on
his face. So when I got there – if you’ve never been
to jail, you- you- you would be surprised to know, well not surprised to know, but,
um, if you’re not gang-affiliated then you’re going to have a hard, you’re going to have
a hard time in jail. And in prison. And I was not gang-affiliated, and at the
time Riker’s Island was, uh, a place where, uh, you, wh-wh-, where every- almost everyone
was gang-affiliated. And as a result, I found myself having to
fight. A lot. I fought for my commissary, I fought for my-
to keep my sneakers. I fought to keep the jacket that I had. More important I fought for my humanity, my
dignity, my- my- my sense of self worth, my sanity. And I even fought for the phone. Because see if you’re not gang-affiliated
then you can’t use certain phones. “See this phone belongs to the Bloods, this
phone belonged to, uh, the- the Crips, this phone belongs to the Latin Kings, and you,
since you’re neither of them, you can’t use the phone.” “Well, I need to call my lawyer.” “Well. I’m sorry, you cannot use the phone. In fact, if you want to use the phone, you
have to pay to use the phone.” I swung on him and hit him first. Later on, the-the-the, the, the hearing officer
said, “Well why did you swing on him?” See and I knew that I could not really explain
why exactly that I swung on him. I can’t- I couldn’t  understand – I couldn’t
explain to him that if- if- if I had allowed that to happen that I would even have even
more problems down the line. That, y’know, uh, I only weighed about 175
pounds, and this person had to weigh at least 200 pounds. And more importantly I couldn’t explain to
him how I needed to call my lawyer because I don’t understand anything about the legal
system that I was about to enter. So at 16 years old, I was sentenced to 60
days in solitary confinement for having a fight in- in RIker’s Island. And when you’re there it’s quiet, it gets
so quiet that you can hear your heart beat. Sometimes it gets so loud from the cacophony
of different people just yelling, screaming, laughing, singing, crying. The cell is small. SO small that if I stretched both of my hands
out I could touch both walls. It gets so hot in the summer that the walls
start to sweat. It gets so cold in the winter that you try
to cover yourself with the 2 blankets they give you but even that’s not enough, so you
put all your clothes on and even that’s not enough. You try to put your head underneath the covers
but you’re woken up every hour on the hour because for security reasons the correction
officer needs to see flesh to make sure that you esc- that you didn’t escape from a cell
in which there is no escaping from. You try to look out the window but the cell
doesn’t have no window. You haven’t seen the sun in about 60 days. There’s no mirror inside of the cell so you
forget what you look like. And then you get a visit. But because you were the aggressor that means
that you have to be handcuffed at the waist during the visit. And that was hard. Because see how I had to explain to my mother
why it was that I was handcuffed at the waist, had to explain to her why I could not hug
her. And for me, I couldn’t understand. See I couldn’t understand why I was not allowed
to hug the same woman who had pushed me into existence. I could not understand what I had did so wrong
to be able- to put me in a space where I had to constantly, constantly, I- I either slept
all day, cried all night. Where I asked myself why, where I recited
every lyrics of every song that I’ve ever heard. Where I- I fantasize about what I would do
if I won the lotto, how I would buy- how I would bail everyone out of Corr-out of, out
of, out of Riker’s Island, how I would somehow buy Riker’s Island and fire every single correction
officer. And then I also couldn’t understand why the
first 2 weeks of my time there, I- I could not, I- I- I was not given any food. Later on I came to understand that the person
who was giving out the food was another person who was doing time just like me, and he belonged
to the same gang of the person who I fought, and therefore, his retaliation was not to
give me breakfast and lunch for the first 2 weeks. And I couldn’t tell the correction officer
because in jail or in prison or in any correctional setting you cannot tell on someone. Because once you’re labeled a snitch, then
you’re more likely to be victimized, you’re more likely to have this kind of treatment
perpetuated throughout your entire sentence. And then eventually, one day, they open the
gate and they let you out. And you come back into the same society in
which you left. And everyone just keeps on as if nothing happened. And you don’t really understand how it damaged
you until you become older, until later on you get arrested at 21 years old and you-
you’re eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison, and you end up doing 3 years in solitary
confinement. And you try to make sense of it. But sometimes you don’t- you can’t make sense
of it. So you rely on your experience and you share
your story to raise awareness. And you say, “Yeah, I did have something to
do with that, and yes I do take responsibility, and yes I do take remorse, but we also have
to look at the environmental factors and why I did what I did.” And on the surface it looks like robbery,
but then upon closer inspection, it’s a criminal solution to poverty. And then you hope, and you hope, that when
you share your story, that it allows people to- that to- to, to practice empathy and to
place themselves in your shoes and to wonder, what would they do if they were you?

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