Johnny Perez, 37, spent 13 years in jail, including three in solitary confinement. He was sent to the isolation room six or seven times in different prisons.
“You have to mentally, psychologically prepare yourself,” he said. “It’s like psychological warfare in there. The lights stay on all day. There are people screaming on the walls.”
Perez, a Bronx native, works for the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm, as a non-attorney advocate. In this role, he shares his story with national audiences and pushes for changes in the law.
Perez spoke about the toll isolation has on a person’s mind, especially when many prisoners spend up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.
“You end up acting like everybody else,” he said. “You end up screaming, kicking the doors like everybody else, things of that nature.
“After a while, you get comfortable with the space,” he added, “and get uncomfortable when you’re not in the space.”
He said that’s what happens when people adapt to their environment and there’s nothing they can do to get out of it.
“Sometimes people adapt so well that they’re unable to un-adapt afterwards,” Perez said.
Perez said he believes reform will hold correctional officers accountable while keeping prison treatment humane. Changes to the law, he said, will actually empower officers to help prisoners more.
“We’re actually trying to empower them by giving them a tool in which they can empower and educate people,” Perez said, “and give them the services and resources they need to be productive citizens and make more responsible decisions.”