Johnny Perez said that no one ever “gets out of solitary,” but rather, that you survive solitary.
Perez, who now works as a mental health advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s mental health project, spent three years in solitary, 60 of those days as a juvenile on Rikers Island when he was sent there at 16.
The advocate served as a panelist on Thurs. July 21 at the Free Library of Philadelphia for the opening ceremony of “In Justice,” an exhibition of photos and stories from juvenile kids in solitary. The photos were taken by Richard Ross, a photographer and art professor at University of California Santa Barbara.
“I’m waiting for my mom to come get me. Is she in there? I want to go home. I got in trouble at school today,” read the description of a photograph of a 10-year-old in solitary.
In the middle of the exhibition, there is a replica of a cell.
On its walls it reads, “I am human” and “I remember counting the bricks on the wall.” The replica was created by Evan Thornburg, a project manager for the Mural Arts Program.
“It is 8 by 6 which is the size of the [solitary] cells on Rikers Island specifically to hold teenagers,” said Thornburg, who designed the exhibition based on the measurements of a Rikers Island solitary cell.
Jessica Feierman, the associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, introduced the panel following the exhibition. The Juvenile Law Center was founded by four Temple alumni in 1975. One of the founding members, Marsha Levick, was a panelist at the event as well and holds the positions of deputy director and chief counsel with the organization.
Levick is a nationally recognized expert in juvenile law, who spearheaded the litigation on the “kids for cash” scandal in Pennsylvania.
“We recognized that kids were a marginalized population with no voice in our legal system,.” said Levick on founding the Juvenile Law Center.
Many solitary confinement cells have no mattresses or sheets, only a steel bed, a toilet and a sink.
“To have young kids locked in solitary confinement because you don’t know how to properly deal with their behavior is unconstitutional,” said Dawan Williams, Guild Coordinator for the Mural Arts Program.
The discussion was moderated by Solomon Jones, host of “Wake Up with WURD” on 900 AM radio who discussed the case of Khalif Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island at 16.
Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, two of which were in solitary. After his release, he died by suicide due to the trauma he suffered in isolation.
President Obama banned solitary confinement of juveniles in federal jails, citing research that included panelist Naomi Goldstein a professor of psychology at Drexel University and an applied researcher and director of the Juvenile Justice research and reform lab at Drexel University.
“As a child it is very hard to imagine the future, everything is in the moment, this inducement for many people is a very traumatic experience, the symptoms of anxiety and depression and hopelessness and fear that come out of it are really quite terrible and can have short and long-term impact,” Goldstein said.
The exhibition will be on display at the Free Library of Philadelphia until Sept. 4.
Ayah Alkhars can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.