When he was 15 years old, Xavier Perez, director of criminology at DePaul University, admired the makeshift graffiti that decorated the wall of his cell in a juvenile detention center.
He remembers that he was swelling with pride at that moment and thought that if he continued on his path, he would finally get to meet the chiefs of his gang. But in the back of his mind, an unwelcome thought emerged.
“At that same moment, something occurred — something I don’t think I would have ever welcomed — this thought of, like, ‘Is this it? What’s next? What happens after I do go to prison and meet the people I want to meet?’ And I just didn’t have an answer for that,” he said.
Once he began asking himself those questions, they never left his mind — but he did not change his life all at once.
Perez said it took two to three years before those thoughts became goals, and later, reality.
In those years, he still “went looking for trouble” on the streets, was shot at and ended up at local police stations six times for offenses from gang banging to joyriding.
He only ended up in a juvenile delinquent center once, though, and each time he got into trouble after that, he said he thought of the consequences more and more.
“It began that day in that cell,” Perez said of the time he was incarcerated at 15. “I knew where [that] path was going to go, but I never knew where this could go. Something about that was scary, but also comforting— just having faith in the unknown. And the unknown has taken me here.”
A few years later, he started to listen to his teachers and advisors, looking toward the future. He was accepted to many college programs but chose to attend school away from the city, recognizing that the street life he hoped to leave behind would be “too tempting” if he stayed downtown.
“The key has always been education,” said Perez, who is now 44. “It always allowed me to think beyond my immediate reality. When I was young, I would write these fantasy stories. I think I was just always looking for an escape.”
Perez is the only one of his three living siblings — all sisters — to have graduated from high school. His brother was killed in 1995 during a home robbery.
Today, he has three degrees: a bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice, both from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He uses his background to enrich his teaching and co-directing of DePaul University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.
The program pairs college students and people in jail so they can take college classes together behind bars.
The Inside-Out program started at Temple University in 1997 to open dialogue addressing crime, justice and other social issues between incarcerated (inside) and non-incarcerated (outside) students, according to the program’s site.
At DePaul, classes are offered at the Cook County Jail and at Stateville Correctional Center and range from political science and religious studies to community service and theater.
Perez said that while there is a common misunderstanding that these courses might be less rigorous, they are taught just like any other class at DePaul and the students work just as hard.
“In my experience, I’ve found that individuals who are taking the class from the inside are very committed,” Perez said. “In some ways, this is a part of their sort-of path of redemption.”
The students learn the coursework, but most of the class’s value comes from the classroom dynamic, which some students who have participated in the program say is transformative.
“A really powerful exercise I had to do my first class in Stateville prison was we had a partner and we had to stare into each other’s eyes,” said Shelby Klingberg, a 2019 DePaul graduate who majored in Peace, Justice & Conflict studies and took the classes as both a student and teaching assistant while in school. “[It was] really just about seeing the person in front of you solely for who they are. We all have made our mistakes.”
For Perez and the students, taking classes alongside the inside students offered a personal perspective on the criminal justice system.
“I think one of the concerns I have with the way the criminal justice system operates is that it’s very retributive,” Perez said. “When you ask people about ‘What is justice?’ you hear these sort of comments like, ‘We’re going to apply our justice,’ ‘They’re gonna deserve justice.’ In some ways, you could replace ‘justice’ with ‘vengeance.’”
Klingberg said that she and other students witnessed this mentality in action each week as officers berated the inside students while the outside ones waited to go into their class.
“Another powerful moment was how willing the guys on the inside are to share their experiences, their troubles, the injustices they face while they’re inside,” she said. “And seeing the kind of treatment that the officers give— we’ve heard many times, ‘They don’t know how to read. Why are you here? They’re not here to learn.’”
But Perez said he is grateful to be able to open these conversations and hopeful for the future of the program.
“Look at my experience— if someone was to judge me when I was 15 years old or 17 years old, I don’t think that they would ever have thought of where I am today,” he said. “If there’s something I am happy about, it’s that I am able to honor the people who took a chance on me.”
Published by Chicago Tribune’s HOY Media, July 9, 2019