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Podcast Episode 9

Interview with Xavier Perez (Chicago)

December 16, 2019

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The ninth episode of the Inside-Out Podcast features Dr. Xavier Perez, who teaches criminology at Depaul University in Chicago. Perez was born in Quito, Ecuador, but came to the U.S. as a child. Despite early encounters with the juvenile justice system, he was able to to attend college with the help of mentors and community organizations. Professor Perez completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute in 2019. His Inside-Out courses bring together students from Depaul and Chicago’s Cook County Jail. To learn more about the history of Inside-Out programming at DePaul University, click here.

The Inside-Out podcast is hosted by Dave Krueger from The Inside-Out Center, the international headquarters of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

Episode Transcription:

Juwann Bennet: Hi, I’m Juwann Bennett and I teach Inside-Out courses at a state correctional institution through Temple University. Do you want your teaching to have a social justice impact? Do you believe that education should move us beyond the walls that separate us? Then you should apply now for our 2020 instructor training institutes. Locations include: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alabama, Illinois, British Columbia. We still have space available for our West Virginia in January 2020. To find out more, visit our website at or call 215-204-5163 That’s 215-204-5163.

Dave Krueger: In this episode of the Inside-Out Podcast, I speak with Xavier Perez, who teaches criminology at Depaul University in Chicago. Professor Perez completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute and now teaches college courses that combine Depaul students and students from Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

Xavier Perez: So for us to be able to walk into that institution – I experienced something that I would have never thought would have occurred and it was – The level of academic rigor that occurred in that setting was unlike anything I had experienced other than graduate school.

DK: I’m Dave Krueger from the Inside-Out Center, the international headquarters of The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program based at Temple University in Philadelphia. Stay tuned for the conversation with Xavier Perez after this word by Tyrone Werts.

Tyrone Werts: The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program facilitates dialogue and education across social barriers. Inside-Out courses bring campus-based college students and incarcerated students together in jails and prisons for semester-long learning. These courses ignite enthusiasm for learning, help students find their voice, and challenge students to consider what good citizenship requires. Since Temple University professor Lori Pompa taught the first class in 1997, Inside-Out has grown into an international network of more than 1,000 trained instructors from across the US and several countries. Prisons and universities have partnered to create opportunities for more than 38,000 inside and outside students to move beyond the walls that separate them. We are more than a program...we are changing the world.

(2:00) DK: Dr. Perez, thank you for speaking with us today.

XP: It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.

DK: Could you tell a little bit about your background and your story? I think you were born in Ecuador if I remember correctly, and then you moved to Chicago at a young age could you tell us a little bit about your journey?

XP: Okay so yeah, that’s right I was born in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador and lived there all the way up till I was about seven years old, about 2nd grade in which we came to the United States. From that part, it really sounds like the story of most immigrants coming to this country looking for opportunity. My father had already arrived here before me, and that's where my life kinda takes a spin from there. I really didn’t know my father very well, so I had no reference to who he was, ‘cause I don’t have no memory of my father when I was young. He left when I was two years old so I really don’t remember my father very well. So then when we arrived, immediately he was just not the person I had ever imagined. He was a very abusive man, he was very abusive towards us, and very abusive towards my mother. He wound up driving her away within a year after we arrived, my mother left. So we were there left at the hands with my father, and for the next five years, until I was 12 years old, we were under my fathers tyranny. His abuse eventually led us to come into contact with – In Illinois it’s the Department of Children and Family Services, and I don’t think he was fit to be a father, and certainly the abuse that was taking place in the household, the state felt that we were probably better off not being in his hands and under his care. So then we went into the ward system here, what we have for juveniles, we were wards of the state, or children under care. So for the next several years between I was 12 until I was emancipated, until I was 21 years old, foster homes and group homes, and juvenile detention centers, shelters. That was really my all of my adolescence at a young age, and it’s kinda difficult to capture these meaningful life moments in just a brief synopsis, but that's really kind of the story of where I began. I had the opportunity to go to school. I think something important that helped me was my ability to read and write, I used that as almost an escape to kind of imagine a world that was different than the world I was living in and so before I knew it I was performing very well on some of our standardized tests and doing good in class, but I was still always finding myself in trouble. With the help of a number of counsellors, and the help of a lot of community organizations, I was able to receive some really good guidance and apply it to school and find myself kind of on the other end, so to say.

(5:30) DK: I’ve heard you in other interviews talk a little bit about your experience with the criminal justice system in chicago. I’m wondering if you could tell a little bit about your experience of the system and how that was a part of what formed you?

XP: Oh sure, as you can imagine I was a young person without much guidance, I found myself under the custody of the state, just looking for places to belong, so what other place to belong than on the streets, right? So I got out there and I was hangin' with the guys on the corner and really found a place where I belong. And so obviously when you’re out there, sort of in the crosshairs of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, you’re gonna start coming into contact with them. I suddenly was doing, at a young age, some stuff I shouldn’t have been doing. Engaged, not only in that certain lifestyle, but also doing a little bit of minor crimes. I don’t think I was doing anything particularly major at that time period, but I was doing it enough, enough to get me in trouble. And so in one of those instances we had stolen a car, and then we got pulled over by a police officer and obviously we are minors, and then running our names through the system he found out I was a ward of the state so then he obviously took me in and separated me from my friends. Where as they were able to get picked up, I wasn’t able to get picked up. There was really no one there for me. So then I found myself in the juvenile detention center here at a young age, I believe I was about 15 at the time. Actually I felt very proud of myself, I think at that moment in time I envisioned a very different life than I do today. I envisioned a time in which – the rite of passage I think about what that really constituted. For me, the rite of passage is where it was simply getting yourself involved in street gangs, and getting yourself involved in that lifestyle, and eventually getting yourself arrested and going off into some sort of detention facility. So I felt like I was being successful, I felt like I was achieving the sort of goals that I had at that time period, and I found myself there, incarcerated and feeling very proud of myself. I was sort of looking at this, and it’s the “Ah ha!” moment. It didn’t occur overnight, the seeds of it were planted that day. And so I’m sitting there, looking at this gang graffiti in my cell, so I’m in this cell at a young age, and then just admiring the art. And I sat there and I kept thinking about just where I was at that moment, and I kept on thinking that I’m gonna go to the next step, eventually I’m gonna wind up in a prison and get to know some of the gang leaders that I had always admired at a young age. At that moment, another thought popped into my head, and I don’t know where it came from, and it had been a thought that I had never been able to get rid of, and it was the thought of like, “Is this it? Is this going to be the end of the line for me in one way?” that my life was just going to be in this box. And something about that just kind of – I don’t know if I was afraid or if a part of me felt like I just couldn’t accept it, I couldn’t accept that that would be it for me. I don’t think I became an Angel – I certainly didn’t become an Angel because that was, what, I was 15? I continued to be arrested and getting in trouble well into my teenage years, but I think something just – A seed was planted that started to grow, and it was this idea to try something else, to try some other path that was not determined for me. I felt like the life that was determined for me was a path of crime, and I knew that! I knew that by 25 years old I probably was going to be either in jail, and at the time I think I looked forward to that, I mean it was just kind of what the model was for me, those were the role models I had seen up to that point, but something inside of me told to just go into the unknown ‘cuz I really didn’t know what other paths there were – there were no other paths that were provided for me. Then I just kind of, from that point on, always thought about the consequences in some way. I still continued to get in trouble, but a part of me always wondered about like “If I do this, then where am I gonna wind up?” and a part of me just never was willing to accept that if I was going to wind up in prison, then that was the only thing. If I was going to wind up in prison, it was going to be my choice, it wasn’t going to be because that was the choice that was going to be made for me. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think that was ultimately what wound up happening that day when I had that moment. I want to be very clear, that it wasn’t like I just completely changed that day, it just meant that a seed was born that day and I continued to have those problems, and there were other circumstances in my life after that day that in which I came up to the same sort of circumstances, like I could continue down this path or go down some other path that was really unknown and then just have faith – have faith in the unknown that it was going to be better than what I was experiencing at the moment.

(11:25) DK: I’m curious about your journey of making your way to college. Were you thinking “I want to be a criminal justice professor someday?” Or something else? What was your experience of stepping into college for the first time?

XP: Well, no absolutely not. You know, I’m the only one out of my siblings that ever graduated from high school so the area that I was moving into was just a complete unknown and I certainly would have never thought that I would have been a criminal justice professor one day. I think I was just going into an uncharted area, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was cool. I think the connections that I had when I first came in – I probably just attribute it to programming. There was certainly some programs in place that helped young people, first generation, low income groups and so like the programs. The programs were monumental in my life. I always equated myself like almost as a baton, that I was passed along from one program to another. I was able to go into college because of this program called career beginnings that went into 3 of the most challenging schools in the city of Chicago. You had Orr, you had DeSalvo, and you had Roberto Clemente, which is my high school. In each of those schools it was just a challenge to get people to graduate, let alone go to some sort of university, so I think it was very much an alienating experience for me, for my undergrad. I’m proud to have attended a school, a top notch university, the university of Illinois here in Champaign-Urbana. But it was very isolating, it was a predominantly white, wealthy university and there weren't many Latinos or African Americans on campus. So there was no sort of belonging and I probably felt more isolated because, even of the groups that were there, the minority groups, many of them didn’t come from such extreme circumstances like I did, So I wanna say I particularly felt isolated during those years.

(13:42) DK: Could you talk a little bit about your first experiences of teaching after you finished your graduate studies? Did you start teaching at DePaul right away out of grad school?

XP: No I actually taught at Saint Xavier University which is a catholic institution here in the southwest side of the city, and because it was a social justice school, much like DePaul, then I think it allowed me to continue some of my exploration and allowed me really to continue some of my activism ‘cuz I really think of myself as a scholar-activist and so it allowed me to really advocate on behalf of marginalized groups and advocate on behalf of particularly people who come into contact with the crosshairs of the criminal justice system, you know like young people, young people of color, particularly males. When I have time in the summers we lead an institute, the summer long leadership institute here in Humble Park and so what that does is it teaches individuals about their rights when they are in the contact of law enforcement. And we’ve led those seminars throughout the city and we’ve conducted them through different communities and through different audiences and some of the newer iterations of it we do about issues of immigration, you know what are some of your freedoms if you are in contact with ICE agents? So I think that’s really what it does I’ve been able to use the knowledge that I have and the social networks that I have to almost empower communities, to provide them with the knowledge and to be out there at the forefront. I routinely go and attend, like what we have here is the community policing meetings and the community policing meetings can be particularly divisive because you have people who are there with very much stereotypes about young people, young minority males. And so I attend those forums to almost check peoples reality and check their stereotypes and check their racism at the door, so that’s what I’ve had a sort of liberty and privilege to do as a result of my graduate education.

(15:58) DK: It sounds like you’ve had a long history of caring deeply about engaging the community outside of the academy, which leads me to ask about your involvement with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. How did you come across Inside-Out and why did you want to take the training?

XP: Right, so ever since the first prison was constructed, that afternoon you could probably say that there were people really concerned with the way that we were going to treat individuals, and a part of me had always felt that in my classes. Although Penology wasn’t really my area of interest, it’s really more about policing of young minority males. I knew that was the end of the line, right? Ultimately that’s where the criminal justice system winds up. If you’re a young minority male then as you proceed through the criminal justice system you are going to wind up in prisons. So prisons were never far away, and when I spoke about my personal experiences, the juvenile detention center and prisons were never far away from my social consciousness. So then I always thought about those populations and always wondered about ways that we could truly serve them or ways that we could humanize the process. So I had always wanted to be able to teach about the inside, and the first time I was actually introduced to it was from a very good friend of mine, Latasha (?), she taught at Temple University and participated in the training, and then one of our conferences she was the one who really exposed me to it, and at that point I just became very much interested. When I had the opportunity to teach at DePaul and found out that they had an Inside-Out training then it was like a no brainer for me. I took the first opportunity I could and registered for it and the university was very supportive of me. I wanna say that I didn’t think about it right away throughout my graduate studies, but the criminal justice system is never far from our communities, you know? Like, you can hear the sirens of the police out there, you feel the presence of probation officers and parole officers and the city. So I feel like in many ways the criminal justice system is embedded into our communities, so you see this sort of cycling of people coming in and out of prisons into our communities and so then the sort of, next step that if I wanted to service young people then at some level I should also be servicing the individuals who are, unfortunately, incarcerated.

(18:48) DK: What was it like the first time that you taught an Inside-Out course? Could you tell us about the facility that you were in and maybe just some of your observations about bringing DePaul students into that facility?

XP: Well actually the very first time I entered an institution was actually as a guest lecturer with Dr. Chris Rivers’ class. You know the first thing that came into my mind, actually I was thinking about here in chicago is the maximum security prison and Illinois is Stateville Prison, and the first thing I thought about was maybe just some of the images that you have of Stateville, it’s a very famous prison. So you see all of this old footage about gangs in there and everything. And so, a part of you is almost a little nervous to walk into that facility. Obviously, walking into a prison even as guests make you wonder that this is an institution of almost just oppression, so to walk into that space is just very uneasy. So for us to be able to walk into that institution – I experienced something that I would have never thought would have occurred and it was – The level of academic rigor that occurred in that setting was unlike anything I had experienced other than graduate school. And that was what really surprised me. I sort of joke around with my friends who are high school teachers, ‘cuz I’ve guest lectured there too and oh my goodness, dealing with a classroom of teenagers is something of a challenge within itself, and I’ll tell them a hundred times over , “I would rather teach at Stateville at the maximum security prison long before I would ever teach at a high school ever again” because the type of engagement, the type of rigor that was present there, which is truly surprising, I don’t think – I think I had been prepared in many ways through my colleagues, and certainly after the training, had been prepared to kind of lead the class but no one told me that the type of engagement that you were gonna receive from the inside students was going to be unparalleled. It raised the standards so high that it made all of the other students elevate to that, and even to this day I feel like I’ve had some of my most intellectually stimulating classes come out of that environment. For me it’s kind of a strange thing to see that you envision this utopia in this environment in which there are clearly walls around you, but for those three hours that we are there then those walls seem to disappear and the space between us disappears and then really what you have is sort of just the potential to mine and the potential for people to think, and that is what surfaces and that is what comes out, and as a professor I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that.

(21:59) DK: In what way do you see the Inside-Out experience impacting folks and preparing them for reentry? Do you see it as having a helpful effect on people's lives, at building bridges to the outside world?

XP: Absolutely. I’m fortunate to be in an institution that we provide university credit to the Inside-Out students, so upon their release they’re going to have university credit from DePaul that can be accepted all throughout the world. I think about, in one way, we are trying to provide them with some sort of skills that they can be able to build on. In my most recent class we created these community asset maps where we had the inside students and the outside students work together to look at the gaps and services in certain communities and you know, who wanted to hear that? Well, the administration. The administration wanted to hear about the projects and so we’re trying to build a future project for them and maybe do a community asset map of the entire city, so I think about in many ways: that’s a graduate level course, that’s a graduate level program, that’s program evaluation in some level. And so then, I think if we provide them with these sort of skills then I think that they will be ready for it. Like I said, the type of education that I’ve seen in the Inside-Out program, the academic level, and the rigor is just unmatched. So, if we lived in a society that was more compassionate and allowed for re-entry then we could certainly equip individuals on the inside with the skills for them to be absolute leaders on the outside, you know? The intelligence, the capability, and the leadership that these individuals demonstrate – I think given the chance they could be some of the biggest policy makers. So I want to say that. The part of me that is disappointed is the part of society. Society is very retributive and doesn’t want to offer that sort of opportunity for redemption, but certainly what the Inside-Out Program is doing, and what DePaul is doing goes without saying. We are certainly providing the type of skills, and the leadership that these individuals will have upon their release back in society.

(24:38) DK: So Professor Perez, you’re trained as a criminologist, you think about societal impact, you think about the big picture. When we think about the estimated 38,000 students – Inside students and Outside students who have participated in Inside-Out courses over the past 20+ years, what kind of a large scale societal impact do you think Inside-Out is having or could continue to have in the world?

XP: You know I would love to see us having this policy impact, and you see it in certain areas in which you have individuals with this insider perspective, right? You have this insider perspective from people who are released and they’ve been equipped with these skills for them to engage in some sort of policy advocacy on behalf of other incarcerated individuals throughout society. I really think that they would have the opportunity to humanize the process, and to speak of a different perspective that many of us are not very familiar with. I think in many ways if academia was able to open up the doors it could welcome this new group of insiders who could be scholars, who could be policy makers. That’s where I think that the strength of it is, in many ways because the Inside-Out program operates through some of these universities. I think the strength is that the universities could really validate some of what is taking place, so some of the anecdotal information that we receive, we could actually quantify that in some ways and really measure the impact that this program is having throughout the country and maybe this is part of my anecdotal contribution is that, there’s something absolutely special about the Inside-Out program and about our ability to humanize this process and it’s something that’s very transformative and I’m looking for ways which we could turn that into policy. You have these think tanks throughout the country as well that are developing because people take on the Inside-Out program and want to take it to the next step and to creating advocacy for people, who are in many cases, just caught up in a system of injustice. So I think policy is one way and I think, in many ways, I think about them as providing some sort of role modeling to anyone else who is incarcerated. So I think not only can they provide the policy, but then they can go out into these communities and serve as agents of change as well.

(27:23) DK: Xavier Perez, thank you for speaking with us at the Inside-Out podcast.

XP: Thank you for having me again.

Podcast production assistance by Elijah Glovas-Kurtz, a student at Temple University.

Xavier Perez

Dr. Xavier Perez

DePaul professor turns life around, now teaches at Cook County Jail

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