These days, in fact, Pérez spends much of his ceiling time "thinking about some arguments I want to make on an essay, thinking about writing." He's a member of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), an academic program offered by Bard College for men and women incarcerated in the New York state prison system. Pérez was awarded an associates degree in January, as part of BPIs 10th graduation.
The founder and executive director of BPI, Max Kenner, says it took Pérez four tries just to get into the rigorous program. Now he'll go for his BA, maybe even a Masters. But most importantly says Kenner, when he gets out, he's more likely to be "a middle class tax paying person, who is a neighbor, and a family member, and perhaps in time a father, and a full civic citizen who is living as fulfilling a life as possible."
Although Pérez will soon have a wife as well as a college degree, he can't entirely escape the reality of being in prison. He still spends a lot of time in the prison weight room, but he says his inevitable arguments with other inmates have taken on a different tone. One even started recently over disagreements about a German American political theorist. "We were talking about Hannah Arendt, working out one day, and it was a very, very vicious, violent argument. It was a spew of words. We were just attacking each other on what it means to be a human being and stuff like that. It was just crazy."
Still, his exposure to marriage and other normal societal outlets should make a difference when he leaves prison, says University of Maryland Professor John Laub, who teaches courses in criminology and criminal justice. In 2009, for instance, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that for ex-inmates, being married was associated with a 12 percent decrease in new crimes.
"If we are committed to successful re-entry, we should offer as many opportunities as possible for offenders to re-connect — or connect in the first place — to conventional institutions like education, family, and the like," Laub says. "In this way, the criminal justice system can facilitate turning points away from crime."
That doesn't mean the transition to family life on the outside is an easy one. Forty-three year old Chris (who declined to give his last name) is an ex-convict living in New York who was incarcerated for a total of 14-and-a-half years. During that time he met a woman, and eventually married her. When you're in jail, he says, relationships do make a difference. "It definitely drops violence. It definitely brings peace to somebody who is doing long time."
But when Chris was finally released, the foundations of his relationship were shaky. "The reason she was married to me was because she wanted to know where her husband was, Monday through Friday, until she was ready to see him every 31 days. That doesn't work in the real world when you're out. That's why my relationship went sour quick.