SCI Adult in Custody’s Art Skills Bring Staff and Incarcerated People Together

This article was written by Sergeant Shawna Bronson, who has worked for the Oregon Department of Corrections for 23 years. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

AIC Pedro Perez

Adult in Custody Pedro Perez came from a crime-ridden family, multi-generational at that. At a young age, he learned how to handle drugs and witnessed violence perpetrated by his own mother. Criminal ways and gangbanging were the norm. Perez’s father was in prison and his mother supported her family the only way she knew how—selling drugs and invading homes. A criminal mentality was instilled in Perez early in life, and at the age of 13 he found himself sentenced to 4-5 years of juvenile detention with an aggravated assault conviction. Perez explained he had so much anger and rage that he turned to gang activity as an unhealthy outlet for these emotions.

Perez started his first adult incarceration at the age of 19, having received five years for an armed robbery conviction. He was released from the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2006. Perez moved to Oregon in 2007 but couldn’t leave his criminal mindset behind—eventually landing himself at the Oregon Department of Corrections for 10 years on Felon in Possession of a Firearm and Robbery II charges.

Perez has said that he was so entrenched in a life of crime that it took the birth of his son to “break the concrete around my heart.” After deciding to break free from the criminal element, Perez set some new goals. He no longer wanted to continue the cycle of crime, and is now working to develop a non-profit organization to help at-risk youths who were making the same mistakes he once made. Perez has aptly named the project “Fountain of Youth.”

A photo of the mural completed by AIC Perez

Perez plans on making a future in the tattoo world. He is used to painting murals and drawings of muscle cars, low riders, and choppers as that is his typical style of artwork. While his Physical Plant Supervisor Mr. Burton was on vacation, the idea was floated to paint something Mr. Burton would love and appreciate, and Perez was very much onboard. “Mr. Burton interacts with us as humans and treats us positive like a real leader,” Perez shared. Mr. Burton served in the United States Marine Corps and completed 3 tours in Iraq as an Infantry Squad Leader, so it was decided to paint Mr. Burton’s office door with the United States flag, bald eagle, and the words “Proud To Be.” Perez poured everything he had into the project, hoping to convey his respect for Mr. Burton and his service to this country.

I asked Perez if this was his first patriotic art piece, and he said it was. I asked him how that made him feel, and Perez simply stated, “Hella proud.” He said he enjoyed when other staff stopped by to see how this tribute piece was coming along, enjoying the smiles and stories from other staff with military experience. This project for Mr. Burton turned into something more—there was something in it for all of us at SCI in some way. Whether you served in the Armed Forces or not, whether you were incarcerated or staff. When Mr. Burton returned to work that morning and entered the Physical Plant he stopped in his tracks, speechless. He said he felt overwhelming pride and nearly shed a tear. That was the best compliment Perez could have received. When I asked Perez how he was feeling about his future he said, “It’s not going to be easy or fun. I’m going through hell to get to where I need to be. But I’m ready.” Perez is set to parole from prison in 2022.