Angel Perez says it's important his children know that jail is a dreadful and dangerous place, not one he wants them to see - not even on a visit.

Perez, 42, was separated from his five children for a year while he served time for drug possession.

"I don't think kids should go to see their fathers in jail," said Perez, a custodian at a private school in North Philadelphia. "They might think, 'It's OK for me to go to jail.' "

A resident of the city's Kensington section, Perez, who has a son in jail, said he wanted to keep his four other children out of the grips of the criminal justice system and prison.

To help ensure they avoid jail, Perez is participating in Badge of Honor: The Project, a community art project designed to raise awareness and break the cycle of incarceration among Latinos and their sons.

The program is presented as an arts and education project connecting students, families, artists, mentors and community organizations.

Working on the project, which opens tomorrow and runs through June 8, are Temple University's Tyler School of Art, the Lighthouse community center, and Centro Pedro Claver, a community nonprofit organization.

The aim is to place about seven works of visual art throughout Latino sections of North Philadelphia, including community centers, businesses and homes to raise awareness of the disproportionate incarceration of Latinos.

The rate of imprisonment for Latinos is "about 50 percent higher than it should be," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington think tank on criminal justice policy.

"Nationally, 20 percent of the U.S. prison population is Latino. In society, however, Latinos represent 13 percent of the population," Mauer said.

According to Mauer and others, Latinos are incarcerated at about 21/2 times the rate of whites, and African Americans are jailed at a rate of about seven times that of whites. Latinos also tend to receive tougher sentences, Mauer said.

The war on drugs, racial profiling by police and the courts, language barriers, and lower education levels are factors fueling the problem, Mauer said.

Funding for the project - which pairs art students with families and community groups to create works reflective of those families - comes from grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Temple University.

The program is named after Badge of Honor, a multimedia work by Pepón Osorio, a professor and codirector of the Arts in Community Program at the Tyler School of Art.

The work will be featured tomorrow from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at a free opening reception for the project at the Lighthouse, 152 W. Lehigh Ave.

Osorio produced Badge of Honor in 1995 and it has been exhibited at numerous museums. It features two adjacent rooms, one a father's stark prison cell, the other a teen son's elaborately decorated, sports-theme bedroom.

Projected on the cell wall is video of an anonymous imprisoned Latino father. In the son's room is video of the son.

"I was thinking about how the community can contribute to the dialogue," Osorio said of the interaction between the two men.

Though the two figures appear to be having a conversation, Osorio said he showed video of the father to the son and vice-versa, to give the impression they were reacting to each other's comments.

"Being incarcerated gave the father the space to think and reflect. Jail is a place of reflection," Osorio said, adding that he hopes Badge of Honor "gives people a chance to think they don't need to be in prison to reflect."

Temple graduate student Rachel Schaffran was paired with restaurateur Rachel Rojas and Rojas' family to create a work for the project.

Rojas, owner of Mis Viejos restaurant at 153 W. Lehigh Ave., has a brother in prison. "This project is important because it is not unusual to have an incarcerated person in your family."

Schaffran's work, Una Lugar Para Mi (A Place for Me), will be exhibited at Mis Viejos. The sculpture is a miniature island house with yellow walls and a thatched roof. It is based on one depicted in an island-theme painting that is a focal point in the Puerto Rican eatery.

"This piece is about Rachel, her restaurant and her family," Schaffran said.

Julia Lopez, executive director of Centro Pedro Claver, who is a performance artist and poet, said the project was important because "youth are in crisis" due to violence and drugs.

"Families are being impacted by incarceration," Lopez said. The art project "helps give them a voice. This brings in the voice of the students and the family," she said.

Opening Reception

The opening reception for the "Badge of Honor" exhibit runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Lighthouse, 152 W. Lehigh Ave. Performance artists from Las Gallas Artist Collective will appear at 7 p.m.

The exhibit will remain open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m through June 8.

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Contact staff writer Vernon Clark
at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.