After serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s building a new legacy: a barber college

CHICAGO — For two decades, Juan Rivera never imagined a life after prison.

After he was sentenced in 1993 to life in prison for a rape and murder he didn’t commit, Rivera spent nearly 20 years behind bars at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.

“I learned in prison to never think about tomorrow, only about today,” he said. “Tomorrow is never promised to you.”

Before court appearances, Rivera, now 48, visited the prison’s barber shop for a fresh cut. Bobby Mattison, a prison guard and barber shop coordinator, would use him as a “mannequin” to practice new styles at what was then one of the first licensed barber colleges at a U.S. state prison.

Rivera and Mattison built a friendship and sometimes talked about opening a barber school together. But Rivera couldn’t bring himself to dream of it.

“I thought I was never going to go home,” he said. “You hear how everyone has hopes and dreams, but I had none.”

Juan Rivera stands for a portrait outside Legacy Barber College in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL on May 25, 2021. Juan Rivera was wrongfully convicted of murder and has used his settlement money to open a barber college in Chicago. (Photo: Max Herman, For USA TODAY)

But things changed in 2012 when Rivera’s conviction was overturned and he later won a $20 million settlement. He took that money and with Mattison, turned their dream into a reality: a barber college to train and mentor young people in their community.

After moving to a new location during the pandemic, the two are now looking to expand their educational programs.

“There’s no one in the world who can say that they got a second chance at life the way I have,” Rivera said. “And I’m going to take full advantage of it so that I can help my community. I’m not going to look at my past and be bitter. I’m just looking at my present and my future.”

Released after 20 years

Rivera was previously convicted three times in the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan, Illinois, even though law enforcement records showed that Rivera was on electronic monitoring at his home miles from the scene, according to Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

According to the center, all three convictions rested primarily on uncorroborated confessions from Rivera after “hours of grueling interrogation.”

Finally, in 2009, DNA testing eliminated Rivera as a suspect, and each of his three convictions were overturned.

Rivera’s case became one of the most infamous wrongful conviction cases in the Chicago area, and Rivera was allowed to walk free in January 2012.

Rivera heard the news of his release as he tried to sleep after a late shift in the prison cafeteria. His cellmate called his name, telling him to turn on the TV. More people started yelling for him to wake up. When he turned on the news, Rivera saw that the court had just reversed his case.

After being imprisoned for almost two decades, he would finally be a free man.

Three years later, Rivera was awarded a $20 million settlement for the wrongful conviction from the city of Waukegan, Lake County and other governmental bodies. It was one of the largest wrongful conviction settlements in the state’s history.

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‘More than just learning to cut hair’

A year later, he got a call from his now close friend, Bobby Mattison.

Mattison had found the perfect spot for their barber college, and with some funds from Rivera and through partnerships with local schools, the two opened Legacy Barber College in 2016.

Juan Rivera stands for a portrait near his barber's station at Legacy Barber College in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL on May 25, 2021. Juan Rivera was wrongfully convicted of murder and has used his settlement money to open a barber college in Chicago. (Photo: Max Herman, For USA TODAY)

The school trained 10 students in its first cohort and 32 more in its second. After being closed during the pandemic, the two opened a new location earlier this year in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood with the goal of giving young people caught in the justice system a path toward success.

“If I had these opportunities growing up, God knows where I’d be,” Rivera said. “But now I want to lead by example. I want these students to be proud of who they are.”

Legacy Barber College partners with a local high schools and community colleges, including Evanston Township High School and Oakton Community College, to offer programs and college credits.

The barber school teaches the fundamentals: the history of barbering, the structure of faces, sections of hair. After learning from the textbook, students use mannequins and then live models. But the curriculum also includes financial literacy, entrepreneurship and customer service.

“It’s more than just learning to cut hair,” Rivera said. “This is a mentorship program. It’s to motivate the students to pursue whatever they want to in life.”

Abdul Kabir, the LBC’s director of education, said the school offers vocational training for students but it centers around preparing young people for the future, regardless of if they want to become barbers or not.

“The goal is to uplift people within our community through education,” he said. 

The school has one teacher and 15 students, who are mostly high school or college-aged. But Rivera is hoping to hire two more teachers to serve the next cohort of more than 40 students.

Building a legacy

Among the next cohort is 22-year-old Juan Robles, one of Rivera’s family friends who helps around the shop. Robles said he looks up to Rivera, and described him as humble, the life of the party and always having a smile on his face — even when he’s mad.

Robles said Rivera will often pick up a broom and sweep up trash left on the street.

“Most of all, he cares for his community,” Robles said.

When Julissa Burgof, 37, first heard about Rivera’s story and his vision during a visit to the shop, she turned down an opportunity with another barbering program to be a student at the LBC.

She said you can see his passion for helping the community. 

“He could have easily just taken his money and left but instead he used it to give back to the community,” she said. 

After earning her barber license, Burgof plans to train to be a barber instructor at the LBC.

Part of Rivera’s role at the LBC is mentoring students, telling his story to help them through their own obstacles. He recounts how difficult his first few years were in prison.

Due to the nature of the crime he was accused of, Rivera said he was often targeted. He was stabbed twice. He switched from cell to cell. And in response, he felt himself becoming more aggressive.

“When I first went in as this 19-year-old kid, I was angry at the world,” he said. “I was bitter.”

“But after that time, I chose to be different,” he continued. “I chose to do something different in life than becoming the monster they portrayed me to be in the news.”

What changed him was education, he said. While in prison, he got his GED and a paralegal certification. He learned how to be a masseuse, a cook and a landscaper. He learned Hebrew. And he began studying to be a barber.

“I was in hell. And I survived that,” he said. “So I tell the kids, ‘If I can survive that, you can survive whatever comes your way.’”

Juan Rivera poses for a portrait with his family friend, Juan Robles (left), inside Legacy Barber College in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL on May 25, 2021. Juan Rivera was wrongfully convicted of murder and has used his settlement money to open a barber college in Chicago. (Photo: Max Herman, For USA TODAY)

Rivera wants to open more barber colleges across the city and maybe someday one in a prison. He said Legacy Barber College is named for the legacy he wants to leave for his three young children and for his community.

“I don’t want to be remembered as just the guy who was wrongfully convicted,” he said. “I want to be remembered by the work I’m doing, by my school.” 

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

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