ROGERS PARK — Juan Rivera was fighting for his freedom from Stateville Correctional Center — serving a sentence for a rape and murder he didn’t commit — when he began to consider what his life would look like were he to be exonerated.
Before Rivera’s court appearances, he would go to the prison’s barber shop for a fresh cut. There, he struck up a relationship with prison guard and barber shop coordinator Bobby Mattison. As Rivera worked to clear his name, Mattison helped Rivera get his barber’s license and they talked about opening a barber school together.
Rivera’s conviction was overturned in 2012, marking a stunning end to one of the most infamous Chicago-area wrongful prosecution cases and leading to an unprecedented financial settlement. Nearly a decade later, he and Mattison are making good on their long-held dream, opening Legacy Barber College in April in Rogers Park.
Legacy, 1546 W. Howard St., seeks to give people caught up in the justice system and others a path toward a successful career and life.
“This started, believe it or not, in prison,” Rivera said. “I saw a need. We want to help the less fortunate. Because once they get out, they usually have nothing to fall back on.”
‘Why Not Go Back Home?’
Rivera, now 48, was convicted three separate times in the 1992 rape and stabbing of 11-year-old Holly Staker in suburban Waukegan. Each time, those guilty verdicts were overturned.
Rivera was exonerated for the final time in late 2011. An Illinois appellate court reversed his final conviction and barred Lake County prosecutors from trying Rivera again, allowing him to go free in January 2012 after nearly 20 years behind bars.
Rivera’s case was among several Lake County cases that collapsed because of DNA evidence that pointed to someone else’s guilt. Prosecutors were roundly criticized for trying Rivera a third time despite DNA evidence showing someone other than Rivera attacked Holly. A federal judge even ordered testing on a gym shoe used as evidence in the prosecution after Rivera’s lawyers said police doctored the evidence, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Rivera received a $20 million settlement from the state and Lake County municipalities for the wrongful conviction in 2015, one of the largest such payouts in Illinois history.
The Rogers Park barber college is the second iteration of Rivera and Mattison’s dream.
After Rivera was released, he considered starting over in California, but Mattison persuaded him to choose a local home for their barber college. The two opened Legacy Barber College in south suburban Glenwood in 2016.
That was seeded with $300,000 from Rivera, and it received funding through partnerships with local high schools and community colleges. But due to funding cuts, those partnerships ended, leading the pair to close the outpost, Rivera said.
In the meantime, Rivera bought a home in Rogers Park. He decided to relocate Legacy Barber College to his home neighborhood and has enlisted local schools to help.
“Rogers Park has treated me amazingly,” Rivera said. “I said, ‘Why not go back home?'”
Legacy Barber College has partnered with Evanston Township High School and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines to offer alternative programs and college credits. The college has also participated in Evanston Township’s career day, showing kids they can find a good career even if college isn’t an option, Rivera said.
Members of the public also can enroll in the school, Mattison said. Of Legacy’s 32 current enrollees, 24 are high school or college students and eight are community members. Students earn a barber’s license but are also taught about financial literacy, customer service and running a business, Rivera said.
“Not everyone is trying to go to college,” Rivera said. “We want to show it’s a career they can go in and have a productive life. It can be a stepping stone to better things in life.”
With 30 years working in the criminal justice system, Mattison said he knows how valuable education and training programs can be for people who have been in the prison system.
As a correctional officer at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Mattison took over the barber shop and made it one of the first licensed barber colleges in a maximum security state prison. After 23 years at Stateville, Mattison has worked the past seven years as the barber supervisor at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.
Knowing the opportunities a prison barber college can provide, Mattison said he wanted to offer the same thing for those at risk of being caught up in the justice system.
“We lock them up well, but what do we do to help them get back on their feet?” Mattison said. “I see these guys coming in and out. I knew I wanted to do something to help them.
“I say to these guys, ‘Hair care is a $50 billion industry. If you give a great cut and service, no one is asking about your background.'”
Legacy Barber College is open to the public for haircuts, and customers can get a discount cut from somebody seeking to get into the industry. While it is a college, Rivera said he wants Legacy to be like any other neighborhood salon or barber shop.
“We want the community to know it’s theirs, not mine,” Rivera said. “We want people to feel welcome and comfortable taking their kids and family here.”
Legacy Barber College is open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. For information on enrolling in the college, click here.
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