I’ve seen what hope can do.
by Ron Pierce, #LwC2020
April 28, 2020
I served thirty years, eight months and fourteen days in New Jersey’s maximum-security prisons for a crime I committed when I was twenty-seven years old. I went into prison as an angry young man. I was 6-foot-1 and weighed 210 pounds. I could bench press 365 pounds four or five times in a row. Trained as a boxer and a Marine, I was a formidable force. But I was numb. My emotions were dead. I lived only for my motorcycle and the motorcycle club I had founded. But about five years into my sentence, while I was serving time in administrative segregation for getting into a fight with another man, I woke up one morning and looked long and hard into the mirror. I did not recognize the man in the reflection. Reflected back I saw all the men I had ever fought. I saw a man who inflicted pain because he was bigger and stronger than others. I saw a man who demanded respect through intimidation and fear. I saw a man who craved blind obedience. I broke down, asked for forgiveness, and knew I had to find my way back to my humanity. I spent the rest of my time in prison trying to put my energy and leadership qualities to good use.
Today I am the Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. The organization’s mission is to empower urban residents to realize and achieve their full potential. My main focus is on winning voting rights for people in prison, on parole and probation. We won a major victory in December 2019 when Governor Murphy signed a bill restoring voting rights to more than 83,000 people who are on probation or parole. This happened because of our “We are 1844 No More” grassroots campaign. That year, 1844, was when New Jersey ratified a new state constitution that prohibited people with criminal convictions from voting (and also restricted the right to vote to white men). My focus now is on organizing regional councils of formerly incarcerated people in northern, southern and central New Jersey to bring the voices of those impacted by the collateral consequences of a felony conviction to the table on matters that affect them. This starts with implementing the new law and make sure it is observed by the Department of Corrections and other state agencies. Next on the agenda is getting rid of the permanent ban on jury service.
I realize how fortunate I am, and my goal is to pay it forward. Things really changed for me when the New Jersey STEP program came into East Jersey State Prison and I was given the opportunity to enroll in college courses. I studied philosophy with Princeton Prof. Cornel West and political science with Chris Hedges, an amazing individual who would become a close friend. NJ STEP gave us hope, and I’ve seen what hope can do. That’s when I decided I wanted to pay forward all the blessings I received. I grew up in the projects in Bayonne, and I saw things most white people don’t see. My community which was majority African American gave me love, but people who looked like me were not affording them the same, and that always bothered me. Today I know that what I’m doing is right. What I hope and wish is that everybody could experience what it’s like to do work that is truly meaningful for them.
Leading With Conviction is showing me I still have a lot to learn. I’ve always said we make choices and they lead to choices being easier to make. Practicing what works opens doors and opportunities. JLUSA is a community that I can contribute to, and it’s a community that will help me contribute to the larger society.
Ron Pierce holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Justice Studies minoring in Sociology from Rutgers University-Newark.