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Ronald Pierce, Formerly Incarcerated, Now an Advocate of Voting Rights for Those with Criminal Convictions

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Ronald Pierce addresses attendees at a Feb. 26, 2018, press conference in Trenton to announce the introduction of legislation to restore voting rights to people with convictions. Photo by Dan Hedden

Thirty years. Eight months. Fourteen days. That’s how much time out of his 30-to-life sentence Ronald Pierce served in New Jersey’s maximum security prisons before being paroled.

After more than three decades of life spent on the “inside,” what’s a newly released person to do?

Well, for Pierce it would be business as usual. He would continue pursuit of his bachelor’s degree in justice studies from the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N) thanks to the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program.

NJ-STEP, a statewide initiative administered by RU-N, works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board, and a network of public and private, two- and four-year colleges, including Rutgers University–New Brunswick and Rutgers University–Camden, to provide higher education courses to eligible individuals who are incarcerated in one of New Jersey’s seven correctional facilities. The program also assists in the transition to college life of released students who demonstrate college-readiness and an eagerness to improve their lives.

Pierce enrolled in NJ-STEP during the spring semester of 2013, and when he left East Jersey State Prison in 2016, he had earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Mercer County Community College and completed two RU-N courses toward his bachelor’s degree. Pierce was one of 150 students in NJ-STEP’s first cohort of adult male students, selected competitively out of a field of 1,100 eligible applicants. The fact that he already had 12 college credits under his belt before he enrolled made him a top contender for the program.

“NJ-STEP is a great program. We learned from prominent scholars,” Pierce stated. He recalled thought-provoking philosophy lectures by Cornel West, in-depth lessons on Latin American history by Chris Hedges, and lots of spirited discourse among his classmates.

“NJ-STEP kept us connected to the outside world and helped to create an atmosphere of change throughout the entire prison. There was a sense of community, collegiality, and cooperation. And most importantly, there was hope for a better future. Not just individually, but hope for an improved system and better policies that impacted everyone on the inside.”

According to Pierce, for these reasons and more, NJ-STEP became quite popular. “Everyone wanted to join. One of the eligibility requirements is a high school diploma or equivalent. So, quite a few people assertively sought tutoring to pass the GED exam.”

Soon after his release, Pierce transitioned to RU-N. He graduated summa cum laude in 2018 and became RU-N’s first graduate of the justice studies program.

Also in 2018, Pierce was named the inaugural Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) based in Newark, New Jersey. Pierce had interned at NJISJ during his last two semesters at RU-N.

The Democracy and Justice Fellowship is awarded to a previously incarcerated person who has demonstrated great compassion and advocacy for individuals in prison and those released. The two-year program provides gainful employment and networking opportunities for a talented and dedicated person who has a felony conviction.

“I’m so thankful for my internship with NJISJ because it confirmed that social justice activism is my calling. It’s a meaningful way for me to make a difference and to help my friends on the inside,” Pierce shared.

As a Democracy and Justice Fellow, Pierce hopes to tear down the many barriers to re-entry. While the lack of housing and employment present tremendous challenges for those newly released, Pierce believes restoration of voting rights is the greatest concern. A healthy democracy demands full, unfettered civic engagement, according to Pierce, who last casted a vote in 1985.

“Our voices matter. Through voting we’re no longer silenced. Voting empowers us and allows us to have a say in how we want to be governed.”

During the ensuing two years, Pierce looks forward to convincing state legislators likewise.