‘They don’t prepare you for getting out’
Ronald Pierce was released from New Jersey state prison after serving thirty years for a murder conviction. Since his release, Ron has been working hard to acquire a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University — Newark. He details the struggles that prisoners face while being incarcerated and upon release in trying to receive an education.
Alex Harrison: When were you incarcerated, for how long, and where?
Ronald Pierce: I got locked up in 1986. I spent the next thirty years, eight months, and fourteen days as a resident of Rahway State Prison and Northern State Prison.
AH: Were there any resources to get an education while you were imprisoned?
RP: When I first got locked up, we were still getting Pell Grants. So, I was able to acquire 12 credits through Pell Grants during the initial few years of my imprisonment. But, during 1994, they stopped the Pell Grants, so colleges stopped sending their professors to the prisons because they weren’t getting paid.
Then in 2013, the New Jersey STEP program started. The classes you had been able to take through Pell Grants were not supposed to help you obtain a degree. It was more based on availability. The New Jersey STEP program, however, was all based on degrees. Out of 1,600 inmates at Rahway, 700 were eligible. There were only about 150 spots, though. Because I already had credits and since I was recommended with a high GPA, I was selected for the program. I started my degree-based education in 2013. In 2015, I finished my associates degree. In January of 2016, I started my bachelor’s degree. Initially, New Jersey STEP was only for associates degrees, but they were able to extend it to bachelor’s degrees later on.
AH: Did you attend school after high school?
RP: I enlisted in the military after high school.
AH: What did you do after you were released?
RP: I was sent to a halfway back program for like six months, which is basically a private jail. It really is. I really didn’t seek freedom although I was able to attend school while being in the halfway back program — like day passes. I didn’t go home until Nov. 14, 2016.
AH: What made you want to pursue a bachelor’s degree? Did you see a long term goal?
RP: I was too angry at the time of my incarceration to see the benefits of a college education. By the time I got over that period, I saw it as a way out. I started getting into school and finding how much I liked it and how much it opened my mind up. The fact that they ended the Pell Grants was a huge bummer, but it didn’t stop me from learning on my own. I started to read anything and everything I could get my hands on.
AH: So now what are you doing as far as education?
RP: I’m attending Rutgers University — Newark. I graduate in May. They’re trying to convince me to do a double degree in law and a master’s degree in public administration.
AH: What are you studying now?
RP: I am majoring in Justice Studies with a minor in Sociology.
AH: What are some of the main challenges that people released from prison encounter in trying to get an education?
RP: Stability. There are barriers to housing, barriers to work, and once you start becoming a full-time student, you lose almost all benefits to any kinds of social programs that would help you maintain eating and basic things like that. The only thing that I was able to have upon coming out was my family that helps me. A lot of people don’t have that. That family stability was what enabled me to maintain my focus on school.
A lot of people can’t find a job that enables them to pay rent and other basic aspects of life. It’s also hard to find a place to live because lots of landlords do background checks. I’m not living in my hometown [Jackson Township]. I’m not allowed to live in the house that my fiancee rents because of my criminal conviction. Housing barriers are essential for ex-inmates. Luckily, I was provided a place to stay because of my support system. I have a brother who’s helped me out; he bought me a truck when I got out. I have family that makes sure that I have everything. The house I live in now is owned by my cousin who allows me to stay here if I watch his cats. I pay nominal fees; gas and electric bills. I’m the exceptional to the rule.
AH: Once you get your bachelor’s degree, what are your future plans?
RP: Right now I’m working as an intern in the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which is a liberal think tank. They are working with me to try to find some place for me to work where I can work on policy change. I don’t want people in prison to have to come out to the same problems that I came out to. I can try to make it better for them.
My education is geared toward working in non-profits to work on policy change. I was recently involved in a press conference for the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice’s bill on voter rights. I did some of the research for Scott Novakowski who wrote a report that helped get this bill introduced to legislation. The bill seems to have legs.
My goal is to keep fighting for policy changes, not only for people coming out of prison, but for people within the system. They don’t prepare you for getting out. The programs they have don’t guide you. Once you’re stuck in maximum security prison, you’re stuck. Even if you show that you can handle the rules and regulations of max, it’s extremely hard to move to medium security and minimal security.
The system is so backed up that it can’t operate efficiently. I would like to change that. There has to be more incentives for help based on good behavior. Change the system so that people are ready to be home. New Jersey has very little in the way of restorative justice. They really don’t prepare you for coming home. That’s why recidivism is so high.