Rutgers is helping to educate incarcerated New Jersey inmates while they serve time.
The New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program is a statewide initiative administered by Rutgers—Newark along with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board and a network of public and private colleges, which includes Rutgers—New Brunswick and Rutgers—Camden, according to an article from the Rutgers—Newark site.
It is because of this program that Ronald Pierce, a former inmate of East Jersey State Prison, left — after having served 30 years, eight months and 14 days of his 30-life-sentence — with an associate’s degree in liberal arts and two Rutgers—Newark courses closer to his bachelor’s degree in justice studies from its School of Criminal Justice, according to the article.
“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," Pierce said in the article. "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."
He graduated summa cum laude in 2018 as Rutgers—Newark’s first graduate of the justice studies program. That year he was named the inaugural Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) in Newark — where he interned during his last two semesters at the University.
The fellowship is awarded to a previously incarcerated person who has demonstrated "great compassion and advocacy for individuals in prison and those released,” according to the article.
For two years, the program provides a person with a felony conviction gainful employment and networking opportunities.
Pierce said he hopes to tear down barriers set against former convicts that make it difficult for them to re-enter society, obtain housing and employment.
Despite this, he believes the greatest concern for newly released inmates is the restoration of their voting rights — the last time Pierce voted was 1985.
New Jersey is among other states considering legislation that would allow people who are incarcerated, on parole and under probation supervision the right to vote, according to The Wall Street Journal. If passed, the Garden State would be the third in the country to pass such a bill behind Vermont and Maine.
While most states restore voter rights upon completion of an inmates sentence, some do not immediately renew these rights.
Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia do not automatically restore voting rights once an inmate has graduated from their sentence. Florida’s laws, especially, have been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge — and even earned a spot on satirical late-night show "Last Week Tonight" — for being "nonsensical" and a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, according to National Public Radio (NPR).
Over the next two years, Pierce said he will look forward to pushing state legislators to change their minds, according to the article.
“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,” he said.