Karen Barnes Kaplan
Ron Pierce Thought He Had Safe, Secure Housing
During a recent conversation with Ron Pierce, he shared his experience in navigating the limits and risks of post-incarceration housing. Now the Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, Ron describes stable housing as one of the three absolute necessities for success in building a life following incarceration.
I was released in 2016 and for the past five years I have been on Parole. When you’re on parole, you must have a home; you can’t just live on the street. So, I was paroled to my fiancé’s house. She owned a double-wide trailer home, and it was in a trailer park owned by a corporation that had trailer parks around the country. She told the company in advance that I was coming out and would be living with her. They said, “Yeah, fine. When he arrives, he just has to fill out a form.”
I followed up with them about 2 weeks after I got out, in mid-November. I filled out the paperwork, as they said. On Christmas Eve, they informed me, “You’ve got a criminal conviction.” Well, yes, we told them I was coming out of prison and would be on parole, so evidently, I had a criminal conviction. But they said, “You have a criminal conviction, so you can’t be on our property.” I said, “Well, I’m on parole, so I can’t leave your property. We seem to be at an impasse.”
They started legal proceedings to take my wife’s home. She owned it, but it's on their property. They said, “You don’t have to give us the house, you can just move it off our property.” But how is that supposed to happen? So now my living with her is putting her at risk, too.
I was in a quandary because I didn’t have a place to go to. Parole isn’t that easy of a trip to go through. So, I reached out to the leaders at the NJ-STEP* program, and I contacted my parole officer. I said, “Here’s the issue: They’re going to try to take my wife’s house because I’m living there.”
It’s lucky I was in NJ-STEP, because the Rutgers Law School took my case. They started fighting against the trailer park corporation for trying to take my wife’s house, and for telling me I can’t live there. We battled back and forth, but in the meantime a space opened in the house in Highland Park that NJ-STEP runs for its students.
The legal proceedings went on for several months. Finally, the Rutgers lawyers told me, “Look, we don’t really have grounds– it is their property, there’s no real standing in NJ as far as being entitled to housing post-conviction. They have their rights to pre-approve anyone who lives there. Your wife agreed to this condition when she signed her lease.” If we lost the case, it’s likely we’d have to pay the corporation’s legal fees.
When we went to court, we arranged a deal with the company. It was clear we had enough fight in us that they would have had to spend a lot of money on legal fees, and there was no guarantee they’d win. So, they made a deal with us that we’d both drop our cases; we’d both cover our own legal fees (but ours were free, through Rutgers). And I would move out within a month. I needed that time to make arrangements with parole.
So, I moved into the house in Highland Park. It was run by the American Housing Corporation and sponsored by The Reform Church of Highland Park. I lived there from March to early November. I had to travel from Highland Park to Newark every day for classes and my job, which was challenging, but it was very affordable, so I was able to continue my education. Then my aunt passed, and my cousin let me stay in my aunt’s house rent free, so she didn’t have to worry about the house until she was ready. It was much closer to Newark, too.
I stayed there for a while as I got my degree, and for some time after, while I was working. It allowed me to get on my feet and save some money. In November 2019, my wife and I bought a house in Brick, where we live now.
If I hadn’t had stable housing--first through the Affordable Housing Program and NJ-STEP, and then thanks to my cousin--I might not have been able to stay out. Because without housing, you can’t be on parole. When my P.O. learned my predicament, they were going to put me in a welfare hotel if I had to get out of my wife’s house. They were doing what they could do. But a welfare hotel is not a stable environment. After 30 years in prison, having so many other barriers that I had to navigate, if I didn’t have that critical access to housing that met parole’s requirements… well, that situation would probably not have ended in my favor.
When a person is released, housing, employment, and adequate food are three staples that are necessary. If you want someone to have the stability to succeed after release, those three things are essential. We must build that structure.
* The New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) initiative is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the State of New Jersey Department of Corrections and New Jersey State Parole Board, to provide higher education courses toward a college degree for students while they are incarcerated, and to assist in their transition to college life upon release from prison.