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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

This Cleveland activist uses his ‘abnormal, normal life’ to keep people out of prison

Ron Crosby stands and touches a brick wall outside of League Park in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media

Cuyahoga County accounts for a larger proportion of people in prison than any other county in Ohio. This story is part of a “Sound of Us” series in which formerly incarcerated poet and speaker Cardell Belfoure interviews Clevelanders who’ve been to prison themselves and are now working as activists. The series was produced in partnership with the nonprofit Building Freedom Ohio.

Back in 1995, Ronald Crosby was heading into a trial where he was certain he’d get prison time. In his last few months of freedom, he remembers having two conversations that would change the direction of his life.

The first was with his grandfather.

"And my grandfather's main question was, what are you going to do now? Crime is over with," Crosby recalled.

Crosby didn’t know what he was going to do next. The question stuck with him.

The second conversation was with Harllel Jones. Jones had been a leader in the Cleveland Black nationalist movement since the 1960s. [Listen to Jones address the City Club of Cleveland in 1969.]

By the 1990s, when Crosby met him before going to prison, Jones was one of his neighbors living in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood. One of the things Jones did was mentor Black men who were about to be incarcerated.

A photograph shows Cleveland Black nationalist Harllel Jones.

City Club of Cleveland
Cleveland Black nationalist leader Harllel Jones gave Ron Crosby a blueprint for entering prison.

"So he gave me the blueprint on what he would call 'entry.' So you got reentry; that's when you exit the prison. But he had an entry level curriculum in his head about how an individual should structure his time," Crosby explained. "And he also illustrated the fact that as long as I kept a book in my hand, all the rest of that stuff that goes on in prison I won't have to worry about."

When Crosby began his term in 1996, he followed that advice — and reading helped keep him away from negative influences. Eventually, he started working as a tutor in the prison’s reintegration center, helping men get their general educational diploma. He was released in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was coming back into a a society that was, first of all, locked up like me, because the whole planet for a year and a half during COVID was on lockdown. So not only was I really reentering society, society was reentering itself," Crosby recalled.

It ended up being a good time to find a new path for himself — a search that he reflected on in the poem he wrote with me. Here's an excerpt:

Review those 25 years in time,
25 years of listening to the points of view turned into how, why, what, when?
Where's my 40 acres and a mule?
Where is my authority to exercise how I live an abnormal normal life?

An abnormal, normal life

The way he’s choosing to live his “abnormal, normal life” today is by working for Building Freedom Ohio, a nonprofit that tries to remove barriers keeping formerly incarcerated people from getting jobs or housing. One of his main activities is promoting voter registration in areas where a lot of people have been in prison. We spent one afternoon knocking on doors in Crosby's own neighborhood on Cleveland’s Southeast side.

He figures this kind of work lets him carry forward the lessons he learned decades ago from his grandfather and from Harllel Jones, who died in 2011, while Crosby was still behind bars.

Ron Crosby (left) and Cardell Belfoure stand and chat outside of one of the gates at League Park in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Ron Crosby (left) and Cardell Belfoure stand outside League Park in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood, where Crosby often does organizing work.

"Human beings is important," Crosby said. "Making sure that the individual, whatever generation or what age that was on that path that I was on, comes off that path, and without the assistance of prison."

To Crosby, one way to do that is to help people structure their lives before the prison system has to do it for them.

Cardell “Mighty Roc” Belfoure is a poet, spoken-word performer and roofing apprentice based in Cleveland. His business, Words Are Power LLC, teaches people to express their experiences through writing. He previously taught poetry while incarcerated at Grafton Correctional Institution and participated in Ideastream Public Media’s original Poetic Reentry series.