"I Sleep, Eat, Live, Breathe Activism": Kerwin Pittman Advocates For Prison Reform

Sep 10, 2020

Kerwin Pittman is a member of the governor's new task force examining racial inequities in the criminal justice system. He is also a field organizer for Emancipate N.C. and has helped post Black Lives Matter billboards in Raleigh and Pittsboro.

At 19, he was in a notorious gang and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. He says prison guards used to see him as a threat. He was released on good behavior when he turned 30.

In this installment of WUNC's "Calling for Change" series, Pittman talks about how he's uniquely qualified to weigh in on prison reform.

Interview Highlights

Kerwin Pittman on how he was treated in prison:

The guards would paint me as the Black guy with muscles who... if he ever was to snap one day, we would really have to put hands on him because he will probably hurt a couple of us before we was able to subdue him. The officers would be, especially at some facilities, stricter on me to kind of provoke me to see what I would do. And in the beginning phases, I fell for the traps.

Pittman on how solitary confinement can affect inmates:

A lot of people don't know I even did time. They will look at me and say, 'It's no way you did 11 and a half years. It's no way you did a year in solitary confinement.'

I could speak testament to how solitary confinement can take adverse effects on the mental [health], because the guy who was right next door to me in a cell, when I came in, we was able to hold a conversation. After six months I was there, he was no longer... you couldn't even communicate with him. So, I seen it firsthand. I done been pepper sprayed. I done been hog tied. I done been on jumped on by the the PERT team, the prison emergency response team. So I done been there. I know it.

Kerwin Pittman, 33, stands in front of a Black Lives Matter billboard that he has placed on Tryon Road in Raleigh's Southside for one month. This is the second Black Lives Matter billboard in a campaign he plans to take statewide.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC

Pittman on what makes him organize now?

So what what makes me organize, what makes me protest now is because... I was always taught silence means acceptance, right? So, if I don't speak up and speak out about what you're doing to me, that means I accept what you're doing to me, because I'm a basic human and you're a basic human and we have human rights.

If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. -Kerwin Pittman

Pittman on what motivates him to advocate for prison reform?

If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. To be on the menu means you will be negatively affected by the structural system… be it economics, criminal justice, regardless you will be affected in some way, some form.

And I'm willing to lay down my life, I'm willing to give my last breath, for the fight of liberation and for my people and to uplift them and just rebuild what I once helped destroy. So as hard as I went when I was involved in gang activity, I'm gonna go just as hard if not 10 times harder than that rebuilding my community.

So I sleep, eat, live, breathe activism in some form.