Joe Sharp is a Cleveland based artist and activist.
Joe Sharp was only out of prison a few months, having served 26 years after committing a murder at 19, when the ACLU of Ohio, hearing about the art skills he’d developed while inside, reached out. They asked him if he’d like to create a piece for its bail reform campaign, which aims to end Ohio’s reliance on near-impossible cash bail requirements for poor people. Sharp not only came up with the eye-catching image—of scales with money on one side and man behind bars on the other—he’s become an integral member of the campaign, traveling with the ACLU to speak in cities statewide about how hard cash bail can be on inmates and their families.
The issue hits home for him. Although his own crime-committed when he was young and caught up in gang violence and drug dealing- was too severe for bail consideration, he’d grown up with a single mom who’d often faced onerous bail for charges related to her drug addiction. He’d also recently watched his brother end up in jail on a bond on top of what he owed for child support. “I remember not believing someone who couldn’t pay a $100 bond,” he says. “But now I know that comes out of someone’s money to feed their kids.”
That’s why he’s fired up to work with the ACLU on making change, especially after finally gaining the freedom after so many years spent in prison mentoring younger inmates and becoming the prison’s Red Cross chair. His first night out, after family gave him a welcome-home party, he went upstairs, looked into the mirror, and cried. “My aunt came up and held me,” he says. Since then, he’s found part time work at a rehab center, but says he needs to attain degrees and complete five years of parole before he’ll be eligible for the kind of counseling jobs he really wants. His ultimate goal is to start a residential reentry and vocational program for newly released prisoners like himself.
“Joe was absolutely wonderful from the moment I met him,” says Melekte Melaku, the ACLU of Ohio’s campaign manager. “He’s compassionate and able to talk bail reform on both an intellectual and human level. He’s patient, willing to learn, and always jumps on board.”
Sharp seconds that. “I speak at events every chance I get,” he says. “I care a lot about at-risk youth and people returning to society from prison. I’ve spent my life being both those things, so I know what’s needed. I want to help people who are trying to figure out what’s next.”
To learn more about all our work, please visit the ACLU of Ohio’s homepage.