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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—It was a freezing February day at Northern State Prison in Newark.
It was 1998 and Thomas Peoples was 37 years old, serving a 12-year-sentence for drug dealing. His mother had just died without seeing her son emerge from his second incarceration.
Peoples and another inmate wandered the grounds with a joint in hand, looking for a place to light up.
The wind snuffed out each attempt to strike a match, and before his exposed fingers could try again, Peoples suddenly had a moment of clarity.
“I realized how foolish I had been all my life to sacrifice everything, just for a sensation, just for that feeling of a marijuana high,” Peoples said. “That’s what people who use drugs do. Sacrifice freedom, family, fortunes, fame, everything…just for a sensation.”
He never touched drugs again. Instead, Peoples would go on to become a dedicated employee, a homeowner, President of the Lincoln Gardens Neighborhood Block Club and Crime Watch, and an elected Democratic Committeeman.
Peoples, born and raised in New Brunswick, worked cleaning fish in his father’s market as a boy, earning him the nickname “Fishman” amongst his peers.
He remembers the hardworking values his parents instilled in him, and the moment he started to deviate from them.
At age 15, Peoples tried to be a part of the crowd by smoking marijuana. He eventually started using heroin, but his biggest addiction became the fast-paced lifestyle of selling drugs.
“Going back and forth to New York, having a bunch of money in your pocket, having people look up to you because you have drugs and they want it – you get that sort of superiority feeling,” Peoples said. “That excitement was harder to give up than anything.”
When he was incarcerated, Peoples spent his time thinking about what he needed to do to avoid ever coming back. After swearing off drugs, he began working towards a career making positive changes in his community, even behind bars on the inmate committee.
He was released from prison six years early, and started working several honest jobs. Just two years after his release, Peoples bought his own house in the Lincoln Gardens neighborhood of New Brunswick.
“When I first moved here, there were guys on the streets breaking into cars, into the cemetery, into houses,” Peoples said. “My friend encouraged me to start coming to the neighborhood Crime Watch meetings, and soon I became the president.”
After cleaning up Lincoln Gardens, Peoples also became the vice president of the city-wide Crime Watch, where he helped organize events such as an annual back-to-school barbecue for the local children.
“We turned things around. The neighborhood went from having a lot of criminal activity to a becoming a pretty decent place to live in New Brunswick,” Peoples said.
Peoples was also elected Democratic Committeeman for his district in June 2009. The team of 50 candidates that ran under the "Democrats for Change" chose Peoples to be their candidate for Party Chairman.
Though he had been reluctant to run for the position, thinking people wouldn’t be interested in a candidate with a record, he campaigned and lost only by a few votes to TK Shamy.
Peoples has spent the last three years working as a car salesman at Sansone Auto Mall in Avenel. Looking forward, he wants to give back to the local youth in the fight against drugs.
“I would like give kids that came up like me some inspiration to change their life,” Peoples said.
“I’d like to give them hope. A lot of times people feel hopeless that they can never change. I’d like to show them my life and explain to them that yeah, there is a chance for you to turn your life completely around and become a respectable, reliable, valuable citizen.”