The following is a conversation between Glenn E. Martin, the Founder and President of JustLeadership USA, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: My next guest identifies himself as a formerly incarcerated criminal justice reform advocate. He believes that those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, which is why he helps develop the leadership skills of the formerly incarcerated to reform a criminal justice system that he says is failing in just about every conceivable way. He is Glenn E. Martin, the Founder and President of JustLeadership USA.
Good evening, Glenn, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Glenn E. Martin: I’m glad to be on the show. Thank you.
Denver: Give us a quick snapshot of JustLeadership USA and the mission of the organization.
Glenn: Sure. We have the goal of cutting the number of people on the correctional supervision in this country in half by 2030, and we do that by investing in the leadership of formerly incarcerated people all across America as part of the solution to mass incarceration.
Denver: Back in, let’s say, 1980, the prison population was about 500,000 people or so. Today, it’s 2.3 million, and there are millions more under correctional supervision of one kind or another. Flesh out that picture a little bit for our listeners, and tell us: What in the world happened?
Glenn: I’m glad you started with 1980 because a lot of people don’t realize that mass incarceration is a relatively recent phenomenon, although one might argue that this is a new iteration of some previous system of oppression in this country. But the fact that it’s so young means that we can actually put our finger pretty concretely on the policy levers that we used to get here – mandatory minimums, truth and sentencing, three-strikes laws, prison privatization, and a number of others – which gives me hope that we can find ways to roll back our decision to criminalize things like homelessness and poverty and addiction and mental health and so on.
If you take a look at where we’ve ended up… not just in the number of people that are in prison or jail on any given day, but with the fact that 100 million Americans now have a criminal record on file, you have to ask yourself: How did we get here? and I would argue luckily, it’s such a recent phenomenon — as devastating as it has become– that the research it takes to figure out how we got here and how we get out is really at our fingertips.
Denver: Now there are 2.3 million in jail currently. How many are also under probation or control?
Glenn: An additional 5.6 million are under some other form of criminal justice supervision.
Denver: What does this cost us as a country?
Glenn: $80 billion dollars a year. That’s just the cost of prisons. That’s not even including the cost of police departments and courts and all the other ancillary parts of the criminal justice system.
Denver: Not to mention the opportunity cost of the people who are in prison and what that is costing society.
Glenn: Absolutely, yes. If you care about human capital, there’s a lot of it wasting away in prison. I’d love to tell a story, if we have the time, about someone I met in prison and what it means to have a person like that locked up, based on the sort of human capital he brings to the table.
Denver: Tell us now.
Glenn: I was in New York State. When you move from one prison to the other, sometimes it can take three days to move a person on a trip that might take 10 hours for someone who’s driving Upstate New York, and you stop off in different prisons, and I was held at Auburn Correctional Facility which is: I want the viewers to think of the most antiquated version of a prison they might be able to imagine, with dark walls and tall guard towers, and so on. I get into a cell, and we know we’re there for three days because I got there on a Friday, and the correction officers opened up the windows so that it would become really cold in the cells. And it was the middle of winter in New York, so it ended up being about 45 degrees in that cell.
By the second day, I began to catch a cold, and he said to me, “Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?” Here we are trapped in this cell together, and I just sort of laughed. I said, “How? Sure. Go ahead, make me a cup of tea.” He grabs a plastic bottle and fills it with water and uses a string to tie the bottle to the light fixture in the cell… and then lights a small flame using the toilet tissue and a lead pencil in that cell, and the bottle began to spin and the water began to boil, and he ripped open the collar of his prison outfit and grabbed the tea bag and put it in that bottle and made me a cup of tea.
I hold on to that story because I think you don’t get to the point where you criminalize 100 million people until you’ve dehumanized them first. I think we forget because of the labels we use to refer to people in prison – convict, inmate, prisoner, and so on – that they are also fathers and mothers and uncles and sisters and brothers.
So when I think about trying to get to a tipping point on this issue, I think part of it is the policy which I just mentioned. But another big part of it is Americans getting to the point where they say, “This is not how we treat other human beings.”
Denver: Yes. An incredibly resourceful guy, no question about that. You think what he could be doing on the outside. Well, picking up on that a little bit, you said that if we don’t get to the issues that undergird this criminal justice system, we’re never going to get to the bottom of this and create meaningful reform. We’ll be tinkering around the edges forever. What are those issues? And do you think we’re getting to them?
Glenn: There’s a bipartisan coalition that’s been formed over the last few years that’s taking a look at our criminal justice system and how we got here, and I’ll put some stock in that. Maybe not as much as my colleagues because it really was a bipartisan coalition that got us here. I think that gets lost on some folks that progressives were just as guilty in getting us here as more conservative folks.
I come to believe, in my career – I’ve been doing this now for almost 16 years since exiting prison – that elected officials are vehicles to change policy, but they’re not leaders with respect to taking the sort of risk it takes to get us out of the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else who has the least appetite for risk than an elected official.
The question is, how do you motivate them? The question is: How do you get their constituents to demand something different from them? So we at JustLeadership USA spend a lot of our time investing in formerly incarcerated people as storytellers partially, because we believe that the more people are willing to stand up and put the stigma aside– which is a big part of how we got here– and be able to tell their story, the more other folks simply come out of the closet, for lack of a better term. You get enough people to come out of the closet and say, “I’ve been locked up, and I’m still a human being, and I have a family and I care about this and that” is the closer I think we get to getting elected officials to say, “Wait a minute, there might be a win here.” I think the CLOSErikers Campaign, which I know we’ll talk about momentarily, will give you a sense of what that really looks like.
Denver: Speaking of time, you spent seven years incarcerated in New York State prisons – Rikers Island, first for two days, and then for a year, and I think the last six years or so was at the Wyoming Correctional Facility up by Attica. Tell us your story about how you got there and what it was like in prison.
Glenn: I was arrested at the age of 16 in New York City for shoplifting. The first time I wound up at Rikers, and that’s the two-day stint that you’re referring to. They call this place Gladiator School. It really is the epitome of everything that’s wrong with our criminal justice system. On Day 2, on my way back to court, I was stabbed four times in the cell.
On Rikers, you get stabbed four times in a cell in the middle of a fight, you actually emerge from that fight knowing you’ve made a name for yourself and that you could survive there at the age of 16. But what was more difficult was the correction officers in the background laughing and snickering and letting me know that if I sought medical help, that I’ll be labeled a snitch, and I wouldn’t be able to survive at Rikers. So it was referred to as Gladiator School back then; it’s still referred to that now, and the way to survive at Gladiator School is to be a gladiator.
I was subsequently arrested again for robbery and found myself back at Rikers. The thing about Rikers, when you go and cross that bridge to this penal colony, is you recognize that the only way to survive violence on Rikers is to be violent on Rikers. So I became part of that culture for a year to survive.
And then I got to state prison. It’s funny. At my sentencing, the prosecutor said to the judge, “Your honor, Mr. Martin will never be anything beyond a criminal, and you should give him way more than this six years that you’re about to give him.” He never looked up. He never looked sideways. He looked down at my rap sheet the entire time. A month later, a correction counselor in prison said to me, “Glenn, you should go to college.” And you know, you sort of juxtapose those two things. Right? People ask: How do we end mass incarceration? I would argue that that that person who said to me, “You should go to college” actually did a lot to invest in me…
Denver: Was that the first time you ever heard that?
Glenn: It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, back when it was a tough place to live. Think of places like Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It was a lot more fort when I was a kid and a lot less green.
I grew up in a tough neighborhood where even our school counselors told us we wouldn’t go to college. Here I am in prison; someone tells me to go to college, and I end up earning a two-year quality liberal arts degree while I’m in prison, which obviously was a huge turnaround moment for me. And so I emerge from prison strangely just wanting to get a job and pay off all these fines and fees and restitution and all these other financial costs that I accumulated while I was in prison. I landed at a public interest law firm, and that’s the beginning of the story of my advocacy work.
Denver: It was interesting when you left prison, you said, looking at all the cell phones on the street, you were just absolutely blown away. I guess being in sort of a great, dingy place and then just having all the colors and all the pageantry of the outside hit you between your eyes.
Glenn: Yes, that gets lost on people. The longer you actually lock people up, not just how disconnected they are from community and family and the things that allow us to thrive, but things as small as the advancement in technology. I mean, think about it! You were locked up the last 20 years. Good luck. You can’t even be a janitor or a porter without being able to order supplies on the computer.
Denver: Right. Even silence kind of spooked you, right?
Glenn: Silence continues to spook me. I turn on CNN at night. And sometimes I wake up the next morning, and CNN is still blasting, and that is actually a comfortable way for me to sleep. Why? Because I spent six years sleeping in a prison setting with constant noise all throughout the day and throughout the night.
Denver: Well, if you ever need to be reminded that going to prison can sometimes be a life sentence, it was certainly brought home to you a couple of years ago when you went to visit the White House. Tell us that story.
Glenn: You do advocacy work for 13, 14 years, and one day, you get a call saying: There’s a chance to go to the White House and talk to some of the senior policy advisors to the President of the United States. That becomes the culmination of all your work. So I go to D.C., and I’m walking over to the White House with a bunch of colleagues, actually. There were about 50 of us altogether, and I was walking over with a prosecutor from Georgia, and we were chatting about the various programs he had in place to stop young people from further penetrating the criminal justice system. And we get to the White House, and we both hand in our driver’s license. He gets a green pass like everyone else ahead of him, and I get a pink pass that says, “Needs escort,” and you literally have to put this around your neck. So talk about scarlet letter!
I walked through security, multiple levels of security, and I get to the end, and the Secret Service agent leans over and says, “You can’t enter the White House.” So I stand there for about 35 minutes trying to get in contact with someone in the meeting to come downstairs and “escort me” to this meeting with Valerie Jarrett and Roy Austin and other folks. And 35 minutes into it, the door behind him flies open and a young, white female intern grabs me and takes me in, and we get to the elevator about 100 feet away and she says, “You’re Mr. Davidson, right? I’m so sorry you had to wait.” I said, “No, my name is Mr. Martin, but please do not take me back. Please take me to the meeting.” And she did. As you can imagine, it was a moment where I had to make a decision about whether I would disturb that meeting in the way that I thought made sense and really highlight what it was like to be one of the underclass of citizenship that we have in this country.
On my way back to New York, I decided to write a letter to President Obama, and by the end of that trip, I decided that it needed to be an open letter and shared it with the Wall Street Journal. It was meant to send a statement to a White House that was run by a black president that said that mass incarceration has not worked, that they had a problem in their own backyard, if you will, and that while I recognize that tons of formerly incarcerated people are not being invited to the White House, what does this mean for the person who is leaving prison on that day, trying to get a job down at McDonald’s?
I think it made a real statement. I got invited back to the White House, had a chance to have a one-on-one with President Obama and had a chance to tell him, obviously thank him for some of the things he was doing on this issue, but also hold him accountable for other things that I thought that he needed to be doing.
If you look at the 4 E’s – employment, education, equality, enfranchisement – the things that we fought for during the Civil Rights era, those things have been eviscerated for Americans for people who have criminal records, and it’s a legitimate discrimination. We call it criminal record-based discrimination, but it obviously serves as a surrogate for race- and class-based discrimination.
Denver: That’s a very powerful story. Let me ask you this, Glenn. If you’re a victim of a crime, I think the first thing you want instinctively is to have the perpetrator punished. But then after that, you always say: “ And I hope that person never does it to anybody else again.” Yet we have a system where two out of three of them will. So the question is, why does society continue to invest in that very same system which has such an impeccable track record of failure?
Glenn: That’s a really good question because I think what victims want really matters, but I think what also matters is how we define victims in this country. The data from the federal government tells us that young, black men are the most prevalent victims of violent crime in this country, and yet that is not the picture we have in our minds when we hear the word “victim. ” And so that means that the victims that are at the table telling a story about what we should be doing to perpetrators of crime doesn’t match the reality of victimization in this country. And those people’s voices are important, but I think if we’re going to be intellectually honest, then every stakeholder needs to be at the table.
I think part of it is that we’re not telling the truth about how our criminal justice system is constructed. If you look at the foundation, the values that drive our criminal justice system – punitiveness and punishment, and the fact that our criminal justice system emerged at the end of the Civil Rights era proper, if you will, that tells a more accurate story about how we ended up here. This has little to do with right and wrong and good and evil and deserving and not deserving. This has a lot to do with controlling a segment of the American population in a way that responded to us believing that we have lost some control with the victories of the Civil Rights era.
If you look at the 4 E’s – employment, education, equality, enfranchisement – the things that we fought for during the Civil Rights era, those things have been eviscerated for Americans… for people who have criminal records, and it’s a legitimate discrimination. We call it criminal record based discrimination, but it obviously serves as a surrogate for race and class based discrimination.
I think until our criminal justice system revisits those values and looks at things like second chances and redemption and transformation and opportunity, we’re going to continue to have a criminal justice system that rhetorically talks about those things but in practice, actually turns out more victimization than any other policy that we have in place in the United States.
As we have a discussion about ending mass incarceration, we need to be having, one, a simultaneous discussion about the economics of our criminal justice system and who benefits.
Denver: A complete change of mindset. People talk about a prison industrial complex in this country… An economic engine that continues to feed itself. How extensive is it? And how big an influence do you think it plays in our criminal justice system?
Glenn: On my way out of prison after serving six years, a correction officer who I had developed a relationship with in a very casual conversation with me, he said to me, “You know, Glenn, you being here helped me get my boat. And when your son gets here, he’s going to help my son get his boat.” It was difficult to hear that, but I carry it with me throughout my career because it reminds me that the most successful economic stimulus programs in this country are prisons in rural communities all across America.
And that as we have a discussion about ending mass incarceration, we need to be having, one, a simultaneous discussion about the economics of our criminal justice system and who benefits. I have an older brother who himself benefits, I would argue, from our criminal justice system. We can talk about that.
But then also, if we’re only having the conversation in the silo of the criminal justice reform community, then again, we’re not responding to how we actually got here. The fact of the matter is that there are so many public health issues that the public health sector has turned itself away from… issues that are now dealt with by our prisons. If the public health sector is not involved, then we’re not having a real discussion about addiction, about mental health. If folks who do housing work are not involved, then we’re not having a conversation about homelessness and how we’ve criminalized that.
There are so many other sectors; education, economic development, workforce development, you name it, that need to be at the table to get us out of this mess. It’s why I think we need to be extremely intellectually honest about how we got here. Otherwise, if we use the rhetoric of the system to try to get ourselves out of this mess, we’re going to find ourselves spinning our wheels… including the way we refer to people in prison.
I would argue that words like “prisoner,” “convict,” “inmate,” “offender’ are all words meant to other people in the system, and until we use words that are more humanizing that we stay stuck in that cycle of: How do you treat an inmate? Well, it’s a lot easier to lock an inmate in a cell for 23 hours a day than a father.
The fact is we’ve ratcheted up punishment for every single person involved in the criminal justice system. And so to get out of this mess, guess what? We’re going to have to have a real conversation about people who were arrested and convicted of even violent crimes because if we don’t get there, you can let go of every single person in prison today who is convicted of a non-violent crime, and you’d still have mass incarceration.
Denver: Yes. Sounds to me that prisons, in some ways, have become the repository of all the other failed systems of society.
Glenn: That’s absolutely true. When policymakers, both progressive and conservative, have these risk-averse conversations about who’s deserving of being in prison, who shouldn’t, including candidate Hillary Clinton, who talked about, yes, “mass incarceration is horrible and we need to get those non-violent marijuana offenders out of prison,” like guess what! That low-hanging fruit was taken care of a long time ago, and that’s just not how we got here. The fact is we’ve ratcheted up punishment for every single person involved in the criminal justice system. And so to get out of this mess, guess what! We’re going to have to have a real conversation about people who were arrested and convicted of even violent crimes because if we don’t get there, you can let go of every single person in prison today who is convicted of a non-violent crime, and you’d still have mass incarceration.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, you started JustLeadership USA back in late 2014, and you have a number of bold initiatives, one that you referred to already, and that is a campaign to close Rikers Island. Tell us what goes on at Rikers Island and the case that you’re making to the mayor and other political leaders as to why it should be closed.
Glenn: Sixteen months ago, when I first said out loud that we should close Rikers, it was a very lonely place to be. Rikers Island is a piece of land in New York City. It started as 82 acres, purchased from the Riken family. There was a judge in the Riken family who sold it to the city of New York, who would capture free black men and return them to slavery in the South. I don’t want that history of Rikers to get lost in this conversation. I should think that insidious seed of history is important to where we ended up.
Today, it is an island that has 10 jails. It’s a penal colony. It’s in line with all of our mistakes during mass incarceration. It’s grown to 420 acres. It is now 250 feet away from LaGuardia Airport. I bring that up because the airport creates a flight path that allows us to build buildings that are literally antithetical to how you’d build a safe jail. Safe jails are podular; Rikers Island is linear and flat. We spend $247,000 per bed per year to lock people up.
Denver: Quarter of a million dollars!
Glenn: Yes. Eighty percent of the people are not convicted of a crime. They’re just detained. Eighty-nine percent are people of color in a city where 56% of the population are people of color. So it’s the perfect storm of abuse. Everyday there’s an article about abuse at Rikers Island. I’m not exaggerating. So you would think our progressive mayor, Mayor De Blasio, would have immediately seen how this island fits in with his messaging about A Tale of Two Cities. The fact that they are a group of New Yorkers that are treated heavily differently than other New Yorkers, and on Rikers, simply because you can’t afford bail, you sit there, and you’re exposed to the chance of being hurt or killed. That is not an exaggeration.
We have other jails in New York. We have smaller jails in the boroughs. Granted, those places need to be rebuilt also. But they are nowhere near as violent as Rikers Island, and part of it is culture. There is a culture that exists at Rikers Island that is about the history, which I just mentioned. It’s about the remoteness of the island, and it’s about not holding staff accountable for their behavior, and also not providing opportunity to the people who are detained there.
We launched this campaign, and even the people who supported us and gave us the funding to do it as a nonprofit gave us a 20% chance of convincing the mayor in three years. And yet in less than a year, we got the mayor to change his mind. Why? Because we made the investment in people who had been most harmed by Rikers. We did not start with elected officials. We did not start with other opinion leaders. We started with people that had the most stake in the outcome of our campaign, and we’re nowhere near the finish line. The mayor wants to take a decade to do it.
Denver: Ten years timeline, right. Not happy about that.
Glenn: Not happy at all. I mean, the Empire State Building was built in 12 months and 45 days. If you can build a building like that in a year and a month, one might argue you can do a better job of closing Rikers in less than a decade, and I think that this speaks to his disconnect between his rhetoric and his practice. And we’re going to hold this mayor just as accountable as we’d hold the president accountable in D.C. for what’s happening there. What I think is lost on people is with all the rhetoric coming out of D.C. these days, and what feels like archaic throwback policy, if you will, the fact of the matter is on this particular issue, 90% of the people in cages in America are there on a state and local level.
Denver: What’s the one thing you would like the mayor to do at this point in time?
Glenn: I think the mayor should stop relying on Wall Street folks to tell him how to end the violence at Rikers and how to close the place down. He should realize that the community itself, people who have been harmed by Rikers, have actually done a lot of thinking about what we can do differently in this city to achieve public safety. I’d first like to see him open up the door to have a meaningful conversation with the CLOSErikers Campaign and with the people who drove him to make this decision in the first place. Second thing I’d like to see him do is to use his political capital to change policy.
Denver: He’s been reluctant to do that.
Glenn: He has. He actually, again, has talked about the importance of this issue, particularly at the point where we got him to relent and agree with us, but he has yet to talk about what he’s going to do with respect to speedy trial, bail reform, and discovery reform. We have people sitting at Rikers in some cases for six, seven years waiting for trial.
Denver: I think the average has gone from 100 days to 200 days in 10 years?
Glenn: The punishment is in the process. Whether you’re found innocent or not, you’ve already been punished if you spent 100 days on Rikers.
Denver: You mentioned in the opening that another one of your audacious goals is to cut the prison population by half by 2030. How did you arrive at that 50% reduction as a target, and what are your plans for getting there?
Glenn: There are two reasons: One is after coming out of prison and doing really great work, particularly around the consequences of criminal convictions, barriers to employment, housing, education, and so on, I realized that for me to be honest to the people I left behind– the people who I believe are still suffering in our criminal justice system– that I needed to inspire the field to be bolder and more audacious. So once I decided to go out and launch my own organization, I wanted the goal to allow me to wake up with a sense of urgency every day but also inspire the field to think more boldly, and we see evidence of that. The ACLU has the same goal of cutting the correctional population in half in this country, and I would like to take some credit, my team and I, for inspiring the field to think more boldly, first of all.
Second of all, I have a child, Joshua, who was 3 years old when I first launched this organization, and he’s going to be 18 in 2030. Your viewers might not know that one in three black children born are going to go to prison in our country if we continue to lock people up at the rate we do now, and I needed a reason to wake up every morning hell-bent on getting rid of mass incarceration and saving Joshua’s life.
Those two things inspired me to have this bold and audacious goal of trying to get to half by 2030. The CLOSErikers Campaign is a solid example of that. People hear “half by 2030” and they think it’s so daunting that they don’t really understand how we get there, or whether JustLeadership is focused on the policy decisions that need to be made. But you can’t close Rikers without cutting the population in half.
When I was at Rikers, there were 22,000 people. Today, there are 8,000 people. So we know that we’ve already cut the population in half, and the question is just: Can we do it again very deliberately to get to the finish line? And the hope is that if you close a place like Rikers, you actually inspire people all across the country to themselves to think more boldly. I don’t think JustLeadership is in any jeopardy of solving this problem alone, but I hope that we can inspire other people to think as boldly as we do.
I realized that for me to be honest to the people I left behind, the people who I believe are still suffering in our criminal justice system, that I needed to inspire a feeling to be bolder and more audacious.
Denver: Well, Rikers is a wonderful symbol because it really represents almost every jail in this country in so many different ways. You have developed some leadership programs for the formerly incarcerated, which I know is a big part of your strategy… so they really can step into this issue and create a movement to change the system. What are some of those programs? And what impact have you seen from the fellows who have gone through them?
Glenn: We have two trainings. One is a year-long training. It’s called “Leading with Conviction.” It’s a competitive opportunity. We get about 150 applicants for 36 slots – very coveted slots. But we make a very heavy investment in these leaders. They come to New York a few times per year. They stay with us for weekends. Very rigorous 10-hour days, followed by networking dinners where we’ve had the Secretary of State; we’ve had the Head of Bureau of Justice Assistance; we’ve had Darren Walker, who I know has been a guest on your show, the head of the Ford Foundation, join us. The idea is: earlier you said people closest to the problem are closest to the solution – something that we often say. But we also say: but furthest from power and resources.
So we invest in them as leaders, but we try to bring them closer in proximity to the people who can give them access to decision-makers, or they themselves are decision-makers or funders who actually fund their work, which is actually important. To get to the finish line, to close Rikers, it took a pretty generous gift from a donor who believed that they could eliminate suffering at Rikers Island.
In between the in-person seminars, we do topical webinars; we do a 360 assessment on both sides to measure the impact of the training. And then we have a shorter training called “Emerging Leaders” which we move around the country because we recognize that the year-long training is really competitive, difficult to get into–lasts for a year, and we want to really build community. So we decided that we needed to have a training that created a pipeline for the year-long “Leading with Conviction” training.
Altogether, we’ve trained about 370 formerly incarcerated leaders in 28 states plus D.C. So it gives us a footprint around the country of leaders who bring with them constituents who care about a criminal justice system that’s smaller, fairer, and more humane.
Denver: To be an effective advocacy group, you have to create an effective infrastructure. How have you gone about building JustLeadership USA? What’s your thinking been? And where do you get your funding from?
Glenn: I have the benefit of having learned the business of nonprofit working at the Legal Action Center which was my first job out of prison, and then being a vice president at a place called the Fortune Society, a re-entry organization here in New York. I think that part of the work gets lost on folks who have a vision for reform, and unfortunately, it is a really important part of getting the work done. You have to build infrastructure.
The first thing is not engaging in mission creep, like knowing who you are, who you’re not. Deciding what your mission is and not straying from it even in the toughest of times. Being willing to run an organization that shrinks in size when the funding is not there on the issue you care about, but holding on to what it is you care about and being relentless about that.
Denver: Don’t follow the money and get a mission creep as a result.
Glenn: Absolutely. Beyond that, building the organization very deliberately. We have actually turned down resources when we thought it would take us in the wrong direction. But being methodical—We are running an organization that has such a bold and audacious goal, and because the investment is in the people most harmed, we’ve actually benefited from people paying attention to what it is that we’re doing. In the beginning, it was really tough because people couldn’t wrap their heads around how you go from half by 2030 to concreteness like the CLOSErikers Campaign, and I think that is starting to jell for some folks.
But I tend to hire people who are a whole lot smarter than me and give them the space to do their work and the space to make mistakes, and that has worked out very well for me. Recognizing that when you bring on that sort of talent, it probably means that they won’t be there forever. I have already had turnover in staff. People tend to stay a year-and-a-half, two years, and that sort is the most you can get in this labor market these days. But I’ve built an organization where that institutional history gets captured and passed on to new, incoming, really intelligent, smart, thoughtful, strategic folks.
Denver: Let me ask you one more thing about “half by 2030.” There was a story in the New York Times recently entitled “Opioid users are filling up the jails.” What is happening here? And what do you think should be happening here? And how concerned are you about that?”
Glenn: As someone who has lived through the crack epidemic and seen a very different response, I actually am hopeful about what’s happening here. Obviously, there are lives and families and communities being decimated by this opioid addiction issue, and I know what that looks like because I saw my own community at Bed Stuy, Brooklyn destroyed. I remember a gentleman who lived down the block from me who didn’t get money from his mom to buy crack, and so he went to the gas station and poured gasoline and lit her on fire.
So I know what sort of harm can be caused by these addiction issues. At the same time, this issue is affecting a population that looks a lot different than the folks who were affected during the crack epidemic. And it is a white middle-class population, a white poor population, but a white population, and one that policymakers can look at and see hope in. That means that their response is, I think, on the whole, looks a lot different. It looks like much more of a public health response to this issue which is right where we want to land.
So while I recognize that on the local level, jails are being inundated with arrests for people who are caught with these drugs, but I think we also need to look at the outcome of those cases and recognize that they look a lot different than when it was black and brown folks getting locked up for possession of crack cocaine and for addiction to crack cocaine. In some ways, that makes me hopeful that the public health sector will again decide that these folks belong to them and come in and help folks in the criminal justice space… Folks who are really ill-equipped to deal with this to understand the distinction between addiction and criminal intent.
Denver: You touched on this a little bit earlier, but your older brother was a corrections officer, and he is now a U.S. Marshall. And your dad was a police officer. So you look at this issue through some different lenses. How have those different perspectives helped inform your work?
Glenn: First of all, you can imagine what Thanksgiving is like at my place.
Denver: All our Thanksgivings are like that these days, to tell you the truth.
Glenn: My older brother went into the military at age 17, and if you look at the trajectory of all three of us, you can see where opportunity injected itself and changed the trajectory of our lives. I would bet that my older brother would have went to prison just like my younger brother and myself had he not gone into the military and been exposed to different countries, different people, different religions, different backgrounds, and so on. He came out of the military and became a federal correction officer for almost a decade, and now he’s a U.S. Marshall, and he and I have had conversations in the past that remind me that he was taken out of poverty and propelled into middle class as a result of his opportunity to work within this criminal justice system.
In particular, what stands out for me is the way he justifies his role in that job and how he doesn’t take ownership over the system as a whole, but instead rationalizes that if he’s not the one causing harm, then I’m not the one who got these people locked up. And as long as I’m not hurting them, then I’m just doing my job.
Well, guess what? There’s 3 million Americans who also benefit from this system, and I think until those folks inject some broader understanding of what the implications are of believing in a system like this, we actually don’t get to the finish line. That’s something we need to reckon with as a country. That huge segment of our labor market and our stock market these days with the privatization of not just prisons, but probation and even re-entry services, social services. That that is a lobby that we have created for punishment, that we have figured out how to monetize misery, and until we reckon with that… and we engage those folks and figure out how to retrain people and help them understand that there are other jobs that lend themselves to a stronger country, I don’t think we get to the finish line.
The fact that people like me who are from families– where some people went to prison and some people work in the criminal justice system which plays out in poor, white families also– I think that that sort of proximity – I think proximity is important as Bryan Stevenson would say. I think that sort of proximity where you have that sort of distinction within families hopefully will create the kind of dialogue that will get us to the finish line.
I think we need to measure things like opportunity,… How many less people are we locking up? How many people are we connecting to services and training and housing?
Denver: There are a few things that are more difficult than trying to change a culture. particularly one as deeply ingrained as a criminal justice system. What have you learned, and I’m sure you’re continuing to learn, about how to effectively go about changing the culture?
Glenn: Human beings respond to what you measure, what you tell them you care about. Right now, we measure all the wrong things. Even recidivism, the rate at which people return to prison. I worked at a re-entry program where we did our best to provide services to people to help them get jobs and housing and education and so on. I remember one day, we realized that our young folks, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, gang members, would walk to the corner and get on the subway and get arrested at alarming rates, and we couldn’t understand why. So we pulled a couple of them aside, and it turned out that they were dropping their metro cards once there was no cash left on it on the subway floor or spitting on the subway floor. And these young rookie NYPD officers would grab them and say, “Give me your I.D. from the Social Service program you’re coming from.”
We couldn’t understand why they were doing that except in New York for those sort of violations: If you don’t have a previous conviction, you get a ticket and you go home. If you have a previous felony, you go to jail. Those officers knew that if you made an arrest towards the end of your shift, you could rack up overtime hours by locking these folks up. And there were all these young, high school students coming down at the other end of the subway, and they wouldn’t touch them. And guess what? They would do the same things. I would argue I’ve done the same thing in the subway. So I just want to be clear that if you measure the wrong things, and then you get the kind of outcomes that we see now… where in that case, you have no control over recidivism if you have people that are being targeted.
I think we need to measure things like opportunity, like our people, how many less people are we locking up? How many people are we connecting to services and training and housing? I live in New York City, and I’ve lived here all my life. And if you go down 5th Avenue from some of the worst communities, and then you get to 96th Street, and things change. Things change considerably. Things get pretty damn safe, and you have to ask yourself what’s the distinction? Because in Harlem and the Bronx, what you see is NYPD guard towers; you see officers on patrol; you see parole officers, probation officers; you see all the things that we tell ourselves lend themselves to public safety. And then you get to 96th Street, and you see better schools and better housing and better education and better healthcare.
The truth is those are the things that actually help us to achieve public safety, and as a country, I think that we’ve convinced each other of this mass incarceration system that we all have sort of come to believe in. The most difficult part of “half by 2030” for us as an organization is to get people to use their imagination to imagine something a lot different.
People who have been harmed by our criminal justice system are no longer willing to allow the stigma of that conviction to get in the way of having their voices heard. I think there are two things you can organize in this country. You can organize money, and you can organize people. When 100 million people are affected by an issue… and more and more, they see people being willing to speak out about the harm that was caused to them, I think that that is the sort of momentum that can’t be stopped.
Denver: Well, let me close with this, Glenn. You are optimistic about this struggle and believe that you and others in this fight are going to prevail because we have reached a tipping point of sorts. Why do you think we have reached that tipping point?
Glenn: Because people who have been harmed by our criminal justice system are no longer willing to allow the stigma of that conviction to get in the way of having their voices heard. I think there are two things you can organize in this country. You can organize money, and you can organize people. When 100 million people are affected by an issue… and more and more, they see people being willing to speak out about the harm that was caused to them, I think that that is the sort of momentum that can’t be stopped.
The fact of the matter is that a system that distinguishes victims from offenders when the truth is: that I didn’t learn how to pull out a gun on someone until someone pulled out a gun on me. That is the case for how many people end up in the criminal justice system. Except when they are victims of crime, they’re not deserving victims. But when they are offenders who already spent a quarter million dollars to lock them up, I think those days are over. I think those days are over because the 100 million Americans are no longer willing to sit back and own the stigma and live in the shadows and the shame of having been involved in the criminal justice system. That is something that even our president won’t be able to stop.
Denver: Well said. Well, Glenn E. Martin, the Founder and President of JustLeadership USA, I want to thank you for being here this evening for a most informative and interesting conversation. For listeners who want to learn more about your organization or become engaged in this work in some fashion… even helping support it, where is your website, and what’s on it?
Glenn: If people go to JustLeadershipUSA.org, there’s a chance to donate to support the organization or become a member. If you’re in New York and you’re interested in the CLOSErikers Campaign, visit Closerikers.org, and again, there are ways for people to get engaged beyond just financial support. Also being involved in the actual policy advocacy and organizing work that it takes to continue to hold the mayor accountable.
Denver: Well, thanks, Glenn. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Glenn: Thanks so much. Great to be here.
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