Text by Kimberly Cecchini
Today, Glenn E. Martin is an accomplished prison reform advocate who has co-led such organizations as The Fortune Society and the National HIRE Network at the Legal Action Center and is currently developing JustLeadershipUSA. He has written for the New York Times, appeared on cable news shows and has had the ears of powerful people such as New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
After discussing the proposed “Ban the Box” legislation on Al-Jazeera America, I was fortunate he met me for an interview at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan. Very personable and forthcoming, he provided me with great fodder for Tonight at Dawn’s series on prison reform that will also be informed by interviews with Professor Scott Bowman of Texas State University, prison reform advocate, Carol, of the Prison Reform Movement blog and other resources.
A Not Uncommon Tale of Inner Cities
Glenn’s success as an advocate was born out of his own experiences in the criminal justice system and life in the inner city.
In search of the American dream, Glenn’s family relocated from Grenada back to New York when he was nine. A single mother, his mom had to seek public assistance and move her three boys into the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, “And we’re not talking about gentrified Bed-Stuy of today, we’re talking about what they used to call, ‘Bed-Stuy, do or die’.”
Thanks to the British school system in Grenada, the boys had a stronger educational foundation than most of their peers in Brooklyn and Glenn’s mother ensured each of her sons earned their high school diplomas. Having not graduated from the twelfth grade, she saw this as the pinnacle of achievement in a time in the United States when college degrees had become the minimum required for most good jobs. With the lack of favorable possibilities modeled in their surroundings, it was only her eldest son who slipped out of the “proverbial fence around the ‘hood” quickly enough to avoid trouble. He escaped directly to the Navy after graduation, and through the opportunities he was exposed to and afforded through his experiences in the armed forces, Glenn’s older brother built a good life for himself far beyond the perimeter of Bed-Stuy.
Motivated to be sovereign from public assistance, Glenn’s own plans to join the army were not enough to tame the lure of tangible opportunities in the streets. Within a year of graduating high school, he was arrested with a weapon in Manhattan.
Glenn took a youthful offender adjudication plea, and, as his lawyer never explained its ramifications, he and the enlistment officer thought he had a conviction that would bar him from service. Furthermore, probation was ineffective so he returned to his mantra of escaping a life of poverty and he returned to illegal means, “…when you live in a community such as Bedford-Stuyvesant back in the 80’s and the early 90’s, you engage in behavior that would lend itself to not growing up in poverty.” Although, many will cite anecdotes of people who grow up in similar conditions and find success in the mainstream, Glenn points out that those people often do not return-his own brother “literally, physically” stayed away for ten years. “Therefore,” he concludes, “those examples (of success) don’t exist for the people coming behind them.” Without these tangible references, he and other youth in more depressed areas have few positives examples to model themselves after in their environment, and he asserts that
“…opportunities are not real unless people truly believe that they can take advantage of them…”
Returning to the only opportunities that appeared real for Glenn at the time, he engaged in armed robberies until he was finally arrested with a high bail and a possible 20-40 year sentence.
His first stop? A year in the infamous Riker’s Island prison with at least one stab wound as a souvenir.
Throughout the Prison Reform series at Tonightatdawn.com, I will share Mr. Martin’s story, his evolutions and his insights into how the system should be changed along with perspectives from academia and a mother of an incarcerated male. Please stay tuned for the next post in the Prison Reform series at Tonightatdawn.com: Part 2: “Looking Upstream” in which causes and prevention of incarnation will be discussed.
Twitter: @glennEmartin, @justleadersusa
Glenn E. Martin, Founder of JustLeadershipUSA.” Personal interview. 26 June 2014.