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Prison Reform (Part 4): Peering Through the Bars

Text and photo by Kimberly Cecchini

“I mean for a guy who used to pull guns on people in the streets…get into fights at parties, I went to Riker’s and was scared shitless. It’s gladiator school. And the only way to survive is to be a gladiator.” Glenn E. Martin gestures to a stab wound on his neck and towards the other scars on his head and his back to underscore his point.

For those of you not familiar with the infamous jail complex, Riker’s sprawls over an island between the Bronx and Queens boroughs in New York City. The island hosts local inmates, at a cost of $176,000 per person per year, who are awaiting trial, cannot or are not given an opportunity to post bail or are serving shorter sentences.

Speaking about a recent New York Times article on correctional officers at Riker’s during our interview, Glenn is incredulous, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why is anyone surprised?” With the variety of prisoners and the rampant corruption, he refers to the jail as a “powder keg of violence”. The numbers from the Times’ piece back up his words:

-January 2014 through June 2014: “Correction officers used force on inmates 1,927 times…”

-2013: During 11 months, 129 inmates needed treatment beyond the jail’s clinics due to the severity of their injuries in altercations with staff members: 77% of these inmates were identified as mentally ill

-Since 2009, inmate on inmate altercations and assaults on staff has “increased year by year”

Mr. Martin further illustrates the storied corruption at Riker’s with his own time in the jail. It sounds like TV. Glenn asserts that the CO’s “fed off” the violence, going so far as to make space for guys to beat up an inmate that the officers didn’t like. He also said it was easier to get drugs in prison than it was in the inner city neighborhood of his youth, Bed-Stuy. In fact, he never did drugs until he was penned up at Riker’s; “…if I was going to be arrested, it would be for getting money, not drugs.” With nothing to do but dwell on the judge’s offer of 20-40 years, he paid off a guard for marijuana.

After a year in the city jail, the judge offered him a plea, and, like 96% of defendants, Glenn took it and was transferred upstate.

Upstate

Though less restrictive, the upstate prison was ironically much safer. Exemplifying this dichotomy is the fact that inmates were allowed packages with canned goods. The jagged lids that would have quickly been wielded as weapons in Riker’s were rendered innocuous in the state facility. Relations between correctional officers and inmates were significantly less contentious as the CO’s demonstrated more respect than their Riker’s counterparts. Remarkably it was due to a ​ correctional counselor’s ​ prompting that led Glenn to earn his liberal arts degree during his time upstate.

Despite being a vast improvement over the island, there were still issues at the upstate facility, so Mr. Martin joined the inmate liaison board. He differed from many of the previous members as he had a sincere interest in making changes rather than an interest in the loophole ​some ​other prisoners leveraged to access drugs. Unfortunately, as many correctional officers are no more educated than the prisoners they supervised, they perceived it as a threat when Glenn stacked the group with college graduates.

One by one the men were put into the “box” (solitary confinement) for a week or two to reinforce their message; stay on the board and stay in the box or quietly work towards your release.

“Insidious.”

Glenn heeded the warning, but it reinforced for him that “…the whole system was oppressive, hypocritical, racist, endurable”. He had expended so much energy in seeking control his whole life and he realized he had none. It was “a slap in the face”.

Parole & the Deuce Club

Keep your head down and your nose clean, right? When Glenn moved to the state prison, he thought he had a year and a half left of his sentence. Not so fast. With an indeterminate sentence his fate was beholden to the parole board. Regardless of an inmate’s institutional record, the parole board often adds time on a sentence if they feel the inmate did not receive enough years ​ in court. This course of action is often at the behest of the ​governor who appoints them.

Indeed the board rejected Mr. Martin’s parole a few times due to the “nature of the crime” -and the political climate- “​The judge gave me 2 1/2 years, but Governor ​Pataki gave me 6 years, damn it.”

Glenn was certainly not an exception. There’s a group of inmates upstate who are serving 15 to life and have been dubbed the “Deuce Club” because the parole board keeps hitting them with 2 year extensions and they end up doing 26 or so years.

“I think it’s undermining to the judge and everyone who’s in the courtroom.”

The board cites the ‘nature of the crime’ to make their determination, but Glenn argues that the judge was well aware of the ‘nature of the crime’ when he/she assigned the punishment; with an indeterminate sentence, “the judge is saying, ‘don’t screw up and you have a good chance of getting out in 4′”.

Even more, according to Glenn, there is no return on the money taxpayers spend on extended sentences. Studies show that if the parole board released folks with indeterminate sentences sooner rather than later, they would not pose any more danger to the public than if you wait because “people age out of crime.”

The Politics of Prison

So is it the corporate prisons that are exasperating the system? Advocate Carol L. believes that private prison companies drive much of the negativity in the system because they are able to strong arm the legislation with large lobbying groups, “… they spend millions on laws designed to increase incarceration, (that are) tough on crime and (they) have a stake in detention centers. Empty beds do not generate profits. Private prisons are a billion dollar industry profiting off of human bondage.”

On the other hand, Glenn questions the wisdom of focusing on private prisons; he feels the debate is a distraction from the other inherent issues in the system. It’s the economic engine surrounding all prisons that is often the debate; local jobs, the related services and the local businesses-like those that service inmate visitors-that benefit from the industry. In fact it is much like the coal debate; coal has an adverse affect on health and the environment but people are adamant on maintaining its presence in their communities because they cannot envision what will replace it in their local economies.

Regardless of the cause, Carol would agree with Glenn, “I can’t think of any other industry that has such a failure rate” with 2/3 of inmates returning to jail.

“I can’t think of any other industry that has such a failure rate”

Reform Behind the Bars

Carol L. sums it up, “The entire prison environment must be changed and it starts with staff.” Her view as a mother and advocate that prisons are run on punishment rather than rehabilitation echoes Glenn’s own view from his direct experience. One solution to create a more productive, compassionate environment that fosters growth is to look at those who interact daily with the prisoners-the correctional officers. Many CO’s obtain their positions and promotions via such circumstances as family connections and he believes that officers would be more effective if they had degrees in ​social work or ​criminal justice. Also, in order to avoid the issues that are developed with the fatigue of being in this line of work, these officers should be limited to a period of 7 years as part of a career track to other jobs in the field.

Additionally, practical life skills should be integrated more into daily routines to prepare inmates for reentry into mainstream society. For instance, inmates should actually have to apply and interview for the jobs they hold during their sentence so they can imbibe all the skills surrounding these experiences. There are a number of other skills that many people need direct instruction in due to limited exposure such as household finances, medical insurance, and child care.

Additionally, folks who have been impacted by the system should be included more frequently in conversations about the system. They, like Mr. Martin, can lead the discussion on what is working and what is not with priceless first hand experience.

Half by 2030

What might be the boldest solution to mitigate the issues in the U.S. prison system?

With his new organization, JustLeadershipUSA, Glenn is promoting a goal to CUT THE PRISON SYSTEM IN HALF BY 2030. Bold? Absolutely. Mr. Martin would be the first to agree that it is bold, and that there are a number of things to be addressed even if we achieve this goal. Still, it would be a great step and he proposes that removing mandatory minimums, ​eliminating the 3 strike system and instituting merit time would help move the system towards 2030.

In order to effect more promising change, Glenn Martin certainly heralds efforts that includes people who have been involved in the justice system. In addition, with JustLeadershipUSA, he also wants to include all Americans in the conversation because it affects all of us; our tax dollars, our safety and our values as a nation.

After its hard launch in November, JustLeadershipUSA will interact with the public in a multifaceted manner; it’s developing tool kits with Columbia University to train advocates in shaping dialogue on the state and local level. It will also have a greater center of power in its messages and reach because it will operate like AARP–except that is membership pool will not just be those in the system, but it will be open to all Americans to support reform.

Half by 2030? Maybe. It is a bold notion, but we need it for a truly free nation.

References:

Glenn E. Martin, Founder of JustLeadershipUSA. Personal interview. 26 June 2014.

Carol L., Blog founder (Prison Reform Movement). Email interview. May 2014.

Winerip, Michael, and Michael Schwirtz. “Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 July 2014. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.

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