Tonight at Dawn Media produced its first film, Tomaro, a documentary short about education in a Nigerian community.

Prison Reform: (Part 5) Freedom Isn’t Free

Text by Kimberly Cecchini

Please support justice reform with JustLeadershipUSA

Read Dr. Bowman’s book, Color Behind Bars

Glenn E. Martin might be selling sunglasses today had he been given 1 of the 40 some jobs he applied for after his release. It was the only interview the college graduate had landed. Why? It’s highly likely because of one little box at the bottom of employment applications; he had to draw a check mark in the “Yes” box indicating that he had indeed been convicted of a crime.

It’s a good thing he had “…prepared (him)self for failure as part of moving towards success”.

Although he was almost hired “on the spot” for the retail position, the boss vetoed his employment when he learned about Glenn’s background despite anti-discrimination laws. In fact thousands of Americans each year try to put their lives back together after prison and it is that 12 pt. box that looms over their prospects.

“Ban the Box” is one of the many projects Mr. Martin has been working on over the past 13 years as a prison reform advocate. His rise is uncharacteristic of most people who have served time, but he is using his own story, and that of other people in the system, to create change throughout the ​criminal justice system.

In his case, it’s a good thing he never did get that sunglasses gig.

At the time, though, Glenn was just trying to get on his feet and pay back the approximately one hundred thousand dollars he owed for ​fines, fees, restitution and child support arrears since there are not any real wages to garnish in lockup. Eventually, through an intermediate social services agency, he was connected to a receptionist position at a ​public interest ​law firm. Though, at 16 thousand dollars a year, Mr. Martin was not earning enough to live on and pay his debts, the basic job became the very modest start to the trajectory he has been on since it.

Low and behold, the law firm turned out to be a non-profit that services people with HIV, substance abuse issues and criminal records. Each time Glenn picked up the phone at his desk, he was speaking to the mayor, legislators and many people who were in the system and it led him to realize that, “…having a conversation about personal responsibility is such a joke. When you see hundreds of people with the same problem that’s being administered by the same bureaucracy over and over, you realize it’s not the individual, it’s the policy.”

After earning internal promotions within the firm, Mr. Martin became director of the National HIRE (Helping Individuals Reenter Through Employment) Network and successfully helped to create policy in 10 states to limit barriers to employment. Along this journey, Glenn learned about what durable, effective policy looks like and the value of having people who have experienced the system involved in creating policy about the system.

Despite his policy victories, Glenn moved onto a leadership role in ​The ​Fortune​ Society​, a direct service organization, so he could reconnect with individuals who were directly impacted by the system. He helped to grow Fortune in a variety ways; he established a formal advocacy arm, became the organization’s spokesperson and led fundraising.

Ultimately, Glenn started to feel the limitations of doing advocacy in a direct service organization and sought the freedom to push for greater upheaval in the system; “If you look back at social ​justice movements in the US, it’s not until America says we did something wrong that we see paradigm shifts. You look at HIV/AIDS; it’s not until we said that’s not how we treat sick Americans that you see shifts in policy.” The stigma of being under criminal supervision, leads even the “…most staunch advocates to want to bring to the table the most perfect prisoner which feeds right into the rhetoric about who is deserving and who is not – as opposed to talking about the system.”

To effect paradigm shift in justice reform, Glenn founded JustLeadershipUSA as a membership organization to harness the power of people. Membership groups such as AARP are formidable and influence legislators because they are 30 million strong and, therefore, cannot be ignored. Upon its hard launch at the end of the year, Mr. Martin hopes that Americans from all walks of life will join to support its initiatives which include:

Advocacy: Along with addressing policy issues, Mr. Martin wants to push to cut the prison system in half by 2030; he says its bold, audacious and is ultimately meant to convey a message that we need significant reform. He hopes to achieve this through stemming the tide of folks going into the system and decarceration. He is encouraged as President Obama already set a precedent on the federal level with a clemency initiative. Glenn summarized Attorney General Eric Holder’s support for it; “We have way too many people in prison for way to long for no good law enforcement reason.”

Leadership: With the Columbia University School of Law​ and a number of other partners​, JustLeadershipUSA will thoroughly train and provide tool kits to assist advocates in starting conversations about and work for decarceration in their states.

Communication: Expand communication through new mediums and reach out to mainstream America on an emotional level.

Parole: “Everything about it feels as though you are still defining me as a criminal…”

What is the purpose of parole? The basic goal of parole is to ensure offenders transition into a productive, lawful way of life, right?

Unfortunately, the conditions of parole are a quick slip away from handcuffs and put demands on parolees that are not reasonable for adults and 12 year olds would buck against such things as curfews before sundown. The first time that Mr. Martin was given an opportunity to shift policy, he was still on parole and shared,

“When I go to parole and I sit there in the waiting room, everything about the experience is the opposite of what you’re telling me parole is supposed to be doing to change my life…everything about it feels as though you are still defining me as a criminal; you can’t use your cell phone, you can’t bring your kids, when you go up to the glass ​ partition without permission​, when you go up to the window there’s a bullet proof glass between you and the front desk person, you don’t want us talking to each other and there’s no reading material, etc., etc., etc.”

When asked what is one thing that can make the experience more productive and dignifying, Glenn requested that computers be installed so that parolees could at least search for jobs while they waited.

Chauncey Parker, who was head of the ​NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services at the time, acted on his suggestion within weeks.

“You Think Prison is Tough, Try Getting a Job After You Get Out”

Arrests create serious baggage which inhibit a person’s ability and right to recover their lives -particularly juveniles – and it puts additional strain on resources when citizens lack opportunities to positively contribute. There are a number of collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated people​ carry with them for a lifetime.

“Ban the Box” initiatives are one step towards alleviating some of the challenges people face after incarceration. On August 11th, New Jersey joined the growing list of states and municipalities that have or will be eradicating the question of whether or not an applicant has a criminal record. Such legislation provides prospective employees the opportunity to present themselves in an interview before the employer can pose this question.

Even further than that, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rand Paul of Kentucky have joined forces across the aisle to push the bill REDEEM, Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment.

One of the bill’s measures will allow adults with nonviolent offenses to request for their criminal records to be sealed. If they are granted this, they will be able to lawfully state that they do not exist. Another one of the measures would be to, depending on the child’s age, expunge or automatically seal a juvenile’s nonviolent record. If enacted, REDEEM will benefit both nonviolent adult and juvenile offenders to decrease inhibitions to successful reintegration.

“Until America owns its problem, I’m not going to own the shame of my criminal record.”

It may been a little uncomfortable for him at first when he shared his story publicly and knew that his neighbors would hear it too, but Glenn’s ultimate feeling about his past is that he will not “own the shame” until our nation truly starts to face our bloated criminal system.

Too many folks, though, hold onto their shame and he is glad that sometimes his public presence gives other people the strength to “come out of the shadows”. After one of his television appearances, a well educated middle aged Caucasian woman ​from Orange County, California, ​reached out to him to tell him her own story.

Although a large percentage of Americans carry a criminal record and they have ‘paid their debt to society,’ our society inspires shame and inhibits reentry. Dr. Scott Brown speaks about the contradiction that these folks often are not afforded the second opportunity to fully participate in society as would be beneficial for the individual, their family and their community.

“In theory, a person that has served their time in prison is supposed to return to society with a second chance; however, we make it tremendously difficult to achieve the most basic things (e.g. housing, employment, self-determination). If a person was truly restored, we would have a knowledge of their past actions without penalizing them through every step of their reentry. In other words, they would be largely “restored” back into society with a realistic chance at self-sustainability.”

~Dr. Brown

Damned if you do try and damned if you don’t.

Final Words & Numbers

The statistics in our justice system are staggering.

-The U.S. Has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.

-The U.S. has 2.3 million people in prison today.

-U.S. prisons cost taxpayers 80 billion dollars each year. —Compare that to what is paid for education !!

These are only some of the numbers that paint the picture of the United States JUSTICE system. With these numbers, the word “justice” is being used too loosely.

Too many of us feel too removed from the world of criminal justice, but these numbers are people. Yet no matter where we may live in this nation, whether we know it -or speak it – or not, we all know someone who has been under criminal supervision. They are our neighbors, our children, our cousins, our friends and ourselves.

I’ll leave you with Senator Booker’s words,

“We’ve created an America right now that is manifesting the worst extremes of our culture. We are a nation that believes in fairness and equality and yet we have a prison system right now that is dramatically over-incarcerating poor people and minorities and if you think about it, right now this is what is so chilling to me is right now in America we have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all of the slaves in the 1850’s…This is something that all Americans should realize, we’re all paying a price for a broken system – millions, billions – to incarcerate people for low level, non-violent crimes instead of focusing our resources to help people succeed and lowering the burden on taxpayers and making our streets safer.”

References

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

Dr. Scott W. Bowman, Professor of Criminal Justice. Email interview. 11 June 2014.

“Cory Booker and Rand Paul Join Forces on Prison Reform.” The Brian Lehrer Show. WNYC. New York, New York, 31 July 2014. Web. 3 Aug. 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. 26 Aug. 2014.

%d bloggers like this: