BY BETH PETER
Enraptured students clung to every word as criminal justice reform advocate Glenn Martin spoke on Thursday, Feb. 11 at the latest installment of the Legacy Project lecture series at the County College of Morris.
Martin outlined a bold plan to cut the amount of people in prison in half by 2030.
“Whether you did something wrong or not,” said Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA, “The fact that you get sent to a jail where your safety is in jeopardy every moment while you’re there, and your human dignity is taken away as you cross the bridge to Rikers [Island], felt problematic to me. Even at the age of 16.”
If Martin sounds like he is speaking from experience, it is because he is, having spent the balance of six years incarcerated.
Martin founded JLUSA with the goal of halving the American incarcerated population by 2030. According to the mission statement, JLUSA “empowers people most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform.”
In the Student Community Center at CCM, Martin spoke to roughly 300 students and faculty members about his mission.
“I don’t think the irony has escaped many people nowadays in 2016 that in the land of the free, that we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world,” Sociology Professor Gerald S. Kloby said in his introductory remarks. “Or, technically, I suppose the second highest incarceration rate. Only one country locks up a higher percentage of its people than the United States and that’s the tiny nation of Seychelles which is a country of less than a hundred thousand people.”
Kloby praised the Legacy Project’s efficacy in bringing in an impressive spread of speakers over the last three years, lauding the lectures as “good for all of us, good for students mostly and good for faculty. We found them very inspiring.”
Martin’s experience in prison was an enthralling story on its own.
“At the age of 16 I got arrested for petty larceny and shoplifting and found myself at a place called Rikers Island,” Martin said. The prison is the second largest jail in the United States. “In New York, we charge 16-year-olds as adults.”
According to a 2014 report by the Department of Justice, at Rikers “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities.”
“He focused a lot on the human being and the value of a human being and how our prison system dehumanizes people so much,” said Spyridoula Fotinis, an international studies major. “I thought that was very cool, that from experience he was speaking.”
Martin said the experience in prison becomes a series of bad choices.
“As soon as you get there, at the age of 16, you quickly have to make a decision,” Martin said. “You either have to be predator, or prey.”
This decision is very nearly irreversible, Martin said, and he shared the story of a man who, on Martin’s first day there, attempted to take his leather coat from him.
“And if you give up your leather coat in that moment, you will probably not be able to come back from that,” Martin said. “And so I had a fight with him and that resulted in four stab wounds in my body that I still have today, in my neck and in my back.”
Martin said of the 9,800 people at Rikers today, the majority of them, over 80 percent, are there as detainees.
“They’re charged with a crime, they’re not convicted of anything, and they’re subject to vast amounts of violence,” Martin said.
Further, with what Martin calls collateral consequences, the punishments doled out by imprisonment can be much longer lasting and more pervasive than required by the courts. He referenced the The Four E’s: education, employment, enfranchisement, and equality.
“If you have a criminal record, with all the criminal record discrimination that exists in this country, most of it statutory, some of it practical, it takes away all of those things,” Martin said.
According to Martin, this leaves the formerly incarcerated with far fewer options than an individual who never entered the criminal justice system.
“There are universities, there are colleges, I don’t know what the rules are in this one, that say if you have a criminal record you can’t even apply to go to school here,” Martin said. “There are some higher education institutions where they don’t ever have people show up on campus, it’s all remote, and they still don’t let you apply if you have a felony.”
This can seem very dismal, but Martin has a plan with which he hopes to halve the incarcerated population by the year 2030.
“If you’ll notice, I’ve been up here for maybe 15 minutes already and I haven’t said convict, I haven’t said ex-offender, I haven’t said inmate and I haven’t said prisoner. I haven’t said any of the words given to us by the system to refer to people in the system,” Martin said. “Why? Because if we can’t humanize people who end up in prison in this country, we’ll never end mass incarceration.”
Martin said he has a plan. If we can humanize individuals who are incarcerated, he postulates that we will then be able to look incarceration in a different light.
“If they’re just inmates, and animals, and thugs, and all of the dog-whistle words we tend to use about people who end up in the system, then who cares,” Martin said. “And if they’re that scary, then I don’t care what it costs to lock them up. But if they’re human beings, and if they’re anything like us, then we stop for a minute.”
Martin also touched on the overwhelming majority of people of color in the United States prison system. According to the NAACP, African American and Hispanics make up 58 percent of all those incarcerated, while they’re only about one quarter of the US population.
“I think his complete lack of fear to bring up…the things going on that built up our institutions, the way he talked about white privilege, the way he talked about America’s history so boldly was so powerful to me,” said Sabrina Alvarado, a liberal arts major.
Though spoken eloquently, Martin’s plan did not appease every listener.
“I thought he was a little bit simplistic,” said criminal justice Professor John Hurd. “I see that we can do better than we’re doing. I see that we can reduce [the incarcerated population].”
Hurd said he thought Martin put too much weight on the racism inherent in the system.
“I think the problem is deeper than just race,” Hurd said. “It almost has to be just culture. The culture of criminal justice almost has to be changed”
Hurd said the personification of justice, a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales, is supposed to symbolize justice being blind to race, religion, color or sexual orientation.
“She’s just looking at: these are the facts, this is the penalty,” Hurd said. “I wonder if we could ever get to a society where that’s the way we dealt with justice.”
Hurd did agree with Martin that the problem of crime is tied to areas that are more socioeconomically depressed. Hurd, though, focused also on the “Three Strikes” statutes present in many states.
According to the Department of Justice, the “Three Strikes” statutes give mandatory life imprisonment if an individual is convicted in federal court of a serious violent felony and has two or more prior convictions in federal or state courts, at least one of which is a serious violent felony. The other prior offense may be a serious drug offense.
Hurd said these “Three Strikes” laws increase the prison population because people tend to age out of crime.
“You’re always going to have your career criminals, but there are some people who stopped committing crimes at age 22, 23, 24,” Hurd said. “The inherent unfairness with the ‘Three Strikes’ law is you’re put into jail for 25 to life at a point in their life when they’re just about ready to age out of crime naturally.”
Hurd said his goal is to get the young offender out of the system before they even get in the system.
“His idea is great,” Hurd said of Martin. “I feel like there can be some reform to the criminal justice system.”
Martin said it’s important to not shy away from potentially difficult topics, to share stories about hardships.
“If you look historically in this country, that’s how movements are built,” Martin said. “Movements have faces, movements have stories. Movements have narratives, movements have real people. And movements have people who are not directly impacted by an issue standing alongside people who are because they feel connected because of their humanity. But we don’t get there if we don’t tell stories.”