Sign up for the NEWS newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

Let our news meet your inbox

'Leading With Conviction' to End Mass Incarceration

by Heather Schultz /
Prison reform advocate Glenn Martin in Harlem, New York City, on Oct. 1, 2015. (John Brecher / NBC News)John Brecher / NBC News

The act of compassion isn’t typically shown to the vast and forgotten population behind bars.

A recent story about White House visitation policies for ex-cons left one reader commenting that “The best way to avoid the ‘stigma’ of being a felon is to choose not to commit a crime.”

This is the mindset of most Americans, according to Glenn Martin, a 43-year-old outspoken prison reform activist who served six years in the New York State prison system for an armed robbery.

After serving seven years as Vice President of Development and Public Affairs at The Fortune Society and embracing his mission to initiate a non-partisan conversation on mass incarceration in a country with a recidivism rate of 66 percent, Martin founded JustLeadershipUSA in November 2014.

With an audacious goal of cutting the U.S. prison population in half by 2030, the criminal justice reform nonprofit provides a year-long training program called Leading with Conviction where formerly incarcerated individuals like himself share their vision for eliminating mass incarceration.

 Prison reform advocate Glenn Martin in Harlem, New York City, on Oct. 1, 2015. (John Brecher / NBC News) John Brecher / NBC News

NBCBLK: What were the biggest takeaways during your six-year stint in prison?

Glenn Martin: The most significant revelation was the tremendous amount of hypocrisy built into our criminal justice system. It’s a perverse system that trumpets itself as one of rehabilitation. A system where structural racism is inherent. White inmates are treated with preference and drugs are more readily available than they are in the free society. It's a system where the correction officers rely on punishment techniques — not just to keep people from misbehaving — but to get them to behave in a way that makes their jobs as easy as possible.

Have you experienced the stigma as a formerly incarcerated individual?

I experience the stigma associated with having a record frequently. Fifteen years later, it might look different than what it looks like for someone who just walked out of prison, but it still exists. For instance, renting a home, I have to endure a background check. When I want to travel to other countries to do speaking engagements, background check. Entering sensitive government agencies, background check. If I decided to move from New York to another state, the scarlet letter of a criminal record sticks with me.

I tried to apply for a passport 2.5 years ago and found out that I had a warrant 20 years ago. I spent a year fighting the warrant. The system itself is constantly finding ways to brand a “criminal,” even for someone with 20 years of rehabilitation. It's something I experience year-to-year as a black man with a criminal record in America. I don’t think there’s any way for me to escape it.

What steps are needed to decarcerate America?

We lock up so many people in this country. I think if we really would like to answer that question we should listen closely to the people we incarcerated and respond with a very individualized approach to supporting them. Yet when we talk to people, most Americans want to find a cookie-cutter approach or a silver bullet.

This administration has yet to understand if you’re only having a conversation about "nonviolent offenders" then you’re not having a conversation about ending mass incarceration.

The truth is everyone that walks through the prison door has a different problem and different set of needs. All we seem to be able to talk about is food, clothing and shelter, but it's compassion, hope and opportunity that helps get people back on their feet.

I don’t think data and research alone is enough to end mass incarceration. If we can appeal to only the common sense using data and research, then we are fooling ourselves. Historically, there has been no evidence to end systems of oppression that didn’t include changing the hearts and minds of Americans.

Why is there a disconnect between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and real-life practices on criminal justice issues?

Relatively speaking, this administration is doing more than any previous administration. I think it’s our responsibility to create an environment that rewards and acknowledges the administration for steps in the right direction and holds them responsible for anything that feels overly incremental.

This administration has yet to understand if you’re only having a conversation about "nonviolent offenders" then you’re not having a conversation about ending mass incarceration. It is an example of where the response doesn’t match the rhetoric or the significant amount of human carnage that has been caused by our criminal justice system.

Individual cases can force us to pay attention to one person and lose sight of the need to dismantle the entire House of Cards.

That sort of consistent barrage of damage inflicted by prisons has created an exponential impact in terms of the multi-generational damage that’s been caused. It’s going to take a significant reinvestment to put those communities back on track, not unlike how the Obama Administration sprinkled $80 million dollars on a multi-billion dollar problem in Baltimore.

How is the Black Lives Matter movement impacting prison reform?

It’s clear to me that part of the shift that we’re seeing in terms of policymakers being open to a dialogue about how to end mass incarceration is closely involved to those involved in Black Lives Matter. That’s why I get so frustrated when I see policymakers devalue the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Seasoned policymakers have suggested to them that until they are able to become more structured and more institutionalized, that they’re fighting a losing battle. At the same time, the inherent value of Black Lives Matter is their ability to be nimble and dodge the target they become if they assume a more structured and traditional approach to reform.

What does the Freddie Gray case convey about our criminal justice system?

The criminal justice system has been crushing the backs of young black and brown men for centuries and this case is the crystallization and humanization of that reality. Our criminal justice has always been the enforcement arm of racism. But, if it’s only about Freddie Gray, we’re in trouble. People who support the existing system are extremely comfortable with Americans focusing on one case at a time.

The problem is that the calls for reform generated by each case are mostly emotionally driven. Americans have a hard time understanding our criminal justice system as just that, a system — policing, parole, probation, private prisons, deportation of immigrants — and individual cases can force us to pay attention to one person and lose sight of the need to dismantle the entire House of Cards.

How does JustLeadershipUSA fit in the policy conversation on ending mass incarceration?

Using a top-down political reform movement to end mass incarceration is a failed strategy. Historically, there is a roadmap for ending systems of oppression. It’s always by winning the hearts and minds of Americans, where whites, blacks, and others all begin to collectively say and believe "this is not working, it doesn’t fit our value system, and we need to do something different." We’re not there yet and we’re certainly not going to get there by appealing mostly to policymakers.

If we’re talking to people who only designed [the] system we currently have, policies will always invariably reflect the interest of those who designed them. Systems of oppression are durable and they reinvent themselves. If the voices of people most oppressed by the system are not heard, and their leadership not embraced, the existing system will invariably morph into yet another version of one we currently have.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]

 Prison reform advocate Glenn Martin in Harlem, New York City, on Oct. 1, 2015. (John Brecher / NBC News) John Brecher / NBC News