The Evolution of a Prison Reformer

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When Glenn Martin arrived for a late October meeting in Washington arranged by the U.S. Attorney General Office’s Interagency Reentry Council, he expected perhaps a dozen players to be at the table.

Instead, he recalled, “There were 40.”

Eight participants, including Martin, were formerly incarcerated persons who, like him, hold senior positions in organizations focused on crime and corrections. The remaining attendees were Obama Administration officials, their presence a sign of a growing focus on America’s prison crisis by the White House and even tough-on-crime lawmakers.

Attorney General Eric Holder created the federal reentry council in 2011 as part of an effort to reduce sentences for drug and other nonviolent offenders, and thereby reduce prison populations.

President Barack Obama has supported that effort, openly questioning which prison sentences, particularly those of drug offenders, are fair and which are not.

The Washington meeting focused partly on the topic of equitable sentencing, but it also served as a kind of introduction of Washington policymakers to Just Leadership USA, which Martin launched. The seven other formerly incarcerated leaders are Martin’s collaborators and supporters.

Just Leadership USA makes its formal debut at a November 12 Manhattan fundraiser. Its guest-of-honor is slated to be actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, who has appeared in the hit television series, “The Wire” and “24: Live Another Day.” Akinnagbe is a vocal opponent of some police officers’ random “stop-and frisks” of mainly black and brown people, including those with no criminal history or who pose no immediate threat to public safety.

The event aims to raise at least $250,000, according to Martin, who traded a $170,000-a-year post as vice president of development and public affairs with the influential Fortune Society to found the New York City-based Just Leadership.

Challenging Assumptions

At its core, Martin said, Just Leadership challenges some people’s broad assumption that formerly incarcerated people “can’t read or write” or smartly weigh in on the socially and emotionally tangled issues of crime, courts and corrections.

For the most part, the individuals leading that discussion tend not to have been imprisoned. Although many of them play significant roles in the courts, corrections and policing, some harbor ideals and opinions that are not always grounded in fact, Martin argues.

“You don’t achieve a moral argument for reform if you do what [so-called] progressives have been doing for years, serving up the ‘perfect prisoner’ who is the first-time, non-violent drug offender,” added Martin, whose group aspires to attract members from a broad swath of America, including lay people and criminal justice practitioners.

“That person,” he continued in an interview with The Crime Report, “actually doesn’t go to prison. I’ve never met him. That’s the person who went home from the courthouse. By the time [most] people end up in prison, they have multiple convictions.”

He added: “What we are asking for is a system … that is really based on social justice ”

To that end, Just Leadership, whose partners include the Columbia University Center for Institutional and Social Change, beginning in February 2014, will host its first 10-month-long training for ex-inmates wanting to play a part in the national debate over crime, courts and corrections policy and reform.

The training will focus on organizational development, fundraising, marketing, public relations and other skills that will help them make their voices heard in Just Leadership’s campaign to halve the nation’s prison population by 2030.

Martin contends that hoped-for reduction is not as far-fetched as it may seem, considering that New York State has cut its prison population by about 25 percent over the last 15 years.

But Just Leadership’s core goal is to “shift the paradigm” of the criminal justice debate by appealing to the compassion and common sense of Americans, Martin said. Once ordinary citizens hear the real stories of individuals who have been incarcerated, and about the multilayered impact of mass imprisonment on society, “we’re going to get the system to tip,” Martin predicts.

Amy Solomon, a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Justice and one of the officials at last month’s meeting in Washington, agrees that it’s important that anyone with a stake in criminal justice be a part of the dialogue about that system.

“The reentry council welcomes input from stakeholders about ways to reduce policy barriers to successful reentry,” said Solomon, who helps oversee the federal reentry council.

“There are many people who have expertise in the justice arena and have been personally impacted by the justice system, and it’s extremely valuable to hear their perspectives.”

‘Second Chance’ Fellow

As one sign of that conviction, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Visiting Fellows Program is scheduled to select its first-ever formerly incarcerated, “Second Chance Fellow” into its 2015 class.

The program will formally solicit applicants later this year, according to Solomon.

Momentum for changing America’s sentencing and incarceration policies got another boost with last week’s announcement of a $50 million Open Society Foundation grant to the American Civil Liberties Union for its efforts to tackle incarceration rates that have remained relatively steady even as the nation’s crime rate overall has declined in recent years.

Such initiatives by the government, foundations and organizations such as Just Leadership are crucial, according to Manuel La Fontaine, an organizer with San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children.

“We’re not the anthropologists, the criminologists … And, much of the time, those individuals do not respect our struggle,” said La Fontaine, one of the formerly incarcerated men and women who participated in the Washington meeting.

“My hope,” added La Fontaine, “is that we build a movement, an inclusive movement, where we are valued, where those who’ve been directly impacted by incarceration are treated as equals in addressing issues pertaining to the criminal justice system.”

“More often than not, we become second-class citizenry at conferences. That’s got to change.”

Martin, too, believes that its critical for policymakers to hear the voices of the formerly incarcerated.

While serving time in prison, Martin said he realized that Americans were being “bamboozled” by standard explanations about who goes to prison and what happens to them once they get there.

While “the concept of rehabilitation has deteriorated into rhetoric without substance,” Martin said, those inside were far from totally demoralized.

“The people I shared cells with maintained hope, dreams and aspirations, just like any other American,” he recalls. “Many of them also had a keen understanding of the policies and practices that led to mass incarceration and, more importantly, what we can do differently.

“When I was released, it was the one day I allowed myself to cry, because I left behind some of America’s best and brightest!”

Freelance journalist Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. She covers criminal justice, health, higher education and other topics for a range of national and regional magazines, newspapers and online news sites. A 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, she is investigating Veterans Treatment Courts aimed at keeping mentally ill, law-breaking veterans out of prison. She welcomes comments from readers.

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