Glenn E. Martin’s criminal past began with chocolate. As a young boy, that’s what he first chose to slip into his pockets at local department stores. From there, he graduated into breaking into stores, and eventually to armed robbery.
“Everything I did was about escaping poverty. I wanted to do anything so that I could pay rent, buy clothes and food. I was embarrassed about using food stamps. I was hell-bent on not struggling like my mother.”
Glenn’s mother had emigrated to New York from the Caribbean with her two little boys, hoping to give them a chance at a better future. But their new life in Brooklyn was a far cry from those dreams.
“Growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, you have a narrative, a very powerful narrative. ‘I’m black; no one cares. No one comes to my neighborhood unless they are a policeman or a teacher.’ “
For Glenn, the truth of that narrative was all around him. His mother was underemployed, without health coverage and economic opportunities, raising Glenn and his brother in a community that was impoverished and crime-ridden, the perfect breeding ground for trouble.
“As a single parent she couldn’t compete with the element in the street pulling me toward it.”
At 16, Glenn was arrested for shoplifting and sent to the notorious prison on Riker’s Island. The Judge thought 48 hours there might scare Glenn straight. And it was a frightening experience. During those two days Glenn was stabbed four times. But rather than deter him from crime, he says it won him admiration from his friends.
“I could survive in one of the worst jails in the country. It was a badge of honor that I could handle it.”
By the age of 23, Glenn was back at Riker’s Island, convicted of armed robbery. After spending a year there, he was transferred to an upstate prison where he would spend 5 more years and where his life would take an unexpected turn.
“I was at my lowest, both in terms of my life circumstances and my self-esteem. It was a profound experience for me that someone, especially in that setting, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
The ACLU reports that the United States holds the unfortunate title of “The World’s Leading Jailer.” With just 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of its inmates. 2.3 Million people are behind bars and another 5.6 million are under correctional supervision - a system of mass incarceration that is costing taxpayers $85 billion a year.
In 1995, Glenn E. Martin was one of the statistics. He was serving six years in prison for robbing a jewelry store at gunpoint. During those years, he lost more than his freedom. He lost touch with his 4-year- old son.
“It wasn’t until I got to prison that I realized that I didn’t have a father in my life and I was replicating that cycle. You don’t ever get back the first 10 years of a child’s life. Prison doesn’t facilitate family. It rips families apart. It took my family 8 hours to travel to where I was and 6 hours to get back home. So I told them to stop visiting, just to write. I went almost 5 years without visits.”
If there was an upside to Glenn’s time in prison it was a fortuitous encounter with a prison counselor whose words struck deep.
“‘You should go to college,’ he told me. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. That experience ultimately changed my trajectory in life.”
In the years that followed, Glenn immersed himself in a rigorous academic program leading to a college degree.
“In a small prison cell, my world was expanding. Books took me to places I could never travel to in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I was taking Russian Literature, just opening my mind to new ideas, new cultures and religions. Learning what other people have gone through helped to dispel the negative narrative I had been living with, that people of color have been living with. Seeing other people’s humanity just really became transformational for me.
Over time, Glenn came to understand the root of the bad choices he and so many of his fellow inmates had made and would continue to make.
“If your world is limited to very small amounts of opportunity then you live within that range of choices. Everyone has a chance to change their lives. I’ve seen all types of human beings turn their lives around but only if people of privilege create a space for that to happen.”
Glenn’s six years behind bars galvanized his interest in the world of criminal justice reform.
“Serving time in prison allowed me to analyze the system from inside the belly of the beast. I met some of America’s best and brightest in prison. The day I left, I promised those men and women that I would send a message to all Americans that we can do better.”
Today, Glenn is the founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, working toward an ambitious goal of cutting the prison population in half by 2030.
“In a country where we have so many resources, so many intelligent people, so many can-do people, we can all come together to redesign our criminal justice system to achieve better outcomes.”
JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) selects people who have been most harmed by the criminal justice system and who already demonstrate leadership qualities and offers them a yearlong training program to enhance their leadership skills.
“We’re not building leaders, we’re investing in leaders so they are able to talk directly to Americans about what our current policies have done to them, their families and their communities. It’s hugely important for the voices of people most impacted by these policies to be heard by all Americans.”
To date, JLUSA has trained 257 leaders in 27 states and Washington D.C. and currently has 3-thousand members in 42 states.
“I wanted to build an organization with a sense of urgency, where I had a personalized, intimate reason for wanting to reach our goal.”
For Glenn, that reason is his youngest son, Joshua, who will be 18 in 2030.
“All the statistics suggest that one out of 3 black children ends up in the criminal justice system by age 18 and I wasn’t having that. That’s my motivation; it’s protecting him from having the experiences with the system like I did."
Glenn received the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the 2014 Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship. He is also the founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign which recently celebrated a major victory with New York City’s Mayor vowing to close Rikers Island within 10 years.
“The success of that campaign has helped tremendously in showing people that we can go further. If we work more closely together and have a shared vision, bold change is possible.”
Become a member of JLUSA and help change the criminal justice system and cut the prison population in half by 2030. Details at justleadershipusa.org.