Glenn E. Martin was sent to the Rikers Island Correctional Facility when he was 16. In the first 48 hours he was stabbed four times by a group of fellow inmates.
“They call it ‘Gladiator School’ for a reason,” Martin said. “As soon as you walk in you have to make a decision: predator or prey. And a guy walked up to me and said, ‘Give me your leather jacket,’ and I swung on him because there’s nothing else to do.”
Martin said the corrections officers on duty were little help, laughing in the background and telling him he would be “labeled as a snitch” by the other prisoners if he tried to visit the hospital and file a complaint.
Currently a criminal justice reform advocate, Martin spoke about mass incarceration, racism and America’s “cruel and unusual” criminal justice system at a lecture Tuesday.
Martin said he spent six years of his life in New York State prisons after he was arrested for armed robbery. Before leaving, he earned a two-year liberal arts degree after a corrections counselor suggested he enroll in a college program for inmates.
“There were so many moments in [the college program] that helped to reshape who I am,” he said. “And yet that’s the exception for people in the system. We don’t have a criminal justice system that creates a tremendous amount of opportunities for people to find themselves.”
Martin has been a freed man for 15 years. Since his release, he has served as vice president of public affairs at The Fortune Society, co-director of the National HIRE Network at the Legal Action Center and many other organizations committed to criminal justice reform and ex-offender advocacy.
In 2014, Martin founded JustLeadershipUSA, a non-profit organization dedicated to cutting the correctional population in half by 2030. He has been invited to the White House twice to speak about criminal justice reform and meet with President Obama.
Despite his position of influence, Martin acknowledged that mass incarceration is a daunting problem. According to the World Prison Population List, the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world.
“We have 2.2 million people in cages … We have 3.9 million people on probation,” Martin said. “On any given day we have 737,000 people on parole. That helps to feed the system. Many people who recidivate — the word that means people going back into the system — go back in because of technical violations of their parole.”
Martin argued that everyone who has been through the criminal justice system is negatively affected by mass incarceration.
“Seventy million Americans have a criminal record on file,” he said. “And everyone gets sentenced to life. I don’t care if you get sentenced to a day in jail or 40 years in prison. It’s all life. The stigma of a criminal record stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Martin said this stigma is most destructive in the areas of employment and enfranchisement.
Over 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed one year after being released, and those who find employment are typically paid 40 percent less annually, according to The Sentencing Project.
“We’ve created a country where 70 million Americans are like the new underclass,” Martin said. “I believe that if we are really going to come out from under mass incarceration, there needs to be an across the board reinstatement of peoples’ rights, particularly the right to vote.”
Martin stressed that marginalizing people who have been involved in the criminal justice system is “so alienating” that “we shouldn’t be surprised [by] what we get as a result.”
“The worst message that you could send to people who have been involved in the criminal justice system, who have been marginalized, is that ‘Guess what? You’re going to be further marginalized, you’re not going to be one of us. We’re going to make you pay taxes but not give you a chance to decide who is going to make the decision about where those taxes are spent,’” he said.
People of color are most affected by the stigma of the criminal justice system, Martin stressed. According to the NAACP and The Sentencing Project, Hispanic Americans are incarcerated at twice the rate of White Americans, and African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate.
Martin said he believes racism and mass incarceration are tightly interwoven, calling the criminal justice system the “newest iteration of a system of oppression that has existed in this country for hundreds of years.”
“The reason we lock up so many black men is because Americans have been taught that black men are animals, that they’re violent, that they’re not trustworthy, and that they’re not human,” he said. “That’s why we hung them from trees, that’s why we had Jim Crow, and now that’s why we have prisons.”
Martin discussed his experiences in Rikers Island, a New York jail complex with a reputation for abysmal conditions and brutal treatment of inmates. He cited the physical abuse of prisoners, solitary confinement and the withholding of food and medication.
However, even if conditions in correctional facilities were more humane, Martin said he would not be satisfied.
“I would call just about everything we do that includes incarceration cruel and unusual punishment,” he said. “I actually think that we can incarcerate people without putting them in a cell all day, or without even putting them in a cell the majority of the day. I think there are other ways to isolate people from society and connect them to opportunity until they’re ready to come back.”
Martin emphasized the importance of humanizing people in the criminal justice system in order to enact change. He shared a story about a man named Ronald, who was sentenced to 50 years for the attempted murder of a police officer before the court finally discovered his innocence. While Ronald was in prison, his son was murdered by a 14 year old, and despite everything, Ronald is “the biggest advocate for that 14 year old not to go to adult prison.”
“Everyone has a chance to turn around and change their lives,” Martin said. “Not just young people, not just non-violent drug offenders, not just people who need mental health treatment. Everyone.”
Martin called on people in “positions of privilege” to “invest in people.”
“Own [your privilege] and wield it in the name of justice, and stand alongside people that have less privilege to help get rid of a system that is so oppressive, that is so racist, that is so classist, that is so homophobic, that is so xenophobic,” he said.