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Formerly Incarcerated Activist Leads Organization to Mobilize Hearts and Minds for Decarceration

Led by a formerly incarcerated activist, a new national organization is working to reduce the prison population by 50 percent in 15 years.

Is it possible to reduce the prison population by 50 percent in 15 years? Led by activist Glenn E. Martin, who spent seven years in New York prisons, a new national organization named Just Leadership USA is working to do just that. (Photo: JustLeadershipUSA)

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Nelson Mandela famously declared that “it always seems impossible until it is done.”

The quip is an apt epigram for the bold aims of Just Leadership USA, a newly formed organization that is seeking simultaneously to reduce the US prison population by half and to reduce crime. The target date for these achievements? 2030.

Mass incarceration is “the most significant domestic threat to the fabric of our democracy.”

As the group points out on its website, mass incarceration is “the most significant domestic threat to the fabric of our democracy.” And mass incarceration also exacts a humongous price: $85 billion is spent annually to keep 2.3 million men and women behind bars and another 5.6 million under the correctional supervision of probation or parole.

It wasn’t always like this. Thirty-five years ago, in 1980, the prison population was 500,000. But thanks to “tough-on-crime” policies including mandatory minimum sentences for both violent and nonviolent offenses, the removal of judicial discretion in sentencing, reductions in the availability of early-release programs, and prison privatization agreements that guarantee that beds will be filled, the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled.

Centering the Insights of People Affected by Incarceration

Glenn E. Martin, founder of Just Leadership USA, spent seven years incarcerated in two New York prisons. He was on Rikers Island for a year and served six additional years in the Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica for his role in several armed robberies. Now 43, Martin credits the associate’s degree program run by Canisius College – which he attended while incarcerated at the Wyoming Correctional Facility – for expanding his worldview.

Still, when he was released in 2000, there was a heavy weight on his shoulders. “You develop friendships in prison,” Martin told Truthout. “You share people’s hopes and losses. Going home is rough. You’re leaving your friends behind in cages where they’ll continue to experience trauma. I wanted to find a way to remember them and tell their stories.”

“I wanted an organization that is willing to listen to the communities that are most impacted by incarceration.”

Martin’s process began with his struggle to find work post-release, but he eventually became a receptionist, and later a paralegal, at the New York City-based Legal Action Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that fights discrimination against people with histories of drug abuse and addiction, HIV/AIDS and criminal records.

It was at the Legal Action Center, Martin said, that he realized that the people closest to a particular problem are also the people closest to its solution.

Martin carried this injunction to his next job as an administrator at The Fortune Society, an organization founded in 1967 to help people reintegrate into the community after they are released from prison or jail. Martin worked at Fortune for more than six years but left due to organizational constraints.

“Eighty-five percent of the group’s budget comes from government,” he said. “This can stifle the voice of advocates since you cannot rock the boat. If you do, you may lose a grant. I wanted to build something new, something nonpartisan that reflected what I had learned from people closest to the ground. I wanted an organization that solves problems without people digging in their ideological heels, an organization that is willing to listen to the communities that are most impacted by incarceration.”

The result, Just Leadership USA (JLUSA), launched in November 2014.

Testifying on the Collateral Consequences of Incarceration

Thanks to his work at the Legal Action Center and Fortune, by the time Martin conceptualized JLUSA he was already well connected in the decarceration community and had the skills needed to get the organization off the ground. He – and the colleagues he quickly pulled in – knew that a range of tactics would be needed to reach their goal: community organizing, media outreach, public speaking, storytelling, grassroots lobbying and meeting with legislative personnel in the states and before Congress.

They have already presented their case to numerous lawmakers. Martin recently met with White House staff and group spokespeople testified about the “collateral consequences of incarceration and the reality of re-entry challenges” at a July briefing sponsored by the Coalition for Public Safety that was hosted by Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committees. On the state level, JLUSA activists have spoken before legislative bodies in California, New York and Ohio on topics ranging from the need for post-release jobs, to the impact of incarceration on boys and men of color, to the countless ways that prison and jail impact families. Furthermore, JLUSA staff and members have addressed the media, speaking about the need for change in the way criminal justice is dispensed on numerous TV and radio talk shows; Martin and others have also been interviewed by dozens of print and online outlets.

“Young people do not want to grow up in a country that incarcerates so many people.”

But while building support for policy change is imperative, so is building infrastructure – that is, making sure that JLUSA is established as a viable and effective advocacy group. To date, staff have raised more than $900,000 – most of it from foundations and family funds. In addition, by setting it up as a membership organization – opening JLUSA “to anyone who believes that our criminal justice system is a threat to our democracy” – Martin hopes the organization will have wide appeal.

Outreach by the group’s five staffers, he added, is targeted to those he considers the “moveable middle,” people who are generally interested in criminal justice and willing to do something concrete to improve the way that it is dispensed.

Speaking to youth wherever kids congregate, from schools to streets, is a particular priority for JLUSA. “Young people do not want to grow up in a country that incarcerates so many people,” Martin said. “They are always shocked to learn that the US has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners even though we only have only 5 percent of the world’s population.”

“People make decisions with their guts,” Martin added. “If they believe people who are locked up are dangerous animals, they will act accordingly. That’s why JLUSA is going after hearts and minds; that’s what we bring in. We’re talking about punishment. We’re talking about crime. We speak very personally, exposing who we are, men and women who’ve served time and are now out.”

Telling a Personal and Political Story

JLUSA’s message, however, goes beyond the individual to appeal to what many consider traditional American values. “Americans often recite a belief in justice and liberty,” Martin told Truthout. “We [at JLUSA] use that narrative to discuss the system, telling the truth about race and class discrimination in a way that helps people see how the reality of criminal justice does not match up to their ideas about either justice or fairness. People respond to anecdotes. You may forget data but you don’t forget stories.”

Storytelling is also a key element of JLUSA’s Leading with Conviction training program, a year-long effort to teach community organizing skills and strategies to a cohort of 20 formerly incarcerated people – 12 women and eight men in 2015 and an anticipated 40 to 50 in 2016 – from all over the country. The training merges the personal with the political and helps participants situate their own histories within a larger narrative that addresses how crime and punishment intersect with racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia and immigration status.

“The movement needs people with shared values that cross race, class, political and gender boundaries.”

For trainee Jamira Burley, this means acknowledging who gets removed from society and placed behind bars. As someone whose parents were in and out of jail throughout her childhood – her father remains imprisoned today – Burley is all too familiar with the many ways that incarceration tears families apart. “When we speak about our experiences it helps people understand that no one should be judged solely on the most terrible thing they ever did in their lives,” said Burley, who now works for Amnesty International. “The person in jail was someone before they committed a crime and they will be someone when they are released. They’re more than the bad things they’ve done.”

Burley’s work also zeroes in on so-called zero tolerance policies, especially when they are disproportionately applied to youth of color. “Things like fighting, carrying a weapon or using drugs used to be considered kids being stupid. Now these offenses have been criminalized. Instead of sending kids away, we need to get at the root cause of why the young person acted out. Kids come to schools with baggage and trauma and unless we understand why they did what they did, we’re failing them as individuals.”

Chloe Turner, director of the Women Rising program in the San Francisco sheriff’s office, is also a trainee. Turner spent several years in jail for drug-related offenses, and as another child of incarcerated parents, admits that she initially found the system somewhat comforting. “I knew I’d be taken care of in jail,” she said. “When I was on the streets it was different.”

Since her release, Turner has learned a great deal about addiction and sobriety but notes that Just Leadership USA has helped her better understand the ways social policy impacts drug and alcohol dependence. “Before participating in the training, I never really sat down and analyzed it. I did not look at the pipeline to prison, or the failure of the war on drugs, or the ways discrimination works. I’d been speaking out, telling my story, for years, but the training has helped me bring in how the system works against everyone. This broadens the scope and is a much more effective way for audiences to understand the context of my experience.”

It’s especially potent when she addresses what she describes as her “perpetual punishment.” Despite being out of jail and staying clean for seven years, Turner is still making restitution payments – including $50 for each urinalysis she was forced to submit to – but has found it nearly impossible to ascertain the total owed. “People are shocked to hear about these roadblocks and impediments to moving on,” she said.

“The criminal justice system destroys communities, families and the American Dream.”

“The system never lets you go,” agreed trainee Khalil Cumberbatch, 33. Now a social worker in New York City, he was convicted of robbery in the first degree in 2003, served nine years in jail and on parole, and thought he had been fully released from supervision. He hadn’t been. “On May 8, 2014, three police officers came to my door with a warrant because the conviction I had had over a decade before was considered an aggravated felony. I was born in Guyana and came to the US in 1986, as a 4-year-old child. Because of the aggravated felony, my legal resident status was suddenly at risk, and I was subject to deportation to a country I had not seen in 29 years.”

A concerted campaign by friends, family members, activists and colleagues eventually led to Cumberbatch’s release and in December 2014, he was one of two people to receive an executive pardon from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This ended the threat of deportation.

Since then, Cumberbatch has been speaking out about the links and overlap between criminal and immigrant justice. “The tricky part is calling out systemic racism, classism, white privilege, rich privilege and native-born privilege while seeking common ground with new audiences,” he said.

Nonetheless, despite the challenges, he, Glenn Martin and other trainees are heartened by the growing momentum to change how criminal penalties are meted out. Already, they said, the decarceration movement has seen success: President Obama has freed several dozen nonviolent drug offenders serving long sentences; the number of prisoners in California, New York and Texas has fallen; and policy changes are being discussed by constituencies – among them evangelical Christians and political conservatives – that used to steer clear of such topics. Furthermore, Columbia University recently became the first US college to divest from businesses that build or maintain prisons, selling shares in G4S, a private security firm, and the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country. Similar efforts are underway at Brown, Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses.

Martin notes that the 65 million Americans who have a criminal record represent a huge, untapped political force. “The movement needs people with shared values that cross race, class, political and gender boundaries,” he said. “The US is often referred to as the land of second chances. We can show that the criminal justice system destroys communities, families and the American Dream, and since 96 percent of incarcerated people will return home, we have to ask ourselves what we want them to come home to. We have to ask ourselves if we believe they deserve the same second chances as everybody else.”

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