Glenn E. Martin knows what it’s like to try to rejoin the workforce and become a productive member of society as a former convict. That’s why he’s dedicated much of his post-prison life trying to help tear down many of the barriers affecting those in a similar situation. Since his release from prison he has worked with various social justice foundations and made multiple appearances on television news programs addressing the issues. According to Martin, “I approach this work, obviously, based on the experience I had coming out of prison . . . and the different barriers to [the] labor market that I faced (Pager and Martin).” His efforts have shown just how many problems, and solutions, there are to be found in our justice system.
Martin spent six years behind bars after being convicted for his participation in more than one armed robbery. Thanks to an astute correctional officer, he was encouraged to complete schooling while serving his sentence. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see,” he recalls (Bader). He took advantage of a program run by Canisius College at the Wyoming Correctional Facility to earn his degree before being released in 2000 (Bader).
Studies have shown that participating in various prison education programs can have an impact on reducing recidivism rates (Chen). The benefits of obtaining college degrees or vocational certifications can extend beyond giving prisoners a leg-up on job skills for rejoining the workforce post-release. For Martin, and many others like him, it helped him to obtain a whole new perspective. He reflects, “What a college degree did for me was [also] to recalibrate my own moral compass and help me better understand why I was facing all those barriers to the labor market, the stigma I was facing. . . I was able to analyze my situation in a much, much more complex way (Chen).” Martin has used this insight to explore the problems that many are confronted with after serving their time.
One of the biggest barriers to employment former convicts are facing is being rejected as applicants or fired from their jobs simply because of their records. This is a practice that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) affirmed was a violation of law, through the Civil Rights Act, back in 1987 (Wright). Unfortunately, despite how far back such practices were confirmed to be discriminatory, they continue to occur.
A study that Martin helped play a part in conducting in 2003 used posed applicants to see what, if any, affects the race and criminal background of an applicant had on their chances of being called back for employment opportunities. All other details and qualifications on the submitted resumes were identical. They found that applicants with criminal backgrounds faced a reduction of callbacks upwards of 50%. That was before they even accounted for the race of the applicant, with black applicants already facing lower callbacks than their otherwise equal white counterparts with no criminal record (Wright & Pager and Martin).
In an article later co-authored by Andrea Batista Schlesinger, Martin expounded, “It is in the best interest of the economy and public safety to make sure that, once people with convictions return to the community, they stay in the community and out of prison.” Continuing, “To help more formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs, we must reduce counterproductive barriers to legitimate employment (Schlesinger and Martin).”
This line of thought has lead many, including Martin, to back efforts to “ban the box.” This moniker is used by many reform organizations that are focusing efforts to convince employers and local governments to remove the criminal record check box from employment applications. Most legislation and updated company policies don’t take away an employer’s ability to ask for or obtain background information wholesale, it simply regulates when it can be requested and in what ways that it can be used.
For its part, the EEOC also updated its guidance on arrest records in 2012. It provided for employers three “Green factors” to guide them in analyzing what criminal history can be evaluated and how they expect that information to be applied. Since that update the EEOC has also made efforts to enforce the directives, going so far as to file lawsuits against companies found to be in violation (Wright).
Intense scrutiny of background checks by employers isn’t the only time that Martin has come across how your criminal past can be held against you. In 2015 he and other advocates were invited to the White House for a discussion about solving the many issues facing former convicts. Upon arriving he found that while his colleagues were given green passes and allowed to proceed, he was given a pink pass reading “Needs Escort” and forced to wait with the Secret Service outside of the meeting. He was only allowed in after a White House staffer recognized him as an invited guest and helped him proceed through security (Kates).
Obviously frustrated by the experience, Martin published an “open letter” to President Barack Obama a couple of weeks later. In the letter he wrote, “The staggering symbolism of the ordeal was not lost on me, Mr. President. In a country where 65 million people have a criminal record on file, being selectively barred from entering the White House for a discussion about those very same people was as insulting as it was indicative of the broader problem (Kates).” He saw that despite how far he’d come to get where he was, there were still miles to go in many respects.
Today Martin continues his advocacy work as the President of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a non-profit community organization he founded in 2014. Never one to limit the scope of change he’d like to see, his newest endeavor has at its heart a goal to reduce the entire prison population of the US to half of its current numbers within 15 years.
One way that JLUSA hopes to achieve its goals is by making it personal. They are training formerly incarcerated people community organization skills and how to relate the telling of their own biographies in the overarching context of all that they want to change. “People respond to anecdotes. You may forget data but you don’t forget stories,” Martin explained (Bader). By speaking to “hearts and minds” they aspire to stimulate legislative bodies to act (Bader).
A decade and half since he stepped outside of the prison system, Martin has lost none of the desire for change that drives him. Whether he’s taking part in guiding a study, appearing on television or even writing a letter to the President of the United States, Martin will continue trying to solve the puzzle that is criminal justice reform.
Works cited by this story can be located at: http://magazineproject12.weebly.com/citations.html