When you have an issue that affects 70 million Americans if you are not investing in their voices, you are not creating a space for them to come out of the closet. If you are not giving them a chance to lead, then your movement is doomed from the beginning. I think that formerly incarcerated people are served up in a way that serves the needs of what has become a very professionalized and institutionalized movement to reform the system that doesn't match the type of damage that has been caused in the community that I care most about.
Lantigua-Williams: Do you see a role for police and correction officers in this?
Martin: My older brother was a correctional officer for 10 years and now he is a US Marshall and my father was a police officer. I approach this issue from multiple lenses, multiple perspectives, and I try to leave space for all stakeholders to have a voice in moving towards a more progressive criminal justice system. I do believe, however, that law enforcement agencies are mostly paramilitary in their structure, which means that cultures are heavily ingrained and even when you have progressive leadership it is still difficult to shift those cultures.
In fact, part of my motivation for closing Rikers was hearing commissioner Martin Horn on his retirement day after 40 years in correction say that his biggest disappointment of his entire career was his inability to shift the culture at Rikers Island one bit. That was really powerful for me to hear, and so I am hopeful that folks in law enforcement can see themselves as change agents to move towards a more progressive criminal justice system, particularly because many of those folks are now people of color who you would assume would be natural allies.
However, I also understand that systems change people long before people change systems. When you’re this bright-eyed bushy-tailed rookie officer or rookie correction officer going into a job wanting to change the world, I think it is really difficult. I think they find that not only is there inmate-on-inmate violence and officer-on-inmate violence but officer-on-officer violence if you don't become part of the culture and you don't assimilate. I think to it is a really difficult place to fight from. I had a correction counselor who took the time to tell me I should go to college and that was a moment in my life that turned things around, so I do think there are things that people in law enforcement can do in terms of individual relationships to really try to help people in one-on-one relationships. But it is going to be a rare case where any one officer, or handful of officers, are able to shift an entire culture, particularly because of the paramilitary nature.
If I had my way, and we were starting from scratch, no correction officer job would be a career job. At the very most people would work seven years in correction and that is it. It would not become a career job tied to a union and a pension. When you monetize misery, when you decide that some groups of people are going to benefit based on the disadvantage of another group or based on the punishment of another group you end up with what we have ended up with, which is not just the privatization of punishment in this country through private prisons and private probation but also government-run institutions that have a perverse incentive to continue to operate. What I am saying is that the system has a life of its own. We have created this monster that needs to continue to feed and it feeds on the fact that we have decided to criminalize so many new things to keep the system going.