Aaron Kirkland (left) and Josh Glenn (right).

Aaron Kirkland (left) and Josh Glenn (right).

Peak Johnson

Lost in the education system, two West Philly natives on what got them into — and out of — jail

Josh Glenn and Aaron Kirkland say drug dealing often felt more promising than school

Aaron Kirkland (left) and Josh Glenn (right).

Aaron Kirkland (left) and Josh Glenn (right).

Peak Johnson
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Josh Glenn was first introduced to the world of drug dealing when he was 13. When he was working as a bagger at local grocery stores, someone from his West Philadelphia community approached him, asking if he would be interested in making “real money.”

“There were no role models, no mentorship, we didn’t have anything in our community,” Glenn said. “The role models were people who were selling drugs, they would come up to me looking flashy, having good money and would try and get me to sell drugs.”

Glenn was constantly approached and pressured to start dealing, eventually getting worn down. The police, Glenn said, would often target people in his community. In 2005, he was charged with aggravated assault with a weapon. He said that he didn’t commit the crime, but the police charged him based on a complaint, and he found himself in jail for the next 18 months.

Glenn admitted that had a brief criminal drug history prior to his 2005 arrest, but that police would often stop and harass him and others in his community. From these encounters, he developed a steady distrust for police.

He also didn’t have much support from his home. He never spoke to his mother about what led to his brothers and sisters being placed in foster care. By the time he was 8, Glenn had already lost his father to violence, and his mother’s struggle with alcoholism began soon after.

School could have been the place, he said, to put him on a path to become a better person. Had school been more structured and not overcrowded, Glenn added, perhaps he would not have sold drugs.

Reentry Project Bug

“When you go to school and you’re in a classroom that is overpacked and underfunded and you’re not learning anything, you’re not even being paid attention to, it kind of makes you deal with a dislike of school,” Glenn said. “And then you go in your community and you see guys selling drugs…you see this every single day of your life. And then people keep approaching you trying to get you to do something different.”

Before his arrest, Glenn attended Sayre High School in West Philadelphia. Because he was tried as an adult, Glenn said the school did not want him to return, so upon his release, he went to Center City’s De La Salle In Town. In 2007, after his release from jail, Glenn stayed with his mother before being removed because his parole officer was concerned about the living conditions. Then 18, Glenn was sent to a group home.

‘I felt like a failure’

Josh Glenn, standing in front of wall depicting those who stand against and for cash bail at Youth Art and Self Empowerment headquarters in North Philadelphia. Glenn spent 18 months in jail because he couldn't afford to pay $2,000 cash bail. His case was ultimately dismissed.

Josh Glenn, standing in front of wall depicting those who stand against and for cash bail at Youth Art and Self Empowerment headquarters in North Philadelphia.

Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Glenn’s story is similar to that of Aaron Kirkland, also a native of West Philadelphia, who graduated from Overbrook High School in 2006. Kirkland tried attending Community College of Philadelphia soon after, but ended up failing the placement test for math and English.

Kirkland began surrounding himself with people from his community that he knew sold drugs. He was eventually arrested in 2009 for drug and gun charges.

“I felt acceptance in that circle more so than the education system,” Kirkland said. “I felt like a failure as far as the education system, so I considered myself a ‘pass-through.’ I passed through middle school, passed through high school. The thing is, once I passed through high school I really didn’t know what to do with myself.

“My peers valued other things,” Kirkland continued. “In some communities education is what you compete with, who has the best grades. In my community, it was like who was best dressed, who had the best women, who had the most money. I think the values were different and I knew better because I was raised differently, but I still decided to walk into that path.”

‘Things that they value in prison we don’t value out here’

Glenn remembers being told by his attorney that he would lose his case if he didn’t take the deal given to him. In 2005 and just 16 years old, Glenn found himself going back and forth with the court, wondering why the process was taking so long for him to be released.

“They kept offering me deals that I didn’t take, that was the main thing,” he said.

Glenn was a minor, but charged as an adult. He was adamant he didn’t commit the crime.

“They came and got me and said someone had made a complaint and said I shot them, so that started the long journey of me being locked up for 18 months,” Glenn said. “The thing is, when you get to about a year of a person being locked up on $2,000 bail and you don’t have the proper evidence to try him, I think by then you can at least reduce the bail.”

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Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Kirkland was in and out of the system. He spent time at Graterford, Camphill and Mahanoy state correctional institutions, as well as York county prison. His uncle was killed in 2007 while serving time in Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, leaving him with thoughts of simply making it home alive throughout his entire sentence. Kirkland had time to reflect on his past decisions, as he was often sent to solitary confinement because of fighting. He said he was attacked a lot and added that it was more defensive than offensive.

Kirkland recalled a conversation he had with his mother In 2011 after being released from solitary, vowing to do things a little differently by staying away from the rowdy crowd, avoiding fights and connecting with some of the of the older inmates.

“Being in prison is something that you adapt to, but never get comfortable with,” Kirkland said. “You always have to be on your toes. I think it’s more mental than physical. I think keeping your mind in a world that does not make sense is difficult, because the things that they value in prison we don’t value out here and it’s easy to get caught up in that pettiness.”

One inmate Kirkland was able to form a mentorship with was Ricky Brown, who started assisting Kirkland with weekly math and English lessons.

“The thing about prison is when you move in a certain way, other people see it. So you may think you have to act tough, but if you be yourself and be genuine people see that,” Kirkland said. “[Brown] told me prison can either be the playground for the fools or the university for the wise, it’s what you make it.”

‘There was so many barriers’

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Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

While in prison, Glenn helped start the Youth Art and Self Empowerment Project. He participated in poetry workshops held in Philadelphia county jails every weekend. That’s where he met Sarah Morris.

Once released, Glenn began working with Morris as a youth organizer, helping found YASP. For the last decade, he and other members of the group travel to different schools across the city sharing their stories and facilitating poetry and art workshops.

“Even though I was able to get out and there was so many barriers and I wasn’t able to get a job, and I wasn’t able to get back into school,” Glenn said. “I had people who knew about all of these issues and supported me and educated me, that was how I was able to create this organization with other folks and change to help other people change.”

Glenn has been teaching the students he interacts with more about organized training and letting them create an issue that they want to fight for.

“This organization was created to help young people change their lives and know that they have the power to change their communities,” Glenn said. “It’s about teaching young people about their power. They don’t hear a lot that they have power, they’re always taught to do things, they’re always told to do things. When you teach a young person that they have power you let them take the lead on whatever it is that they want to do.”

Aaron Kirkland remulching in Julian Abele Park.
Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Kirkland was released on parole at the end of 2014. He was overjoyed that he had his freedom back, but as he searched for employment, he received rejection after rejection with the explanation that he could not be hired because of his background.

“You see the younger guys in your community, they’re older now they’re driving cars and you’re walking, they got money they asking you if you need money,” Kirkland said.  “You don’t even want to get in the car with them because you don’t want to go back.”

After attending a number of programs, Kirkland said that he started to feel “programmed out.” He had heard of the Mayor’s Office of Reentry Services — RISE — and decided to give that a try.

He had no income, except from assistance he was receiving through welfare. A social worker told him about an event-driven job that included cleaning up after conventions like the Philadelphia Auto Show and the Philadelphia Flower Show.

“It was enough to where I could keep my morale up while looking for another job,” Kirkland said.

In 2015, he received a call about the PowerCorps PHL program and how it could lead to a potential job with the Philadelphia Water Department. At PowerCorps, Kirkland worked on revitalizing recreational centers and making “concrete neighborhoods” greener.

After the six months, Kirkland was able to obtain a one year apprenticeship with the PWD. He also returned to CCP and is just seven classes away from receiving his associate’s degree. After completing the apprenticeship, Kirkland was offered a job last October with the PWD as a Grounds and Maintenance Worker, focused on green stormwater infrastructure.

“Finally, all of this work I’ve been putting in is now paying off,” Kirkland said, remembering how he felt when he learned he got the job. “Things were coming together for me. Life was good, I could see the potential in life, the potential in my career and the potential in my relationships. Everything was coming together.”