"Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere!"
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
This is my favorite quote, says Joshua Garner, a father, son, advocate, social entrepreneur, student, volunteer and citizen returning home from incarceration. “The small injustices are bigger than we think. You see the shell of the individual, but you don’t see the actual person.”
“People look up to me now, but I remember there was a time when people looked down on me. I was the homeless person in the alleyway, the drug user, the same person many people stepped over without a second thought or look.”
Joshua was born in raised in Northeast Philadelphia and grew up with both parents. “I come from a good family, my father and mother have been married for almost fifty-years.” He initially started in the public school system but his parents later enrolled him into Catholic School. In high school, he fell in with the wrong crowd and was expelled from Father Judge School for having marijuana. “This was my first experience with racism and getting into any kind of trouble. My friends and I were all caught with marijuana, but I was the only student expelled. I was also the only black student.” Joshua was under a lot of pressure, being expelled from school and becoming a father at the age of seventeen. “I started working and trying to earn a living to take care of my son. I worked at a cemetery and as a chef.”
Joshua reflects vividly of a major turning point in his life. “In 2011, I lost my best friend William, he died in my arms. I couldn’t save him; I wasn’t strong enough.” Joshua’s best friend drowned in the Delaware River and he blamed himself and begin experiencing symptoms of PTSD. “I isolated myself from everyone, I was having night terrors and developed a fear of water.” Joshua’s life began to unravel and he started using drugs to cope with the pain and lost.
“I attempted suicide five times; I was in a bad place. I began dealing drugs to do drugs. I was homeless, in and out of rehab, my life had spiraled out of control!”
In 2013, Joshua’s daughter was born and shortly after her mother left them both. “I wasn’t expecting her to just leave us.” With the weight of the world on his shoulders, he found himself pulled back into the street life. “I really needed a way to supplement my income. I was a single father with two children depending on me.”
In 2015, Joshua’s life and the life of his two small children changed forever. At the time, his daughter was a year-old and his son was almost six-years-old. At the age of 23, Joshua was charged with attempted murder, robbery and aggravated assault. What started as a simple dispute, soon turned tragic. He found himself in the hospital and on the wrong side of the law. “I knew it wasn’t a robbery but I didn’t want to get an attempted murder, so, I decided to take a plea deal.”
Joshua was sentenced to 45-years in a maximum-security prison. He may have felt defeated, but he didn’t allow this sentence to keep him down. He got around a good group of lifers, whom encouraged him to remain positive. He began helping others in any way he could. He ran the Therapeutic Community Drug Program and started tutoring other inmates so they could get their GED. He also starting facilitating small groups and was the go-to tour guide for both state and governmental agencies. He learned how to build strong relationships by giving of himself. “In the past, I never wanted to be the nice guy because the saying goes, ‘nice guys finished last’.” Over the years, Joshua’s mindset had completely changed and he made a vow to do as much good as he could without expectation of repayment.
“I really needed a way to supplement my income. I was a single father with two children depending on me.”
Joshua earned his paralegal degree while incarcerated with high hopes of becoming a lawyer when released. He became known as the “jailhouse lawyer”. “I knew there were a lot of holes in my case and I had a lot of time, so, I learned all that I could and started working on my case.” In 2020, Joshua filed a PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act 1), which allows defendants to challenge their conviction or sentence. Shortly after, he requested his attorney be relieved. “We didn’t see eye to eye and he wasn’t in agreement with my arguments for my case.” He decided to represent himself in front of the same judge whom had originally sentenced him. Joshua knew he had a tough battle ahead but he was confident in his ability to effectively argue the sentencing errors in his case. Joshua’s arguments were proven and the DA agreed there were sentencing errors in his case. The time was significantly reduced from 45 years to 10 to 25 years. He then, requested a reconsideration and the time was reduced further to 7 to 20 years.
“It was a year after my minimum and I saw the parole board and was granted parole right away.”
After his release in September of 2021, Joshua was offered a position with a state representative, whom he had built a relationship with while in prison. He began working as a legislative assistant. Although Joshua really enjoyed the opportunity and the benefits associated with the position. He and the representative weren’t in agreement with two Bills, said representative wanted Joshua to help underwrite. The bills would directly impact those affected by mass incarceration. “The Bills were unconstitutional; I told the state representative why they were unconstitutional but he still wanted me to help underwrite them. It wasn’t an easy decision; I was just coming home and had no money.” Joshua ultimately decided to walk away from that opportunity and relationship and held onto his integrity.
Joshua Garner proves redemption is possible with the right mindset and goals in place. A few people working in the fight towards criminal justice found out about Joshua’s ordeal and offered him a position as a Reentry Support Specialist with ICJ. He jumped at the opportunity to assist current and newly released citizens returning home from incarceration. He began running expungement clinics, helping with employment, housing and food.
“I’ve enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to work for ICJ but I’ve always wanted to actively work in the law field.”
Joshua’s dream of becoming an attorney and fighting for the voiceless is becoming more real. He’s currently working as a paralegal with IGWE Firm, in the wrongful conviction’s unit- assisting individuals serving life without parole. He’s a few credits away from earning his bachelor’s degree from Bryant & Stratton College with a 4.0 GPA and he has recently been accepted into Harvard University’s Law School for the Fall of 2022!
Joshua is a board member with HTH, he enjoys volunteering and helping the homeless in the City of Philadelphia. He has also started a non-profit organization called, Right 2 Be Free, their mission is to assist those serving life without parole and assist with commutation through the board of pardon. He has a bi-weekly newsletter which is currently available in 18 prisons in the state of Pennsylvania, which provides information that isn’t readily accessible to those whom are currently incarcerated.
“Our goal is to give hope to those whom are currently incarcerated and let them know there are people on the outside fighting for their freedom.”
Joshua has his hands full with endless responsibilities, but still finds time to help those serving life without parole. He publishes their stories and has been using his own money to fund these new initiatives. His goal is to privatize more, so he isn’t boxed in. “I’m not controlled by money; I want to do good and help people.” Joshua strives to expand his reach in various prisons across the country and wants to advocate individually for those whom are in need. “I also want to be involved in the overall community, itself.” He has had several speaking engagements in various universities including; Rutgers, Widener, Lasalle, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania. He hopes to spread his message of hope and redemption to all who will listen.
When asked how he’s been able to reintegrate so seamlessly. Joshua’s response is timely, “I’ve already been doing the work for others. My reentry was easy.” Prior to his release, Joshua made a commitment to serve others wholeheartedly. While incarcerated, he helped individuals serving life without parole obtain freedom. “In the beginning, you’re doing work; you’re not being paid for. But it opens doors and allows people to see, who you really are.” Joshua’s advice to anyone returning home from incarceration is to; “volunteer as much as you can, find an organization that’s doing the work and start there.”
In five years, Joshua sees himself becoming an attorney and making a bigger impact in the life of his family and community. Family is really-important to Joshua and he wants to be there for his children and be that father figure they need. “I realized after being sentenced, my parents were my biggest supporters. I was placed six-hours away from home. But my parents stepped up and took care of my daughter and son while I was away.”
“My mother has always held high expectations for me”, says Joshua. “She’s never surprised when I accomplish a goal. But my father is more in the moment, he provides that day to day support and encouragement. He’s always congratulating me;
I appreciate and love them both.”
To learn more about Joshua and the work he’s doing, please visit right2befree.org.