Continuing our discussion from our recent prison-themed issue, LPR Deputy Editor Ann Bracken recently interviewed Eddie Conway, executive producer of Real News Network. Having served 44 years in prison before his sentence was overturned in a retrial, Conway became an advocate for prison reform. Read the full interview below.
Some people might say that Eddie Conway is finally home. Others will tell you he never really left Baltimore behind. And he has always been deeply committed to working for justice in his community. At a very early age, he became aware of the disconnect between the American Dream that lies within reach for a majority of white Americans, but remains a caustic lie for many Black Americans. Conway likens his feelings of betrayal to the time when he was about five years old and could barely reach the glass of water sitting on the kitchen counter. Proud that he finally grasped the glass, looking forward to the cold water, Conway choked and sputtered as he swallowed a glass of bleach. In his memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, Conway has this to say of that memory which “returns to my mind time and again, for it seems to me an analogy for the quintessential experience of oppressed people in this country. White supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives here in the United States and the forced acceptance of it tastes much like that glass of bleach.”
Conway grew up in the 40s and 50s in East Baltimore and then joined the United States Army in 1964 where he rose to the rank of Sergeant. While serving as a medic in Germany in 1967, Conway saw newspaper reports about the use of force by police and the National Guard related to civil rights protests in the States and was shocked to see American soldiers pointing rifles at unarmed civilians in the streets of Newark, New Jersey. Disillusioned and distraught over that incident, Conway questioned his role in the military and decided that he would take his energy and skills to fight for justice back in his Baltimore community. On his return home, he worked briefly as an orderly and operating room technician and then as one of the first Black firefighters at the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel plant. In 1968 Conway joined a local chapter of the Black Panther Party which was just forming in Baltimore. He worked on educating other party members, providing free breakfast to the children in his neighborhood, and encouraging community members to take action to address the high levels of inequality that permeated every area of Black life. In 1970, while still a member of the Panthers, Conway was accused of killing a police officer, denied adequate legal representation during his trial, and convicted based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. He spent 44 years in Maryland’s prisons, always maintaining his innocence. He was released in 2014 for time served because the judge in his original trial had neglected to inform the jury that they could only convict someone if they were convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Conway and I sat down to talk in his second-floor office at the Real News Network where he currently works as an executive producer. The walls were hung with pictures of famous Black activists like Kathleen Cleaver as well as coloring book pages taped near his desk. Conway told me that parents sometimes bring their kids to the network offices and he’s only too happy to display their artwork.
Ann Bracken (AB): Thanks for meeting with me today, Eddie. It’s an honor to talk with you and to bring your story to the Little Patuxent Review’s readers. I first heard you on “Democracy Now” when Amy Goodman interviewed you in March of 2014, the day after you had been freed from prison after 44 years. What was the greatest challenge you faced as a returning citizen?
Eddie Conway (EC): Nothing really challenged me at first because I had spent my time in prison working with people and trying to stay up on all of the events happening in the society at large. But what soon became a challenge for me was seeing the conditions in the city of Baltimore. I was prepared to see better conditions for everyone. After all of my years of organizing—both inside of the prison and outside—I thought I was done with organizing at 67 years of age. But when I saw the conditions of the neighborhoods, the people, the schools, and the community at large, I had to pick up the mantle and try to change that.
AB: What kinds of projects are you involved in now as a community organizer?
EC: Right now I am working at Tubman House in the Gilmore Homes neighborhood—the same neighborhood where Freddy Gray was killed. We work with the children and adults to grow food, learn cooking, and offer support to the young people in the neighborhood. We do lots of community outreach, like giving out Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas gifts, school supplies, and teaching dance to the youth.
AB: What led you to become a producer at the Real News Network?
EC: When I was in prison, I noticed that none of the United States networks covered the news about what was really helping to the people in America. I couldn’t find stories about the environmental movement, the gay movement, or Black Lives Matter, just to name a few. I had to look at networks like Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia Today or the Chinese News stations. I finally found the Real News Network and I wanted to be a part of their work, so I began as a volunteer about two-and-a-half years ago and then I was hired as a producer. (Conway often reports on mass incarceration issues in a series called Rattling the Bars.)
AB: It sounds like you had a pretty smooth reentry after your many years of incarceration, but many others struggle to be successful after their time in prison. Are there programs that help returning citizens with re-entry?
EC: There are so few available that it amounts to a drop in the bucket. The programs that do exist only reach a small part of the population. In Maryland alone, the numbers of people cycling in and out of the community are staggering. About 1000 people come back every month and 1000 go in (to prison). (1) There’s a flood of people all the time. They get arrested and charged with everything from resisting arrest, to talking back, to having a little pot on their person, to everything except maybe mass murder (defined as shooting 4 or more people in a single incident, not including the shooter). (2) The statistics show that about 80-85% of people will come out at some time—so we’ll always have folks reentering our communities that need some support. In my work at the Real News Network, I try to spotlight things that work to help returning citizens, but there are so few programs and they reach a very small population. That’s why I did the story on Living Classrooms in East Baltimore.
AB: Say more about what impressed you with Living Classrooms. What is it that they do that makes their program so effective?
EC: That program is a tiny drop in the hat, but one of the things that makes them so effective is that they hire ex-offenders to work with the new returning citizens, so they have a good grasp of all the things someone newly released from prison needs help with—the problems, the challenges, and the resources. The program runs with case managers—about five or six of them—who work with about 50 or 60 returning citizens. They have about an 80-85% success rate and very low recidivism rate, as opposed to state-run programs with about a 60% success rate and recidivism of about 40%.
AB: Most people know very little about labor in prisons or any other conditions that incarcerated people are subjected to.
EC: Prisons do two things: they isolate the people on the inside and they isolate the people on the outside so that they don’t know what goes on. When you are riding on 83 coming into Baltimore, there’s a billboard that talks about putting down the gun and when people ride by that, they have no idea about how many people live in those brick buildings behind the billboard. I bet many of them don’t even realize a prison is there. So not only are the buildings themselves invisible to most people, but there’s an invisibility to the prison structure itself. Oftentimes people will tell you that one day they talk to a friend and a few weeks later, they ask where the friend is and someone tells them, “Joe? Oh, he got 20 years.” So many people from your community are there one day and gone the next. They become the disappeared.
AB: When I discuss the topic of prison labor with friends or students, the most frequent response goes something like this: “Well, it’s better to have people in prison working than just sitting around doing nothing all day. Besides, they can learn a trade or some skills if they have a job.” How would you respond to that?
EC: I’d say that you could make the same argument about slavery. Isn’t it better to have people picking cotton and rice than just sitting around all day? At least they had a place to live and a little food. It’s the same mentality with labor in prison. People in prison have to pay for their survival—paying such things as deodorant, soap, toothpaste, stamps, snack food, books, and phone calls. (3) If they do work in the prison, they may make about $50-$75 a month. Oftentimes, they also have to pay for child support or family support. Additionally, when they are sentenced, they may be sentenced to 30 years and have to pay a $30,000 fine. How are you going to do all of that on $75 a month?
If you are out on work-release, you do get paid federal minimum wage, but then you have to pay for room and board, taxes, and maybe child support. There is a very small sub-set of folks that are actually paid minimum wage.
So I’d say yes, it’s better to have work and a decent wage, but the system that currently exists is abusive—it’s a form of neo-slavery. People are dehumanized. How do you self-actualize in conditions like that?
For example, I worked as a graphic art designer making signs—a highly technical skill. I made things like the highway signs for BWI, the Orioles signs, and the wraps on MTA buses. All of that work requires a very special skill set. I was at the top echelon of prison pay, making about $6.50 per day. A graphic designer on the outside would make about $250 per day. So because I wasn’t even making minimum wage, I was dehumanized.
On the other hand, if prisoners were actually paid the minimum wage, they would be able to take care of their basic needs and also do things to bond more with their families. They could buy cards, send letters, or maybe even small gifts. People would have to treat the prisoners differently because incarcerated folks would begin to see themselves differently. Paying the prisoners a minimum wage will humanize them.
AB: What would you like to say to people who may be thinking about doing volunteer work in a prison?
EC: That it means a lot to the folks who are locked up to know that people on the outside are thinking of them and are willing to get involved with them in some kind of meaningful way. After a while, you lose track of yourself and how you are related to the world. But if you see people come in to work with you on job skills, or writing, art, music, or alternatives to violence—anything—you begin to realize that you matter. You hold on to your personhood and begin to feel like maybe you can make it. If you encounter people who have no obligation to visit you—folks other then your parents, siblings, relatives, spouse or friends—it helps you to feel like a real person rather than a number.
AB: Finally, I’m very interested in your work with “Friend of a Friend,” a program developed with the help of the American Friends Service Committee to help incarcerated people learn new skills for dealing with anger management, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal coping skills.
EC: Yes, Friend of a Friend is a peer-mentoring program that is run inside the prisons and helps prisoners develop a lot of the skills they need to be successful in their lives. Most of the men who participate in the program go on to work with the youth back in their communities. The program runs in both state and federal prisons all over the United States.
AB: Thank you for your time and your work, Eddie. I’d like to close with your hopeful and inspiring words from the brochure about Friend of a Friend: “Our goal has been to equip these young men to leave prison in a better position emotionally and intellectually than when they came in. Our great hope is that they will contribute to the uplift of the communities that they come from.”
Notes from the Interviewer:
- Bureau of Justice Statistics: 95% of all state prisoners are released at some point and nearly 80% are released to parole supervision.
- Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Fiscal 2015 Budget Overview: 10, 946 entered prison and 11, 394 were released in 2013.
- For further resources, please visit Maryland Department of Corrections at Maryland Correctional Industries website.