Eddie Conway: In recent years, the issue of mass incarceration had reached the United States popular conscience, from Black artists speaking out at the Academy Awards …
John Legend [Video Clip]: There are more Black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.
Eddie Conway: To Netflix documentaries, such as 13th.
Michelle Alexander [Video Clip]: After the Civil War, African-Americans were arrested en masse. It was our nation’s first prison bill.
Eddie Conway: And even in recent presidential debates.
Tulsi Gabbard [Video Clip]: I want to bring the conversation back to the broken criminal justice system that is disproportionately negatively impacting Black and Brown people all across this country today.
Eddie Conway: Yet the issue has not been sufficiently addressed in any manner, as 2.3 million people still remain incarcerated in the United States of America. A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute shows that Maryland incarcerates more Black male adults than any other state in the United States.
Shasta Deen: I guess at this point, we know that things are out of control.
Eddie Conway: The issue becomes more stark when we realize that most of the people incarcerated in Maryland comes from Baltimore City. I spoke about this at a life sentencing conference in 2017.
Eddie Conway [Video Clip]: In the urban communities, the citizens are locked up. In the rural communities, the citizens are locking those urban citizens up. So you create a situation where you have jobs for one community, incarceration, or I call it imprisonment, for another community.
Eddie Conway: Yet Maryland officials have a different view of what’s going on. In a past debate between Governor Hogan and Ben Jealous, who was running for government, Hogan stated that Maryland’s incarceration rate and prison conditions had been reformed, and was improving.
Governor Larry Hogan [Video Clip]: We’ve reduced our prison population more than the other 49 states. We’re number one in America, in reducing the prison population.
Eddie Conway: In lieu of the progressive image that Maryland Governor Hogan was presenting, former Maryland prison guard, and executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, Marc Schindler, thought it was important to release this report.
Marc Schindler: There’s been some progress in Maryland, a little bit. There’s been declines in the prison population in recent years, and I think we should all applaud that, but they haven’t gone anywhere near far enough.
Marc Schindler: We thought it was time to do a couple things. One, to remind folks of the significant issues within Maryland’s justice system, or, as some I think would fairly call it, the injustice system in Maryland, including the deep and stark racial disparities that we’re seeing overall.
Eddie Conway: The report reveals that Maryland is number one in locking up Black males from 18 to 24, and keeping them locked up, and breaking up families for decades.
Marc Schindler: A significant majority of the people who are serving long sentences in Maryland’s prisons went in before they were aged 25 years.
Eddie Conway: Yes, yes.
Marc Schindler: They went in when they were young adults. We didn’t do good things or productive things when they were younger, and now they’re still sitting in Maryland’s prison prisons, as older individuals.
Marc Schindler: It’s the same population at two different points in time. We wanted to lift up that discussion, and really draw attention, again, to the really alarming racial disparities in Maryland’s justice system, and really have people, hopefully, start to do something about it.
Eddie Conway: Schindler talks about how Black communities are disproportionately affected by social abandonment by the state, in Maryland, and nationwide. I sat down with Schindler to talk about the report on black mass incarceration in Maryland, before the pandemic hit in 2020.
Marc Schindler: It’s a larger issue within our society, including what we see in Maryland, right? So if you looked at Maryland’s child welfare system, you would see disparate treatment of kids of color. If you looked at Maryland’s schools, right, you would see a higher percentage of Black and Latino kids being suspended and expelled from school. If you looked at housing, right, if you looked at employment.
Eddie Conway: When I first heard about this report, Louisiana came to mind, it popped in my head, and I’m seeing Angola is the largest prison system in the United States.
Marc Schindler: Yeah.
Eddie Conway: I thought of Texas, I thought of Mississippi. What’s the calculus you used to determine that Maryland is the most corporate of incarceration states?
Marc Schindler: Maryland leads the nation in a way that we shouldn’t be proud of at all. So, more than twice the national average, in terms of people, the proportion of people in its prison system that are Black, and more than those other states you ticked off, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina. We can’t just recognize it. What are we going to do about it?
Eddie Conway: After slavery ended in ’65, whatever, prison systems sprung up all over the South.
Marc Schindler: That’s right.
Eddie Conway: And obviously, here in Maryland, also. I mean, does the Institute see this as a continuation of slavery?
Marc Schindler: Clearly, the original sin in this country, of slavery, hasn’t fully gone away, and we’re still seeing the repercussions. In some ways, most explicitly, we see that in our justice system.
Marc Schindler: The other thing, I think, we have to remind ourself, when we think about Maryland, and we talk about those other Southern states is, Maryland is a Southern state.
Eddie Conway: Yes, yes, that is-
Marc Schindler: But I think, sometimes, we forget that we are below the Mason-Dixon line, right?
Eddie Conway: Yeah, the Mason-Dixon, yes. Yeah.
Marc Schindler: Maryland likes to hold itself out as a progressive state, but in many ways, it’s not.
Eddie Conway: In order to redress the issue of mass incarceration in Maryland, a holistic approach need to be taken, according to Schindler, and more resources need to be directed to the Black community, and support structures.
Marc Schindler: There’s a range of policies that we should be looking at, including things outside the justice system. We have to fund our education appropriately, and not have two different systems, one, for example, in Montgomery County, and another one in Baltimore City.
Eddie Conway: Yeah.
Marc Schindler: Right?
Eddie Conway: Yeah.
Marc Schindler: So we need to start leveling the playing field, in that respect. That also goes for housing, that goes for employment, right? There’s a range of issues, that, as we talked about, all impact how people do, and ultimately, whether they end up coming into contact with the justice system. So we have to start looking at policies outside the justice system.
Eddie Conway: Shasta Deen, formerly incarcerated in the Maryland correctional system, points out that the longer you keep a person incarcerated, the more it costs the state, and, of course, the taxpayers.
Shasta Deen: Because when you talk about age, you talk about medical issues and medical concerns. So we already know what it kind of costs, and I don’t know if the numbers have changed, but it’s thousands of dollars a year, just to house an individual. Then, when you add to the fact that they got medical issues, then it just increases, and it becomes a burden on taxpayers.
Eddie Conway: In fact, Maryland spends over $288 million annually on corrections in Baltimore alone. Instead of investing so much money in locking up people, Maryland should do a mass release of elderly prisoners, because elderly prisoners costs more to incarcerate.
Eddie Conway: In 2014, there was a mass release of elderly prisoners under the Unger case, where almost 200 prisoners were released, and there was one or two incidents in the entire release.
Marc Schindler: One thing we know, when we talk about, for instance, the geriatric population of incarcerated elderly folks who are in Maryland’s prisons? We’ve got over a thousand people in Maryland’s prisons sitting today, who are over the over 60 years of age, who pose very little threat to public safety. The disproportionate number of those folks are Black, right?
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.
Marc Schindler: The disproportionate number of them are Black men who went to prison under the age of 25. That’s the other data point where Maryland unfortunately leads the country. 40% higher than other places, right?
Eddie Conway: Wow.
Marc Schindler: So we really have to have a conversation about what are we doing with those young Black men now? And what are we doing with the older Black men who are sitting in prison today, who went there decades ago, who no longer pose a risk to society? Why aren’t we, like with the Ungers, looking at how they can be safely returned to the community?
Shasta Deen: We’ve already seen how individuals who’ve come home, they have impacted, and they have made some differences in young people’s lives. Clearly, that would be another benefit, if more individuals, who have reached a certain age, if you talk about that aging population, could come. Then they could bring value to the communities that they live in, to the neighborhoods, and even to the city. I mean, we can go even broader than that, but again, we have examples.
Eddie Conway: During the COVID-19 outbreak, Governor Hogan stated that prisons were the safest place to be. National statistics show that prisons are a hotbed for spreading the pandemic, and the rate of deaths in the prison system is three times higher than that of the rate of the US population.
Eddie Conway: Yet Governor Hogan put in an order, simultaneously, as he was saying, overcrowded prisons were safe, that would ban people from out in the larger community from gathering in groups any larger than 10. Because of public pressure, Governor Hogan agreed to release at least a thousand prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eddie Conway: Yet he only released those that had misdemeanor charges, and were eligible to be released within three or four months, anyway. Thousands of elderly prisoners still remain locked up in the Maryland prison system, as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread.
Until recently, the horrifyingly unjust reality of America’s mass incarceration system has not been a central concern in popular political discourse. In the past few years, however, more people have learned about the brutality and inhumanity of mass incarceration as artists, activists, documentarians, and elected officials have called attention to the broken U.S. criminal justice system—and its disproportionate harm to Black and Brown people. But is this increased awareness of the problem translating to increased efforts to address it?
While officials like Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan say they’re reducing incarceration rates and improving prison conditions, the data tells a different story. For instance, the Justice Policy Institute’s report “Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland” shows that Maryland incarcerates Black people at more than twice the national rate and leads the country in incarcerating young Black men. In this episode of “Rattling the Bars,” Eddie Conway speaks with Justice Policy Institute’s Marc Schindler and returning citizen Shasta Deen about how the repercussions of slavery are still felt in Maryland’s justice system.
Tune in every Monday for new episodes of Rattling the Bars.
Read the Justice Policy Institute report: Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland