In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Eddie Conway talks to organizers of the annual Returning Citizens Cookout in Baltimore, which seeks to support and empower people released from prison
Eddie Conway: We are in Carroll Park in Baltimore City, and we’re at the fourth annual gathering of returning citizens. This has been organized by prisoners that were released at least five years ago, with the purpose of bringing together a network of support for prisoners as they return to the community, to give them some social and civic events to interact with. We talked to a number of the organizers, we talked to a couple of the women. There’s children out here enjoying themselves, there’s basketball games going, there’s food. It’s just a really, good positive thing for old friends that spent 20, 30, 40 years in prison to get together and to support each other. You are one of the original organizers of this? Johnny Jones: I am the organizer of it. I came home- Eddie Conway: You’re the organizer. Tell us why you organize it and what you think done happened since you first started. Johnny Jones: First of all, I’ve been incarcerated for 30 years. I was on a tier with a bunch of violators, I was on a violators tier. One of the questions I used to walk around and ask them was, what keeps you coming back? I been in here all these years, I’d give up an arm just to get one chance, but I’m seeing you keep coming back and coming back and coming back. The main thing I kept hearing was, “There’s no support out there for us. There’s no one that’s gonna give us a job. We can’t even get housing, because we’ve been incarcerated. We’ve got to live with family members and stuff like that.” When I got out, actually not even four or five months after that, after some of these conversations, I thought to myself and I thought to the organization that I was working for I said, “I gotta really do something for these guys.” I thought, what can I do? What do I remember? First Monday Empowerment, it breeded from me thinking about what I asked these guys. What do you need? The key word I kept hearing was support. I said First Monday Empowerment Support. I named it First Monday, because it’s easy to get to the meetings, ’cause it will be the first Monday of every month. It started with just me and one other guy sitting in a room talking about what we wanted to do. The guy was Marvin, Marvin Moore. Older guy around here, he’s the oldest member. It took about two or three months, we had two guys, three guys, four guys. Then all of a sudden, that next year I said, “Let’s do a cookout, let’s do a big cookout for all returning citizens to let them know that, hey we’ve got to come together and try to change some things and celebrate our accomplishments.” Not just being at home, but what we’re doing in our community, what we’re doing all over. What First Monday Empowerment Group is, is a social group. It teaches guys how to get back socially adapted to society, because some of these guys been locked up 30, 40, 50 years. They know how to deal and socialize inside, but when you come out, it’s a whole different thing. They don’t have to be looking over their shoulder every moment. They don’t have to be afraid when they hear loud noises and think something’s ready to happen. We’ve got to adapt them back socially to the society. What we do, we go bowling, we go sailing. A lot of these guys never even been sailing, never been to a bowling alley. We have dinners, we have karaoke nights with our women. We come and we make fun of ourselves. We laugh, because a lot of times in prison, you don’t laugh. You’ve got to keep this serious face on, we call it the mask. You put on that mask, so now we allowed to take off these masks and actually do something. We’re mentoring, we’re going to schools. I go down to a few schools to talk to the kids. We doing stuff with our community and this right here is just a celebration of all the positive things that we’re doing. Eddie Conway: How long have you been coming out here for this? Annette Hasan: Four years. Eddie Conway: Four years. Annette Hasan: Four years, since 2013. Eddie Conway: They say it’s been growing and growing, this is the first time I’m out here, so what you think? Do you think this is beneficial for the families, the returning citizens? Annette Hasan: This is wonderful for the families and the returning citizens, because what they do out here reflects on the guys on the inside. Everything that they do out here, they send back to let the guys know, keep your head up, because we’re working on to get you to where we are now. It gives the families a chance to interact with the returning citizens of the time that they’ve missed. You can’t make up for lost time, but you can move onto better times. That’s what they do, they meet each other, they do different events and stuff. It’s just wonderful, it’s just wonderful to be one big happy family. Eddie Conway: Thank you. Salim Al Ameen, how long have you been doing this? Salim Al Ameen: This is called the annual returning citizens cook out and we do it every year, once a year. This is actually our fourth turn out. It looks like each year it grows and grows. It started with maybe 200, then it went to 300, then we got up to 400. The objective is to bring the guys and the families together and bring our face out and show what we about. We trying to give back to the community, so we call every body out and it usually be a good turn out. These are the guys who were in prison a long while and want to do something worthwhile with their life. These the ones who probably prayed for a second chance and now that they got it, here we are. That’s what we do, we call everybody out and stay in touch and make sure we can give some help to each other. See how everybody going down the line. Eddie Conway: The latest guy to return to the community that’s been doing positive work in the prison and in the community is Wayne Bruton. Wayne, you been out for how long now? Wayne Bruton: Four months. Speaker 1: How does this hit you? Just being out here after, how long were you incarcerated? Wayne Bruton: For 38 years. I never thought I would see such a beautiful turn out and seeing all the guys that I been in prison with for the last 40 years. 200 is out here right now and everybody is doing something positive. It does my heart justice, it really does. Speaker 1: Does this gathering, Salim, does this help keep people out? Does it help provide support and that kind of stuff? Salim Al Ameen: I would say most definitely. It’s a connection, often times when talking about recidivism, talking about changing things, and guys get to see that you can make it out here, but there’s got to be some networking. There’s got to be some support things in place. Whatever service providers that we can find that a guy can benefit from, we connect them. It kind of like, I would say, I guess a wholesome feeling, getting it from somebody you know, as opposed to somebody that might be a stranger. That’s what we do, we connect with people and re-introduce them to society, because it’s a whole new world out here. We talking the long timers, guys that have been in prison 10, 20, 30, some of them even 40, 45 years. If anybody should be willing to step up, I think it should be us. It’s just an opportunity for us. Eddie Conway: Is there still people in the prison system under the Unger case and whatnot, that need to be and should be released? Salim Al Ameen: Absolutely, you have about, I think 36 more cases in Baltimore county. I believe that everyone should get the same relief as the 200 that came before that. Eddie Conway: What’s the problem? Why are they in Baltimore County not being released? Johnny Jones: The methods. Baltimore county is going about doing things in the antiquated method, instead of being proactive, because we talking about cases, some cases like brother Salim said, over 40 years old. I believe the guys have done their time. I been there with them. I’m an example that you can be successful out here. Salim Al Ameen: In particular, if I can add, is the case of Merle Unger. Initially, we talking about the Unger case and he was the one who initially had a reversal. He’s the only one who was actually convicted first and still is in prison. I’m just saying, draw attention, why is that so? Why is he still in prison? Why he hasn’t gotten a second chance? To prove that he can do the same thing we doing. Be a productive member of society. He’s [only got] one opportunity. I thought that with the things we’re doing now, it’s showing that it can be done and then we could have some things in place so that when they get here, the transition would be more easier for them. Eddie Conway: His case is an important case, because probably 70% or 80% of the people that you see out here, including myself- Wayne Bruton: [It’s out of that] situation. Eddie Conway Is out here from his case and his fight in the court. He should have more support. He should be released, because he won the case and it’s evident by us standing here. Why is he not here? That’s something we gonna have to address at some point. Salim Al Ameen: This needs to be addressed. Eddie Conway: Just tell us a little bit about what’s happening with Merle Unger right now. Roberta Unger: Right now, he’s tying to get a modification in his sentence. I don’t think he got done fair, when he did go to court, they talked about him having a trial, about a grievance. They shot it down, even the judge, he told the attorney that he should have never took the case to start with. We’re just fighting, ’cause we feel there’s only one besides him that didn’t get out. We feel that he needs a chance and he should be out here too. ‘Cause we fought hard. Came from a poor family and it took us years to save the money to go all the way to the Supreme Court to make this happen. We’re just grateful for all these people here. I love them, they’re all our family. When they say they’re the Unger family, they really are. They’re all like brothers here and sisters and they’re just great people and we just pray to the good Lord that we’ll get Merle free as well. Give us as much support as we can in any way we can to help him out. Sign some petitions to try to help him get another chance to get him out of there. Its been 41 years, thank you. God bless. Eddie Conway: There’s a lot of men here and we’ve talked to some of them, but women have also been locked up in Maryland in the prison system and been released. We want to talk to at least somebody that can speak in their voice. What’s your name? Jak Elliott: My name is Jak Elliot. Eddie Conway: You were locked up 10 years ago? Jak Elliott: I got locked up in 2008 and I was released in the latter part of 2012. Eddie Conway: How long have you been coming here to these events? Jak Elliott: This is the third year for this picnic. It’s allowed me to touch base, this experience that I’ve gone though with the criminal justice system has changed me. It has made me question a great many things and I have found the only answers that I can find. I’ve looked many places, is to go directly and change the legislative agenda in the state of Maryland. Ask questions, pay attention, especially to women’s issues. We have women getting older in prison, we have geriatric problems, we have senior citizen health nutrition that is not being addressed, reproductive problems that are not being addressed. We are being cared for by the low bid medical company the State of Maryland has bought into. We need better health care. Just because we’re incarcerated, doesn’t make us animals. We need better medical health care. Eddie Conway: How many women’s facilities are in this state right now? Jak Elliott: There is one women’s prison in the state of Maryland. Eddie Conway: Where is that? Jak Elliott: That is the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Maryland. Eddie Conway: Is there an annex to that also? Did they build another? No? Jak Elliott: No. Eddie Conway: How many women would you say it holds? Jak Elliott: They incarcerate anywhere from 650 to 950 women at any given time. Eddie Conway: Do the women in the prisons get any support from outside? From the normal grass root groups? Because people are always talking about men and doing program in the prison for men. Are there programs and stuff in the prison for women? Jak Elliott: Yes, there are programs and stuff for the women in prison. There are also outside facilitators that come in as volunteers to help further our education, to keep us abreast of what’s going on in the world. A lot of times, I have found on a personal basis, the information that is brought in is not allowed in all the time to the women. We aren’t allowed the freedom of information. The legal freedom of information that we should have. Eddie Conway: We’ll continue to follow events like this. One of the things that we’re interested in is the case of Merle Unger, who’s the guy that’s mainly responsible for everybody here. We’re gonna follow up and see why he’s one of the few people still left in the prison system, after over 200 people got released. Thank you for joining me at the Real News.