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Marshall “Eddie” Conway was framed for the murder of a police officer and incarcerated for 44 years—but even behind bars, he continued to organize. In the early 1970s, Maryland’s state prisons were overcrowded and lacked education opportunities for incarcerated people. As a form of intervention, Eddie organized a university-level education program with fellow prisoners known as “To Say Their Own Word.” The program not only raised the level of literacy among inmates; it also forged stronger solidarity between prisoners, and catalyzed other organizing and transformation across Maryland’s prison system. Former participants of To Say Their Own Word, Saleem El-Amin and Bruce Franklin, join Rattling the Bars for a look back on this project’s impact.

Production/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa. Today we’ll be talking to two extraordinary individuals. Back in 1980 in the Maryland Penitentiary, a program was created that had earthquake proportions in terms of the impact it would have on the Maryland prison system throughout the state of Maryland. The program was called To Say [Their] Own Word, and the person that was behind it and responsible for organizing and creating it was Marshall Eddie Conway. And as we well know, Marshall Eddie Conway just transitioned last month.

So today we have Saleem Kareem El-Amin and Bruce Franklin. Both of these individuals were involved in the program. Kareem Saleem El-Amin was incarcerated at that time in a Maryland Penitentiary, and Bruce was one of the participants that came in.

Welcome to Rattling the Bars. Bruce, we’ll start with you. Tell our audience a little bit about yourself and what you’re doing now.

Bruce Franklin:  Well, I’m retired, but as to [inaudible]. Right now, I’m a little scared of what’s happening in America. The prisons [inaudible] be used now to disenfranchise as many Black people as possible. That’s what’s happening in state after state. In Florida, 64% of Florida voted to allow funds to [inaudible] but the state legislature overturned that. State after state, right now, are using the prison to disenfranchise Black voters.

Mansa Musa:  Right.

Bruce Franklin:  [This isn’t new]. Right after [inaudible] they exchanged from slavery to prison. That’s what we inherited. [Inaudible].

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. And we’re going to flesh that out. We’ll flesh that out in a minute. Like I said, right now, we want to talk about the To Say [Their] Own Word and the impact it had on the Maryland prison system, but more importantly the outcome and some of the things that we see that’s taking place now, as you spoke, Bruce.

Saleem, you was a part of this process. Tell us a little bit about, prior to becoming a part of To Say [Their] Own Word, how long had you been in the Maryland Penitentiary?

Saleem El-Amin:  I guess about… I went to Maryland Penitentiary early, I guess around February 1971. Say [Their] Own Word came in the latter part of the ’70s.

Mansa Musa:  Right. I think it was like 1980.

Saleem El-Amin:  The first part of the… Yeah, around ’79 or ’80. Because I know we was trying to train to see where we would host it at and whatnot. But anyway, I guess I had been there about eight years before the program actually came into the Maryland Penitentiary. Yes.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And talk about the conditions. Because both of us was – And full disclosure, both of us in the Maryland Penitentiary during that period. But talk about the conditions that existed in the Maryland Penitentiary prior to.

Saleem El-Amin:  Again, like I said… Yes, again, I went in there, I was 18 years old, and it was horrendous conditions. I think they was calling it the birdcage at that time. And it was a travesty, really, because it was human lives just being wasted. I think everybody’s attention was focused on survival. So it was a matter of the fittest. The strong would dominate over the younger or the weaker.

But I remember a phrase that always stayed with me when I went in that Maryland Penitentiary, and the guy said, take your failings and put them in this bag, and then take that bag and put it in the trash can, because it has no place in here. And I always hold that to heart. I use it today when I mentor programs, to let them know how serious things are and what happens in them type of conditions. But it was a horrendous situation and, man, I really didn’t see if I was surviving, at first. Because it was just that crazy. When I went in there it was like 1,500 prisoners in there.

Mansa Musa:  Yep. It was overcrowded. Yep. And matter of fact, they had just started locking up young. They just started locking us up when we were young. They were just bringing up… Matter of fact, that prison population, when we came in there – Because I came in there in ’73 – When we came in there, the prison population was just starting to turn over with people our age, 18, 19 years old. And like you said, it was survival of the fittest.

In terms of the program activities that existed during that period from ’71 when you came in to ’80, by the time To Say [Their] Own Word came in, what was in existence during that time?

Saleem El-Amin:  [inaudible] jazz. They had a number of groups, but they wasn’t geared to… Wasn’t none of them geared to freedom or education. They were mostly sports-type oriented: Join a baseball club or get in a music band and listen to some music. But you have to remember back in the day, they didn’t have computers and they didn’t have cameras and they didn’t have the things that they have today in prisons. So we was just isolated on a long tier with 48 cells and stacked 3, 4, 5 tiers high, and whatever happened, happens.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right. And –

Saleem El-Amin:  And then that…

Mansa Musa:  Go ahead.

Saleem El-Amin:  And at that time it was just so crazy, because they used to call the people who secured us, they used to call them guards, back then, or hacks. And the only thing they was known to have was a real big key that opened the holes in the door. And if you didn’t have the keys then you was on your own. Because as I said, there wasn’t no cameras, you was just isolated. So the programs wasn’t geared to, I think, occupy your time or nothing. They wanted you to know you was doing time, serious time at that. Because I went into prison, I had a life sentence. I started talking to a few guys and it looked like my time wasn’t that much after I started hearing guys in here got double life and some of that got life and a hundred years, and I didn’t know it could get that ridiculous. But survival, that was the theme when I went into penitentiary.

Mansa Musa:  And you know what was remarkable for me, that resonates with your point, was not only the amount of time they had or we had, but the people that you was talking to, how long they had been there prior to you coming there. That’s what really make the hair stand on my head was you talking to an individual and you saying like, well, how much time you got? He said, well, I got double life. And then he’d say something like, and I’ve been here since 1962. My jail number is, I got a three digit or four digit jail number. Back then when we came in, we had, the population had expanded so much that it turned into a six digit jail number.

Saleem El-Amin:  Six digits. Yes. Correct.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. Hey, Bruce. Can you hear me, Bruce?

Bruce Franklin:  Yeah.

Mansa Musa:  And as you heard what me and Kareem was talking about, talk about what you think, what you see now, in terms of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration. What’s your views now on… Because you was a part of To Say [Their] Own Word, but as you said earlier, right now as it stand now, we’re seeing a concerted effort on the part of the establishment to really revert back to the environment that me and Kareem were just talking about, where they’re just warehousing you. That’s where we was at, wasn’t it, Kareem?

Bruce Franklin:  Well, mass incarceration really began in ’74. So [it’s been] almost half a century of mass incarceration. They knew what they were doing. This is [inaudible] war. So they were using the prison to get control of the population that they’re most afraid of. And so it’s been going on ever since.

Now we are seeing that in state after state [inaudible] laws passed requiring the way people are [inaudible] to reduce the back flow. This is new. This is… it’s just on a higher plane. They knew exactly what they’re doing. It’s not by chance. They want to get complete control of this whole society, and they’re not far from doing that.

Mansa Musa:  So yeah, you saying that… So basically, yeah. And going back to To Say [Their] Own Word, because that was basically the idea behind To Say [Their] Own Word, to create a university-type mentality amongst the men that was incarcerated.

And Kareem, talk about the education level, because I remember back then, the literacy rate of the Maryland Penitentiary, if I’m not mistaken, was somewhere between 80%… The population couldn’t even read, or read at a fifth grade level. And if I recall back then, we didn’t have a library. Back in the ’70s, we didn’t have no library. The school system was in shambles, and behind all that was, they had just had a ride in 1971 or ’72. Talk about –

Saleem El-Amin:  Mm-hmm (affirmative). ’72.

Mansa Musa:  ’72. Talk about the education, and from your perspective, how people communicated back then in terms of the form of communication they offered.

Saleem El-Amin:  Well, you hit it on the head. Education was definitely lacking in that, at best, they had what they called a school building, but it was very small, and they had cubicles where you could go up there and, I guess, read books. But they was sectioned off, called cubicles. But there was no access to a real library where you get access and broaden your mind or learn new things. Every now and then you’ll get a guy who have a stack of magazines and you can put your name on the list to view some of the magazines that have been donated, I guess. National Geographics, Life magazines. If you was fortunate, every now and then you might get to see a Jet.

But yeah, education there was at a standstill. I think the prison then was geared more to sports. Guys spent their time, a lot of sports, playing sports, or even they was lifting weights. Hence we got this institution, a whole lot of thick guys thinking that that’s what it takes to make it in there. So academics was definitely not an issue, not a subject matter to be considered. So most guys involved themselves in sports or, as I said, lifting weights or, with the limited programs they had, the little music thing, you go listen to some music or [inaudible] jazz or what do they call it? The bird. And that’s a baseball club.

Mansa Musa:  Right, right, right. Yep. Yep.

Saleem El-Amin:  Other than that. And sometimes you have to wait on the list to get in them groups. So we’re talking about the early ’70s. But it was just horrendous conditions then, I know that for sure.

Mansa Musa:  And you know what? And then we have Eddie Conway who come along and, in terms of seeing that prison population, had the vision, once Brenda Vogel came in there, who brought the library system in and created structure. But he had a vision to use literature as a form of getting men in the Maryland Penitentiary to control their prison environment and ultimately change their thinking about themselves and their relationship to society.

Kareem, you participated in To Say [Their] Own Word, and I was looking at the footage, and I’m looking at some of the guys that’s in the auditorium. And like you say, a lot of them was in sports figures. A lot of them did a lot of sports, a lot of them was into their religion. But for the most part, they was just good, standup individuals. They was like men in the sense of the word. And Eddie had got these guys in this spot. But everybody had a different opinion about basically everything. So in terms of being argumentative, that was going to come no matter what, because everybody had a different opinion. How was Eddie able to get y’all to come together and read books and then come back and talk about them later on, Saleem?

Saleem El-Amin:  Yes. As an intro, in walks Eddie with a suggestion that a program was designed to allow you to express yourself without the violent side and expose you to some books. And these are some of the things guys was interested in anyway, they just was idle because they didn’t offer it at first.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

Saleem El-Amin:  There was always a beef in prison. They keep beefs going because people are frustrated, people are being mistreated, people are angry. So if I’m not with you, you’re not with me, and… There’s always a beef. But when he mentioned a program you speak of, To Say [Their] Own Word, that was a new whole door opening. It’s like, man, a chance to express ourself, at least for me it was. The people I was associated with. I got a chance to express myself. Because everybody in prison had a concern. Not to mention that all 1,500 of them was innocent.

Mansa Musa:  Right, right, right, right. That’s right.

Saleem El-Amin:  We just ain’t had nobody to listen to us, that’s all.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right. That’s right.

Saleem El-Amin:  So when he had an opportunity to join with other people of, like you said, a variety of minds, and it was like a think tank coming about. And it wasn’t no pressure, it was an opportunity, really, To Say [Their] Own Word. I’m going to say it the way I need to express it, what I’m feeling, what I’m experiencing. And it was like an outlet for me. So I enjoyed the program. It helped me with some of my decisions, I know that. Because to engage with other people, I remember one of the guys in particular was Abraham, I don’t know if you remember him, Abraham.

Mansa Musa:  I remember him. I remember him.

Saleem El-Amin:  Oh, man. He would come in with a couple extra guests and we’d get a chance to share with other people who was all over the world. And they was interested in knowing what we was going through in prison, what we was experiencing in prison. And that, in a sense, made me feel more humane, that somebody cared about me. And so once I started networking and talking to other people and other groups got involved and even guys who consider themselves tough guys, they would start coming up to the program when they found out you could get books.

Man, we got a chance to come in and order books and exchange books and before you know it, it changed the whole camaraderie. It’s like I’m speaking to guys I normally wouldn’t even speak to, just because we shared the same subject matter when we went up to Say [Their] Own Word. So it was really a game changer for me as well as the other guys. Because when we came down, we would even have further discussions on what we discussed up at the program. So it was an ongoing event, and it just opened up a whole nother door. When people listen and you feel like you’re a part of something, it gave you a chance for change. I think it kind of kept us in touch with our humanity, really.

Mansa Musa:  And that was the goal behind… Because Eddie said that in the lit, and when our audience review the documentary, they’ll see what Eddie said, talked about creating a university-type environment, therefore changing the thinking of people.

Hey, Bruce, talk about how you came to be a part of this process. Because early, I think you was the first one up in terms of providing a lecture, and I think your book was one of the first books that everybody was exposed to. Talk about that, if you remember.

Bruce Franklin:  Yeah. Well, now there’s a lot of pretty little literature, many people [inaudible] [half a dozen] talking about the… Well, the prison is [inaudible] I guess it goes back to Malcolm in the ’60s. But now it is a real urgency so people can find out a lot about what is actually happening in prison, from people who were in prison or had really gotten out of prison. So it’s a very positive force. I taught in prison. And what I found is that the level of discussion in prison was much higher than the classes I was teaching in college.

Mansa Musa:  Uh-huh (affirmative). That’s right.

Bruce Franklin:  So people were very serious about reading what you get from books, and people associated with the knowledge with a very impressive force. So I think that’s going on today, but there are forces against it, trying to [limit it].

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. Right. And as you said… And that’s a reality because even now, you got so many restrictions on getting books into prison. Literally, you gotta jump through a fiery hoop to get a book. And then they got banned books. They got a list of books that’s been banned, primarily because they’re saying… It don’t have nothing to do with nothing other than the fact that I want to read something and educate myself. Oh, no, this book right here, 48 Laws of Power; This book right here is a gang book. Prison Letters of George Jackson; This book right here is a gang book. Message to the Blackman; This book right here is a gang book. They put the gang tag on literature. It’s almost as if, remember when Hitler had banned all the books and started burning books.

But Kareem, talk about, and take yourself off mute, talk about how your evolution. Because I be telling people about this all the time, they think I’m telling a story when I say it. I told them that you, and I think it was four or five other lifers, went out on a speaking engagement and stayed, I think, two or three nights, and had the opportunity to interact with the [Coach Corell] organization. But more importantly, as a result of y’all education and y’all ability to articulate what y’all was going to get done, the administration proved to talk about that. Talk about how the impact of being involved with To Say [Their] Own Word allowed you to actualize, like you say, people listening to you, now you feel like you got worth. When you feel like you got worth, you’re going to start exercising yourself in that capacity. Talk about that, Saleem.

Saleem El-Amin:  Good. Yeah, I guess I have to say I was fortunate in that sense that once I became a part of the To Say [Their] Own Word program and we started networking, was meeting other people, and there was some serious, strong dialogue that was taking place. Man, I was very intrigued. And after meeting people, we got invited to a couple speaking engagements. And so they had to go through procedures of getting the commissioner approve it and the warden was on board with it, because he knew the caliber and the character of the guys he was dealing with. And he could see what the change had done to us by interacting with other people, and he was willing to take that chance. And so we were permitted to go out on special leaves with an escort, of course. And the purpose was to share with the people in the community, whether it be a college, or a school, or a church, a youth program, what was taking place, and the effects of prison. And it wasn’t just the youth but their families as well. So we got a chance to go out and speak to different agencies and programs, and that was really good.

Then it came apart when they was getting ready to celebrate the kind of work that we was doing. And you mentioned a group called [Coach Corell]. That was actually a fan club behind a Baltimore coach at that time. And they was having a convention. And in light of the work that we had been doing, coming through To Say [Their] Own Word and a couple of self-help groups, the warden, with the help of the commissioner, sponsored the group, and he allowed me and three other companions to go to Ocean City to participate in the convention. And so we was actually housed there for three to four days, as you said. And we got a chance to attend the convention, expose them to what we was going through in prison.

As a matter of fact, the people at the conventions, many of them was some of our sponsors who had been coming inside the institution to work with us to try to get us more rights, to help us express our concerns. And once the literature was circulated and the dialogue took place, we was able to even develop into bigger programs. And the other guys, it served as an incentive to the majority of the prisoners, because everybody started getting involved. Everybody said, man, I can see that working for me. I can see that these people are genuine, they’re listening to you, they want to see where you at, because you’re sincere. And if you were sincere and you was putting in the work, then you would get the opportunity to go out on a special leave.

And that was a fortunate situation. I was with a group of guys. And like you said, Eddie had already laid the path of what we wanted to do. We wanted to expose people to a group of people who had some insight. And I’m telling you, education helped me make better decisions. That’s a given. I could barely read and write when I went to prison.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, me and you both. Hey, Bruce, as we wrap up, Bruce, talk about how you, at the end of this process of To Say [Their] Own Word, how did you feel in terms of the impact you thought you would have on that? Because as you see, Saleem just said that because of y’all participation in the program, it made him a better person, a more educated person, and an outstanding human being, as he’s doing remarkable work in society as of today. Talk about, did you think you was going to have that kind of impact on us, Bruce, when you came in to lecture?

Bruce Franklin:  Yeah. Well, I learned more than I taught [laughs]. Guys were serious about learning without violence and sharing ideas, as it was a very exciting event to come in and see that in prison and say, why are these people caged like this? So I wish more people could have this experience.

Mansa Musa:  Right. All right, there you have it. The real news about To Say [Their] Own Word and the impact that it had. But more importantly, it talks about the genius that is Eddie Conway. Because of Eddie Conway and Eddie Conway’s vision, we have men like Saleem who, right to this day, is a remarkable individual and doing outstanding work in society. But for To Say [Their] Own Word, there’s no telling where me or him would’ve been at, because during that period, as he said, a lot of blight, a lot of hardship. And then we had people like Bruce, who came in and educated us and shared with us his knowledge that allowed us to become self-actualized. Thank you, men, for joining me today.

Bruce Franklin:  Thank you.

Mansa Musa:  And as we close, we would like to ask you to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. We are actually the real news. We’re not the alternative news, we are actually the real news. It’s only here that you’re going to hear something about a man such as Eddie Conway, who had a vision to bring a program in, in an illiterate environment, and educate people, that people became Rhodes Scholars in their own right. Kareem got a graduation from college, everybody the college program came in, and it’s because of people like Eddie Conway, and it’s because of Eddie Conway that we’re asking that you continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. Thank you.

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Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.