EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway, Baltimore native, former Black Panther, activist, and Army veteran. I served 44 years in prison for a crime that I was innocent of, convicted with no direct evidence, relying on a jailhouse informant’s testimony. At the time, the government was operating the illegal COINTELPRO program, designed to destroy the black liberation and antiwar movements. The court eventually recognized the error of my trial. But by then it was too late. In prison I was almost killed three times by guards, beaten unconscious, and left to die. I worked as an activist in prison, and later with the Quaker program Friend of a Friend.
What I witnessed firsthand in prison reinforced what I already knew: the prison system is not designed to reform people. It is not making our community any safer. The United States has 2.3 million prisoners, the highest percentage of incarceration in the world. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005; a rate that has outpaced crime and the population rates.
And this whole incarceration thing, and you go back to the ’70s, where you had jobs, you had industry, you had fishing by the Sparrows Point, et cetera. You had people leaving in the morning, going to work, and coming back in the evening with paychecks. So now with that gone in the urban communities, the citizens are locked up. In the rural communities, the citizens are locking those urban citizens up. And so you create a situation where you have jobs for one community, incarceration, or I call it imprisonment, for another community.
DR. MATASHA HARRIS: So when you’re taking African-American men and women, and also Hispanic men and women, from the community and they’re incarcerated in those facilities, the facilities, for example, Maryland is under a state use system where they actually make a profit of off of having individuals incarcerated. And so we know that they make, for example, the park benches here in Maryland. They make the furniture in all of the state institutions. So the state benefits from having large numbers of individuals incarcerated in Maryland. Even when you step into the court with the bail bondsman, that’s a profitable-.
But also in terms of transfer services, if you’re being transferred from the city to the state, someone is getting paid for that. If you’re calling home on the, on the phone, someone is getting paid for that. If you’re sick and you need a doctor, a lot of times those areas are privatized, as well. And so the medical system, that’s profitable as well. If you are released on home confinement, the electronic monitoring, most of the times you have to pay for that. That’s another service in which individuals have to pay for. So there’s so many different levels. And even in some areas with private probation, you have to pay a fee to actually be on probation. So at every stage there are costs associated with it that other individuals can actually get paid off.
Even in terms of the food that’s being provided. Commissary. The high cost of the items that are available in commissary. And so again, at every level, people are actually getting paid.
EDDIE CONWAY: Perhaps over 80 percent of the individuals in the prison system are in there for crimes of economics. Selling drugs, protecting drugs, robbing, stealing, et cetera. Those crimes pale in the face of the systematic crimes by elites that exploits the entire community, and takes away individuals’ life choices.
DR. LAWRENCE BROWN: And so what happens in these hypersegregated cities, you have the hyperexploitation of these black communities, what a scholar called Noliwe Rooks calls segrenomics. And segrenomics is basically, again, that weaponization of racial segregation, the withdrawal of resources, which is redlining, the predatory lending of resources, which is subpriming.
So you have this Catch-22 dynamic, redlining and subpriming, going on at the same time. And black families can’t get ahead. And that’s leading to that economic stress, that that type of behavior is creating this criminal, violent, invisible sort of violence, and sort of feeding the street-level violence. And I think that’s the connection that we have to make, that the violence-. For instance, the city planning department, they did a study showing that the predominately white communities received twice as much from the city’s capital budget compared to predominately black communities here in Baltimore City.
EDDIE CONWAY: I talked to a couple of former members of what the media refers to as gangs, but what I call street organizations, to get their take on what the prison system had done to them.
MARCUS LILLY: For 25 years in prison. And felt like my family gave up on me. Everybody that I thought was my friend, or associates that swore their loyalty to me kind of, like, cast me to the side when I caught so much time. So inside you feel alone, and it’s kind of different because in other countries, correctional officers are like social workers in a sense. They help aid you and your reintegration into society. But like, in Maryland prisons, most prisons that I’ve been in, it’s an us against them mentality. Like, we’re not looked at as human beings. We’re looked at as a number.
Sometimes you have a few good ones that may really want to see you succeed, but they’re not going to do too much out of their job description. And the system itself is structured in a way where they can’t do much out of their job description. I seen people in solitary confinement for years. Like, I’ve heard of people being on lockup for like, five or ten years. Me, myself I was on there for 280 days. It’s a sense of paranoia. But like, I think it’s intensified by being over there that long. And just sitting in the cell, and not really having no type of programs and nothing that’s really centered on rehabilitation.
TIA HAMILTON: I understand people look at jail and it’s supposed to be a situation that they make for you to not want to come back. But the treatment, the way they treat you, we won’t even talk about the food that they give you. Rats running and all over the place, bed bugs. It’s really not structured for reforming, jail. It’s no education no more. You can’t go to college to get a degree anymore. Depending on where you are and what state you’re in, you can’t do anything but go to work.
EDDIE CONWAY: Prisons are incubators for creating street organizations and drug abuse. In Pigtown, an area with a large white population in Baltimore, 30 percent of the area’s residents live below the poverty line, and there’s a high crime rate.
SONYA: There’s a lot of drugs on the street, and a lot of homelessness. And I’ve only been jumped, thank God, once since I’ve been here. But that all rotates into, you know, this, how you feel, how you’re secure, how you’re safe. They need more treatment programs for the drug addicts that are out here on the streets. The police don’t make me feel any safer. Sometimes I feel more in danger with them around. You know, I can be in danger with just this.
EDDIE CONWAY: In East Baltimore the statistics are similar, with a medium household income of $32000, and 30.5 percent of the population falling below the poverty line.
BRANDON LEE: We got a lot of stuff built up in is, you feeling me. And we go to prison, we be expecting like we get a little relief and clear our mind, but we can’t. Because the correctional officer, no soap, no toilet paper, there was no toothpaste, you understand? And some people don’t got it. And some people don’t give it.
NASHAWN LEE: Like, it’s not right. I feel as though it’s too many guns out here. I have a 4-year-old son. And all my son know is guns, and guns. And that’s bad. It’s too many vacant homes out here for these homeless people. It should be more programs, like I said, for a mother and child, like me. I’m a, I’m a mother with two kids. I’m homeless. You feel me? I Feel like they say more recs out here for these kids.
EDDIE CONWAY: Communities are not safer the more we incarcerate more people. In Baltimore, homicide rates have increased as mass incarceration has become the norm.
COLIN STARGER: Many prisoners come out worse than they went in. And that’s because prisons, by and large, prisons and jails, are sites where violence is produced. Violence is encouraged. Once the label of convict is put on them they’re seen as second-class citizens. If we don’t introduce a little bit of forgiveness, a little bit of an understanding, a little bit more time and patience with our young people, especially our young people of color that we as a society demonize so much, we’re not going to solve the problem in the long run.
DR. LAWRENCE BROWN: You actually see in a community like this, actually people coming together to create something out of nothing. You actually- and that’s actually what black people have done since 1619. Black people have been making a way out of no way. They’ve been putting together resources even when they didn’t have ownership of themselves. This notion that black people are somehow, you know, are at fault for their own predicament, I think it’s a highly troubling narrative that doesn’t speak to, again, the sort of hyperexploitation, that hyperextraction of black wealth not only out of black communities, but out of the black body itself.
EDDIE CONWAY: A large part of the extraction of that wealth from the black community takes place through the prison system. On Rattling the Bars every month we will discuss alternatives to incarceration, and solutions from community members. We will also look at prison policies and programs, and their impact on prisoners, their families, and the community in general, and try to make a determination if those policies and programs make the community safer or not.
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Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois