Ericka Blount: In 1980, our Real News Executive Producer Eddie Conway helped organize a prisoners’ educational program called Say Their Own Word, where thinkers and scholars came to the Maryland Penitentiary and spoke about topics like impending US fascism, the prison industrial complex, increasing surveillance, and many other issues that have since escalated.
Speaker [Video Clip]: The 13th amendment, the one that says that slavery don’t exist in America except in prisons. And of course, we know that we are not slaves. We don’t have any desire to be slaves.
Bruce Franklin [Video Clip]: Racism is the foundation of the entire system. Racism is the foundation of capitalism. Racism is the foundation of imperialism.
Speaker [Video Clip]: I think whether we look at it historically, or whether we look at it in terms of the kind of politics that’s going on in the world today, I think we’d still come out with the same answer.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Prison serves the same purpose as slavery. I’m saying, we’re talking about institutionalized slavery, right? Patient education and persuasion by those of us who think that we advanced, that is the responsibility of consciousness. Consciousness carries with it responsibility.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Let me greet you as Muslims ordinarily greet one another, and in a sense, in a way that people have greeted one another for centuries, with a greeting of peace, which is as-salamu alaykum.
Speaker [Video Clip]: This is our program, and this is the proof that it’s our program because we do the work.
Ericka Blount: Since 1980, prison education programs have largely disappeared in American prisons. Here to talk about the Say Our Word Speaker Series, the issues that were addressed in the series, and what’s going on in American prisons today is our own Rattling the Bars host, Eddie Conway. Good to have you here as a guest for Rattling the Bars, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Thank you for having me. And it’s great to have you as a host. Yes.
Ericka Blount: So first, let’s talk a little bit about what inspired you to organize the series. And talk about what was going on in politics at the time, on the outside, and how prisoners were responding to what was going on.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, we had just came through the 70s, which were very turbulent years. Vietnam was going on. The liberation movement was under increasing attacks throughout the 70s. In the prison, we had organized hundreds of people. We had been doing political education for about a decade, and we had pretty much taken control of a number of things in the penitentiary, the newspaper, the library, the school building. We had used all those things to help organize. But what we found was that we were pushing for a television network, and we were pushing for a radio network and wider outreach, because we had been keeping up with what was going on outside in the community.
And of course, this was just before Ronald Reagan, or around that time, and things were getting bad in America. People outside were being distracted. And so we decided to develop a larger university-style peoples’ program in the prison that would help educate prisoners that weren’t necessarily involved in the local politics, but would bring them abreast of what was going on locally, nationally, and internationally. So we put in for a grant. We got that grant. We used the library as our base, and we got an auditorium, and we operated the program to bring the prison and the community closer together.
Ericka Blount: So that’s something that more than likely would not happen now. All of those things you talked about, like the TV program and the radio program, getting a grant to work directly with the community and educate prisoners, is that something that we’ve lost since then?
Eddie Conway: Well, yes, we’ve lost it because we’ve experienced the huge boom of what we call the prison-industrial complex across America, and what I call targeted incarceration. People of color were snatched off the streets right and left, after the failure or destruction of our efforts to gain liberation, independence, or just have a say in what was going on in America. So they locked up prisoners right and left, and that caused them to get rid of the programs, the education programs, the social interaction programs. They needed to shut the prison system off from the community, because that was a relationship that was developing that was shedding light on how America was still enslaving a large number of its people.
So in order to do that, it moved the prisons out into rural areas. And this kind of worked in their interest, the interest of capitalism, because industry was collapsing in the rural areas, in the far-flung counties, and the manufacturing companies and businesses were going to China and India and so on. And they were leaving the population unemployed. So you had two unemployed populations, one in the cities and one in the counties. So they use the county population to jail the populations in the cities. And in order to do that, they have to cut back on the outreach and the education. And so they just stopped most of the programs, or made it so difficult to operate a program that people will eventually gave up.
Ericka Blount: So did you find that inside you were having a harder time figuring out what was going on on the outside as a result?
Eddie Conway: No, we knew exactly what was going on outside in America, in the world. We were following it. We had been educating our cadre. We had been keeping abreast. We’ve been in touch. We’ve been working with people in other countries and stuff. The problem was, when our members got out, they found out that they were full of energy and eager and had all this knowledge. And they looked outside and people were doing crack cocaine. And people were getting their party on, that decade of the 80s, a virtue of selfishness was in place, the accumulation of material stuff. And so the comrades were out there shocked, because they were ready to make changes and they seen the changes that needed to be made. And everybody else was partying.
Ericka Blount: Did you see then that the US was moving more towards the right? Or did you guys know what direction the US was heading in?
Eddie Conway: Fascist programs had been applied to destroy the Black Panther Party, had been applied to destroy the liberation movement, the anti-war movement, and so on. We knew that. We recognized that. We had been talking about that, educating about that. And Ronald Reagan stilled it because he rolled back so many benefits and he cut off so much services. And a whole lot of people died as a result of that move to the extreme right.
And even the Democrats and the left, the so-called progressive politicians, were trying to outdo the Republicans, because I mean, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat himself, and he became a Republican. Later on, Clinton took that same playbook. He was a Democrat that pretended to be a Republican, but operated like a Republican. And so we saw that … Everybody was moving to the right and things were getting harder and harder in the communities.
Ericka Blount: So back to the speaker series that you created, was there a certain theme that you were looking towards? You had speakers like the poet, Amiri Baraka. You had historian Bruce Franklin. You had the radio host Askia Muhammad. Was there a certain theme you were going for?
Eddie Conway: Yes, I think we had two things in mind. One was to have a university-level program for the average prisoner, and two, to recognize the amount of intellect and talent and the ability to analyze things among the prison population by allowing them to say their own words. People were always surprised and impressed when they came into smaller gatherings of prisoners and had discussions about all kinds of things. And they would leave saying, “Damn, I didn’t expect to find that in the prison,” or, “I didn’t expect they would be like that.” And they were always surprised.
And the reason they were surprised was because they did not get a full picture of what prisoners were thinking about, talking about, and doing at that time. By organizing this program, we allowed people from the community to see, have personal experience. But we allowed the prisoners to understand that they had power in their own words there so … And that went toward changing them and went toward making them want to change society. And that was the ultimate aim, is to get them involved in their community to improve the conditions of the greater community.
Ericka Blount: In Bruce Franklin’s speech, he used Malcolm X’s autobiography and George Jackson’s Soledad Brother to explain fascism in the context of Black people in prisons in the US.
Bruce Franklin [Video Clip]: George Jackson is a major theoretician of what fascism is. And George Jackson’s theory of fascism derives from the fact that he was a Black man in America, and specifically, a Black man, who at a very early age, became a convict in America and was able to see fascism in its clearest form. That is the form where, as it exists, inside the prisons of America.
Ericka Blount: How did the prisoners respond both to that topic, but then also to literature that spoke specifically to them, like George Jackson and Malcolm X’s books?
Eddie Conway: Well, probably the most read book in the prison system in the 70s and 80s had to be Soledad Brother, George Jackson’s prison letters. And the second most popular read book in the prison system had to be Malcolm X’s autobiography. Those were two key books that started prisoners looking at their situation and trying to figure out how to change it. And many more books came after that, whether it was on Cuba, or revolutions around the world, or whether it was Black Panther literature or just historical literature, so on. Even the Red Book was a staple in the prison system. But George Jackson and Malcolm X’s books were the books that changed the lives, minds, and perspectives of prisoners.
Ericka Blount: So today, are prisoners still able to get books as freely as they were then, particularly revolutionary books?
Eddie Conway: No, they can’t. It’s almost an impossible task. It costs, in some cases, three times the amount of what the book would cost if I just walked into a store and bought a book today. That same book for a prisoner, it’s going to cost triple that price. And the thing of it is, is most prisoners are poor. They’re making slave wages. They’re from poor families in all too many cases.
They can’t afford to even pay double the price for a book. But when you triple the price, then you make it so that only a narrow few people can afford to have the luxury of reading books that are educational. So it’s very difficult today. And there’s a reason for that. If you stop people from thinking, and you change the way they see their self, and you make them feel like they can’t have power, or they don’t have any power, then it’s easier to control them.
Ericka Blount: What was the ultimate impact of the series, both on the prisoners and on the speakers themselves?
Eddie Conway: We have thinkers today in America’s society that came through that process of speaker series kind of things, or other kinds of things that we organized in the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s, and so on. You have people out in the community now doing work to change the conditions in the community, to reach younger people, to mentor. And so that program impacted the prisoners greatly. I still see today, them out in the community doing that kind of work, and know about them in other places around the country, because they didn’t just stay in Maryland. And as far as the speakers are concerned, the speakers have always been making efforts to change society. And those that have survived, because they were slightly older than most of us, made an impact.
Ericka Blount: So you interviewed two of those speakers recently, Bruce Franklin and Askia Muhammad. Talk a little bit about how they predicted what was going to happen 40 years ago to what’s happening today in the US.
Eddie Conway: It’s not a split society, it’s a fractured society. So when we were experiencing fascistic tactics being used upon us, people in other communities weren’t experiencing that same level of oppression. People in the immigration community was experiencing a different kind of oppression. People in the white community, the anti-cultural or counterculture groups, were experiencing even another kind of oppression. And people outside of those groups, neoliberal groups, et cetera, were experiencing materialistic gains and luxury.
People out in the rural community was experiencing impoverishment, but extreme white supremacy and patriotism and et cetera. So there was all these different sets of people and collection of groups that thought differently about what was going on. But the overall speakers could see a whole picture and realize that the whole country was sliding into fascism. And it didn’t become clear, probably, until about five years ago, even to the whole country, that is, because it was clear to many of those fractions that had been experiencing that stuff for hundreds of years in America. So I think the prediction then has finally played out to middle America today. And of course we could see the results of it in this past election.
Ericka Blount: So what was going on in terms of organizing inside the prisons, then? I know you talked a little bit about it, but tell me how you guys were able to organize, not just the speaker series, but just generally. How were you able to organize inside prisons back then?
Eddie Conway: We were able to organize. We participated in hearings in Congress. We organized groups all across the country to bring the United Nations into the prison systems in America and condemn the conditions of the prison system. We organized in such a way we shut down prisons. We shut down jails. So it was a tremendous amount of organizing going on.
We organized and helped the local election campaigns. Unfortunately, our candidate didn’t win, but the prison population got involved in that kind of stuff. We organized labor unions. We organized literacy programs. So I mean, the organizing was tremendous, and that’s why it had to be stopped. And that’s why it had to be eventually made to look like it was criminal enterprises instead of organizing, and outside people were treated like criminals instead of community activists trying to bring the communities together.
Ericka Blount: Talk a bit about how difficult it is to get inside prisons nowadays, for media or for anyone. Is that another obstacle that you see for organizing?
Eddie Conway: That’s the point, to keep the public in the dark about what’s going on in prisons. That’s why Rattling the Bars, it was such an important piece of our history because it sheds light, it shines light on conditions inside the prisons and around the prisons and how they impact prison families. And that’s what prison officials don’t want. They don’t want the light on the subject, because they cannot do the kind of stuff that they have been getting away with under a spotlight. So that’s why they keep television and everybody else away. Or they tell the story. We don’t get to say our own words.
Ericka Blount: So you were a Black Panther inside the prison at the time. Do you see the Black Lives Matter movement as an extension of the Black Panthers?
Eddie Conway: I don’t think the BLM is an extension of the Black Panther or the Black liberation movement. I see it more like an extension of the civil rights movement, even though they’re talking about human rights, because I Can’t Breathe, or Black women and Black men being killed constantly and regular, that’s a human rights issue. But the I Can’t Breathe protest up and down the street, it’s a civil rights activity, and it’s not forcing consequences for oppressors’ behaviors on the oppressor. It’s not making the kind of the …
It might be making demands to draw in some finance, to change some symbol, to remove monuments, to paint houses. But the consequences of the level of oppression and terror that we live under continues every day, every day, 18 hours. Every 18 hours, one Black man, woman, or child of color is murdered by law enforcement that’s supposed to be protecting and serving our community. That hasn’t changed. Nothing’s been changed about that yet. The reporting is shaky. And we get the knowing, we get the protests about it, but it continues even today. So it’s going to have to be more building and a stronger effort to gain control of the institutions that decide the fate of our community. And then you will be looking at maybe a liberation movement.
Ericka Blount: What did you personally get out of the speaker series? You talked a little bit about the speakers and the prisoners there, but what did you, as an organizer and as a prisoner at the time, get out of it?
Eddie Conway: Oh, I was just doing my job, I mean, our job. I mean, my job, as far as I was concerned, was to help educate and develop positive people to change conditions in our community, because there wasn’t much I could have got out of the speaker series. I was a speaker myself. So just doing the work. I mean, the work needed to be done, and I was there, and I did it. But, and I need to emphasize this, there were dozens of us that did the work, and that was important because there was no way I could … I was just a symbol. There’s no way I could have did that work. Prison population did that work. We produced the people. We produced the professionals that trained technicians. We produced everything that we needed to do that.
Ericka Blount: So last thing, you talked a little bit about how people on the outside have to be the ones organizing for people on the inside. So give them a reason for that. How are they interconnected? Explain how that’s necessary and why it’s necessary.
Eddie Conway: Everybody, 90% of the prisoners, come home eventually. Whether it’s a year, whether it’s two years, ten years, five years, forty years, every prisoner eventually comes home that lives to the end of their sentence. Now, that means that a tremendous amount of people that has been shipped off to foreign or way-out spaces, foreign to them, that is, out in rural Allegheny County or down in Somerset or up in Hagerstown, or where you don’t see anybody that looks like you, and all the guards look like somebody else …
And then there’s all this constant clashing and fighting between the prisoners and the guards. And the prisoners are always going to lose because they don’t have the guns, and they’re always going to get abused. And then they’re always going to get angry. And they’re isolated, and they’re frustrated. And then, at some point, they’ll release back to the community, and they’re pissed off because they think the community abandoned them. They think their community then allowed them to be abused.
They know they have been mishandled, mistreated. And as soon as something happened that upsets them, they have a potential to act out because of all that oppression and because of that isolation and what appeared to be abandonment. And those prisoners are now the people that are some of the key initiators of violence in our community. Those violent people came from Cumberland, Hagerstown, Somerset, or in some cases, Jessup.
But they were manufactured. They were manufactured and then sent back into our community, deliberately. They were agitated. They were choked. They had knees on their necks. They were tear gassed. Everything that could happen to them happened to them. And then they dumped them back in our community with no support, no wraparound services, no contact for five or ten years with their families and friends.
And they’re out there with no skills, no education now, and angry. That’s going to impact our community. It’s impacting our community now. And we need to figure out how to fix it, because it continues to happen even as I’m speaking to you right now. And so that’s a problem for us. We need to fix it, and we need to figure out how to stop it from happening, because the prison system is creating explosive tempers that eventually will hurt our community.
Ericka Blount: Thank you, Eddie, for joining us as our special guest for Rattling the Bars.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you for having me here.
Ericka Blount: And thank you for joining Rattling the Bars for the Real News Network.
Eddie Conway, former Lieutenant of Security for the Baltimore Black Panther Party, was locked up on dubious charges and held as a political prisoner for over 40 years. Conway is part of a generation of Black radicals and revolutionaries who were imprisoned, killed, or otherwise wiped off the political map in the decades of organized reaction following the radical 60s. But their revolutionary struggle, spirit, and teachings did not disappear.
In 1980, Conway participated in and helped organize a prisoners’ educational outreach program called “Say Their Own Word,” where thinkers and scholars came to Maryland Penitentiary and spoke about topics like impending U.S. fascism, the prison-industrial complex, capitalism, increasing surveillance, and many other issues that have become even more pressing today. These speakers included Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad, Bruce Franklin, Nijole Benokraitis, and Charlie Cobb. As part of an ongoing series, TRNN will be speaking with these individuals about their predictions in 1980 and how they resonate today. In this installment of the series, former Rattling the Bars producer Ericka Blount interviews Conway, who is now a free man and TRNN Executive Producer.