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44 Years Behind Bars: An Interview with Political Prisoner and Community Activist Marshall "Eddie" Conway


Eddie is one of numerous individuals who will be leading a roundtable discussion at the Urban Health Institute’s Third Annual Social Determinants of Health Symposium, Squandered Resources: Incarceration—Its Costs, Consequences and Alternatives, co-hosted with the Office of the Provost. The event is on April 28th and is open to public online registration.

After 43 years and 11 months behind bars, Marshall Edward Conway, or “Eddie,” became a free man on March 4, 2014. Eddie’s story has been widely publicized, covered by the media and political groups, as he is one of the numerous political prisoners across the country from the 1970’s Black Panther Party  who is now being released. The wave of releases is a result of the May 2012 Unger v. State ruling in the Maryland Court of Appeals, which applied retroactively to several cases, including Eddie’s.

I recently sat down with Eddie Conway to get a firsthand account of his experiences, perspectives, and plans for the future. One of my first questions for Eddie was about his reputation as an “exemplary prisoner.” While incarcerated, Eddie received three college degrees, started a prison library, and founded the Friend of a Friend program, a conflict resolution mentoring project that is currently operating in five Maryland prisons.

His influence was and continues to be life changing. He told me that the night before our interview he met with a support group of ex-offenders. Of the meeting he said, “In that group there were people and faces that I remember that started out from the literacy program. They ended up going to college and being organizers. I can see even now, thirty or forty years later, that it has changed people’s lives.”

During our conversation, Eddie frequently used that word—“organizer.” When I asked how to get more organizers to start similar literacy and education programs in prisons, he explained that “the real problem is not that people need organizers, but that you need the kind of organizers that people relate to.”

When Eddie uses the label “organizer” he’s referring to a person that other inmates or ex-offenders can see as a role model. “If they [prisoners] can see a guy that has been in prison and understand him, they will be less inclined to clam up. They learn respect because they see a role model. Especially when you deal with young people, respect and reputation is important.”

The Friend of a Friend program was established on the principle of respect. It was “developed by incarcerated men in order to try to change the culture within the prison system.” Often, mentees become mentors after receiving training through the curriculum guide, which includes debate workshops, theater role-play, and case studies from previous mentors.

The idea for Friend of a Friend sparked when Eddie was in his late fifties. “I was sitting around in the dining room and listening to very destructive behavior in terms of future planning. That caused me to start talking to the guys. When I finished talking to ten, I could maybe save four. That’s when I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, so I started Friend of a Friend with the American Friend Service.”

When I asked how he initially approached those conversations, he returned to the issue of respect. “At that point I was an elder. Close to sixty. I had been in prison forever, so even guys that didn’t know me knew of me.”

Eddie described that in these conversations he presented options and helped prisoners identify and use their unique interests and skill sets. “I said to them, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but what you want is a future. If you take the track of crime, the percentage is that eighteen months from now you’ll be back here or in a cemetery.’ So I asked them, ‘What’s your skill set? What can you do? What’s your resources base? Who do you know?’” These basic questions birthed the Friend of a Friend organization inside prison.

However, Eddie also recognized a need to expand the organization to develop deeper roots within the community, and identified reintegration into the community after incarceration as a major challenge.

I asked Eddie if the prisoners he spoke with were discouraged by the challenges they anticipated after release. He responded that the anticipation was part of the problem, but that inmates are primarily coping with the obstacle of the reality that they have experienced.

“[For many inmates] the reality on the ground has been that the deck is stacked, the justice system doesn’t work for them, they’re always under the gun, and there are very few ways out—you can rap, you can ball, you can bang [go into the army],” said Eddie. “If you’re walking down the street in a poor black community there’s a heavy police presence there. Even if you tell them about other options, it’s hard [for them] to believe because the reality that stares them in the face every day 24/7 is one of ‘you’re going to fail, your community is going to fail. If you don’t fail, we will make you fail.’”

“It’s in the lexicon,” he continued. “You pick up the papers, you look at the news, you never hear the stories about the good guy. If it bleeds it leads. And you get bombarded with those stimulations. Not only do you [sense] there is no way out, you’re convinced there is no way out because you see that half of your community disappeared into the prison system or the graveyard.”

In terms of addressing these problems, Eddie doesn’t assign the root of blame to the police system or the sensationalist media. “It’s institutional,” he says. “You can’t control an impoverished community without oppressive means. If there are no jobs, there is going to be perpetual violence in that community. If there is perpetual violence, there will be the presence of…forces to contain and control that.”

Eddie continued, “It goes all the way back to massive unemployment. There’s a social contract that is supposed to exist. And people that enjoy the good graces of [society] have an obligation to the rest of the population to…help them sustain a viable life. That contract has been broken. What we can do is change the dynamics in our community by helping however we can—at the grassroots level.”

We concluded our conversation by discussing his personal experience with integration over the past month. “Well, each day I’m gaining a little more control of my environment,” Eddie said. “I’m eating too much Chinese food. I’m enjoying being able to sit out somewhere and watch the skyline and traffic. All my days have been busy. Even now I have to be somewhere in twenty minutes!”

And Eddie has been busy. He has been expanding the Friend of a Friend organization, doing interviews, and promoting his book, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.

On Monday, April 28 Eddie will be leading a roundtable discussion at the Urban Health Institute’s Third Annual Social Determinants of Health Symposium, Squandered Resources: Incarceration—Its Costs, Consequences and Alternatives, co-hosted with the Office of the Provost . Eddie will join experts from academic institutions, local community leaders, and ex-offenders who will address problems in our criminal justice system and discuss ways to ensure healthier, safer lives for Baltimore’s youth.

Eddie ended with an anecdote that was both humorous and insightful: “Recently I had to unstop a backed up toilet. Someone said ‘that must be horrible.’ I said ‘I could be locked in a cell, so it’s not horrible. I would rather have this experience than not.’”

Joanna Guy, Urban Health Institute