Marshall Eddie Conway isn’t the first Black Panther to be released after decades in prison, only the most recent, and every time a political prisoner goes free it’s cause for celebration. I’m celebrating by searching for a correspondence program, or a “pen pal” as we called them in grade school, to write to. I’m doing this because when Conway was asked how he got through 44 years in jail he didn’t say “Allah,” or “Jahweh” or reading the Christian Bible or the Koran or Torah; he said it was the love and support of people on the outside that gave him the hope he needed to get through.
At 68 Conway is one of the most mentally stable ex-prisoners I’ve ever seen and heard. He didn’t just “get through” those 44 years, either: he continued doing political activism, initiating a program of older prisoners mentoring young ones as they entered the prison, and somehow extending youth programs to outside communities. He’s been out less than 24 hours (how does Amy Goodman get these people on her show?!), and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more of Conway’s activities as time goes by.
Unlike some of DN’s prison stories, especially those about solitary confinement, I was able to watch this one without freaking out. It was when Conway said people on the outside had helped him that it occurred to me to write to a political prisoner. I’ve been beside myself about the growing prison industrial complex, but I’m averse to doing political work that involves meetings and listening to people spout rhetoric, no matter whose side they’re on. And my emotional reactions to jails and solitary send me running from that particular area of human torture. As we all know, however, I can sit home and scribble. I won’t play the same role in someone’s life as Eddie’s friends and family played in his—they helped get him out—but maybe I can engage someone’s mind for a few minutes a week.
In the course of researching pen pal programs, I was inspired by an article written by someone who corresponds with political prisoners herself. Molly Fair says, in part:
The powers that be lock people in cages, feed them nasty food, deny them medical attention and education, surveil every aspect of their life and communications with the outside world, deprive them of fresh air and sunlight, deem them criminals (often based solely on the color of their skin, nationality, and/or class background) and profit from this system which is incredibly inhumane to all involved.
Supporters describe Conway as one of the country’s longest-held political prisoners. He was convicted of killing a Baltimore police officer in 1970, for which he has always maintained his innocence. The shooting occurred at a time when federal and local authorities were infiltrating and disrupting the Black Panthers and other activist groups…the FBI was also monitoring Conway’s actions as part of its counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO.