The story of Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a military veteran and former Black Panther who was imprisoned for 43 years for a crime he didn’t commit, is one that gets to the heart of systemic racism in the United States. Despite grueling conditions, in prison Conway pursued three college degrees, and was considered an “exemplary” prisoner for starting a prison literacy program and organizing the prison library. On the other hand, his efforts to organize a union among his fellow convict laborers was crushed by the authorities. After being released in 2014 following an appellate court judgment that his jury had been given improper instructions, Conway has become executive producer of The Real News Network (TRNN), a progressive media organization based in Baltimore, MD, with his own show, “Rattling the Bars” that focuses on the many social justice issues that intersect with mass incarceration in the U.S.
On his TRNN show, Conway recently spoke with California organizers Jeronimo Aguilar and John Cannon about the growing movement to end modern-day slavery in the U.S. by attacking the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which outlaws slavery except in the case of criminal punishment.
This week, after speaking about his case on a previous episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” Conway joins host Robert Scheer once more to discuss how practically free prison labor and the far more lucrative jobs of those who enforce our system of mass incarceration sustain the economy of the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
Offering details from his own time in prison, where he made nine cents an hour for his labor, Conway examines how the wealthiest Americans have benefited from slavery in various forms since before the nation was founded until today. Conway alerts listeners to the fact that prisoners have no federal labor protections, making “exploitation even more egregious.” He also adds that those who choose not to work are often penalized with solitary confinement and other punishments, and that labor unions and other forms of organizing were quickly quashed within the penal system.
Pointing to the work of the grassroots movement “All of Us or None,” Conway tells Scheer the key to eliminating the prison industrial complex is to “take away that exploited labor [and] that excess profit” made by both states and companies. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to eradicate the 13th Amendment’s “exception clause” in federal and state constitutions, as organizers are actively working towards in more than a dozen states.
Listen to the full discussion between Conway and Scheer as the two discuss life both during and after imprisonment, and what got the activist and TRNN executive producer through the grueling decades during which he was unjustly incarcerated.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata