'Survival pending revolution': Dominque Conway on education, political abolition, and reform (2024)

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'Survival pending revolution':Dominque Conway on education, political abolition, and reform (1)

One of the most persistent myths about the US prison system is that the system of mass incarceration helps deter and change harmful behavior. Yet according to the federal government’s own statistics, more than80 percentof formerly incarcerated people will be arrested within a decade after their release. The astronomical rate of recidivism reflects two realities: the prison system targets people for political reasons, and fails to address the roots of social problems. Dominque Conway joinsRattling the Barsto discuss her experience leading prison-based mentorship programs behind bars, and how she and others have used political education as a tool to not only address social problems, but transform people into active agents of change within their communities.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden

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The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mansa Musa:

Dominque Conway has an extensive history with working with prisoners in the prison industrial complex. Beyond her work she was doing to free her husband, Eddie Conway, who was the creator of Rattling the Bars here at The Real News Network, Dominique was committed, and continued to be committed to educating people, raising their conscience, and having them organize to change the conditions that poor and oppressed people are subjected to. She, along with others, created the program called Friend of a Friend, that was responsible for organizing and raising prisoners’ consciousness. Welcome, Dominique.

Dominque Conway:

Thank you for having me.

Mansa Musa:

Okay, so let’s start here. You have an extensive involvement with the prison industrial complex throughout this country. You’ve been in some FCIs, you’ve been in some detention centers, you’ve been in some county jails. And I met you in the Maryland prison system. What brought you to this space, in terms of finding yourself where you were constantly involved in going to institutions? What got you into that frame of mind to be a part of that? Because that, in and of itself, anybody involved with prisons, and to the extent that you have been committed to, they get burned out quick. It’s not a place where you see a constant change and progress in terms of what’s going on. It’s a lot that goes on, but it’s hard not to get burned out. I Have been in a space where I’ve seen people come and go. But when I look at your tenure in this environment, it’s different. Why?

Dominque Conway:

Well, first of all, I started the work because of my relationship with Eddie. Initially, I was really more interested, obviously in his case, which was to me, the epitome of injustice. But anybody who knew Eddie Conway knows that working with him always involved working with the people. So, from that interest, and wanting to really play a role in getting him out of prison, it led into, okay, let’s do this for the population. Let’s develop this program to engage the population. Part of that, and you know this, a lot of the men who had been in prison for a while, who were older, knew that you needed programming, you needed to engage young people. Without that, a lot of that idle time would just simply lead to violence. So, working with Eddie sparked it, initially, at the House of Corrections in Maryland. We worked with the veterans group there, because you always had to have this group that you worked through.

Through that group, we were able to bring in people who could speak to very specific issues, who could actually, really, do a lot of political education. We couldn’t tell the prison system that’s what we were doing. So everything we did was under the guise of conflict resolution. But, don’t get me wrong, a lot of the men also wanted to do that conflict resolution, and a lot of them were doing it. And not in the way that people may think. But these were men who could intercede in violent situations, and step between two people wielding knives.

I feel like I learned a lot from that, too, just from working with folks inside. It was never a one-way situation, where I was just simply bringing in people who were educating. The people who came in, often talked about how much they got from the experience of going into the prison system, and working with folks. And that just continued to spread throughout the system in Maryland, until, I think, it really became a threat to the administration, because of the fact that we were able to work with people from all walks. Different religions, different street organizations/gangs. Friend of a Friend came out of that programming that started at the House. Friend of a Friend became more of a formalized mentoring program. But Friend of a Friend became big. And at one point, I was working with hundreds of men in the Maryland prison system. And then, we spread into the federal system as well.

Mansa Musa:

Let’s talk about that, so we can educate our audience on exactly what Friend of a Friend. I remember when Eddie came into… I was at JCI when he came to JCI. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We were up in the library talking, and he told me, he said, “Look, I got this group that we’re getting ready to bring in here.” He ain’t say we getting ready to start. He said, “I got this group. We’re getting ready to bring in here, and I want you to be a part of it.” And I’m telling say, “they ain’t going to let you start no new group.” They had real rigid system of allowance. I said, “It ain’t going to be kind of [inaudible 00:05:31]. Don’t worry about that. Oh, this going to happen. It’s just a matter of when we get to the right people and talk to them.”

And that became Friend of a Friend. And I was given responsibility of helping to coordinate some of the things that was going on. Explain what Friend of a Friend is. And you briefly touched on how it came about, but talk about how it came about and how it morphed into what it ultimately turned out to be really a course that you could teach in college.

Dominque Conway:

So once the Maryland House of Corrections was closed, they dispersed these men to different prisons throughout the system. At that point, we had been there for a few years, working with that vet group. So we went to Department of Public Safety, and we’re like, “We want to continue this work.” Basically, they sent Eddie to Hagerstown, we’re like, we’re following Eddie to Hagerstown. At the time, Mary Ann Saar was the head of public safety. A liberal, but that got us in the door. And that’s what we needed to happen. So we went into the Maryland Correctional training center at Hagerstown. That’s where Eddie was. And Eddie had pulled together men from the population. Very diverse group in terms of who and what they represented. And I met with those men and pretty much asked them, “What do you want to do?” Which was a different approach this time. It’s like, “Okay, what do you want to do?” And they chose a mentoring project.

From there, we developed a curriculum, but we always, always, always, had a very political component to the work, and always did political education. Because one of Eddie’s concerns was trying to… And all of our concern, and I give a lot of credit to Eddie, but the reality is, it was me, it was other men [inaudible 00:07:45] put this together. But the concern was, you have these young men, some of whom have come into the prison system already broken. And it’s a system that just continues to break people.

So we wanted to really send people back out into the community more whole. And so that was a part of it. And I feel like with Friend of a Friend, what we were able to do that we weren’t able to do with the VETS program, is we created this sense of community, a sense of family. People had this feeling that they belonged to something that was bigger than themselves. And even when we were in the Feds, it was like that. Because also we would tell them the story, and the name itself came from a code word that was used on the Underground Railroad, which was kind of our view. It’s like, hey, trying to help people get free.

Mansa Musa:

Right, exactly.

Dominque Conway:

I may not have had a Winchester or whatever Harriet Tubman carried, but we were certainly [inaudible 00:08:48].

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, we had Winchester IDs,

Dominque Conway:

Yeah. Trying to help people get free. And that freedom first came through their minds. So we would tell this story about how that term, Friend of a Friend was used on the Underground Railroad when people were escaping slavery, and they go to a safe house. And they’d ask, “Who sent you? “A Friend of a Friend” and so we were working in that tradition as far as I was concerned, and as far as the men that I worked with were concerned.

Mansa Musa:

You know what, in terms, you made a good point about getting people to change their thinking, and changing their thinking changed their behavior. Ultimately, their behavior will be reflected in what they do, and not only in the environment where we was at, but also in society. Because I remember that when we would come out of a meeting and one of the guys that might be a participant or participating in Friends of a Friend, and he might be talking to somebody, and it might be a conflict. The person he’s talking to is getting ready to go do something to somebody. And the guy would come and say, this happened one time, the guy come to us, me and Eddie was staying there.

He said, “Yeah, I’m just talking to him. And he got this problem.” He getting ready to go do X, Y, Z. Eddie said, “Well, what did you do? Did you talk him out? What did you do [inaudible 00:10:13]? What did you tell him?” He said, “Well, I told him I’m going to catch up with him when we get back on the tier.” So Eddie said, “No, well go get him now and try to de-escalate what was going on.” But my point is the fact that Friends of a Friend’s allowed for us to be able to have that kind of relationship with the population, that when you was in Friends of a Friend’s, you felt like you had to be involved in the population to the extent that conflict problems and issues, that you felt as though you had to be a part of resolving them because of the harm it was doing to the population, and more importantly, to yourself. Talk about what some of the things that we was doing, how the curriculum came about. Because we had a curriculum.

Dominque Conway:

Yeah. It’s funny, because for the most part, we were winging it early on, which worked fine. Because I at that point wasn’t thinking so much about structure. But the reality is, it was like my supervisor suggested it. I hate to give him credit, but it was good, because we were able to pull together a curriculum that really reflected the work that the men were doing. So if we’re talking about conflict resolution, what you see represented in the curriculum, was based on what really happens in prisons. I asked them, “What are the number one conflicts in here?” Telephone, microwaves.

Mansa Musa:

Right, exactly. Right, right. Exactly, though. That’s the reality.

Dominque Conway:

Yeah, we center the curriculum around those kind of situations. But there was always stuff that was never put in writing, that we did, and we worked on, because of the fact that we were doing a lot of political education. And even in the curriculum, I slipped a little bit of The Red book in there.

Mansa Musa:

Yeah. Right, right, right. Everybody [inaudible 00:12:12].

Dominque Conway:

Because we knew that the curriculum was going to be viewed by prison officials. So I had to really be mindful of who else is looking at this, and [inaudible 00:12:22] developing it. But I feel like the richness came from not just the curriculum, but from what the men also added to that, from what I was able to add to that. And also just those initial trainings, because when I would go into the feds, I would be there for maybe three days, working with the men and doing the training. And then from there, they’d be on their own.

Mansa Musa:

And when we talk about, which I’m going to go into next, is the political education aspect of it, because in JCI, we brought Moon Works in, or Mama K, Mama Rashida, their cultural collective. And they did a play. But up until that point, they had never done anything like that in JCI. But more importantly, when the people that we was bringing in, like Mama K, whose husband is… both of them were Panthers. And her husband is-

Dominque Conway:

You mean, Mama C?

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, Mama C, right. And her husband Naz, and they in Tanzania. But we brought people in that had that, ordinarily, people in the prison would just say like, “Oh man, I would never have access to these people.” Because it is just not something that I’m doing individually. But when we brought these people in, it opened up a new world to the prisoners, and they started actualizing. Avion. Remember, he could write real good. He always had good writing skills. But when he got in contact with Friends of a Friend, he developed some real political poems that reflected just how he felt. Talk about why it was important to have that political aspect associated with Friend… and just as opposed to having, like you say, “Okay, we giving you information about how to resolve conflict over the microwave, how to resolve…” When it ain’t that life or death situation. You got to out think this situation. Why was the political component important in Friends of a Friend?

Dominque Conway:

I think, because at the core, that’s who we were. That’s who Eddie was. And everything that we did was going to be political. It would be easy to look at Friend of a Friend and think of it more as a reformist kind of measure. But we never viewed it that way, because we knew that in between actual revolution, you got to do something for the people.

Mansa Musa:

Right, exactly.

Dominque Conway:

Survival pending, okay. And also that abolition is a ways off. So in that time, what do you do? Do you just leave people to their own devices? No. You work with them. And I mean, we were always very clear that we weren’t trying to tell, particularly the young people we work with, we weren’t trying to tell them what to think. We were just simply trying to encourage them to think.

Mansa Musa:

To think. That’s right.

Dominque Conway:

And I feel like in that environment, even that was political. The political education was important, because we also wanted them to understand the role that they had previously played in the community. Because the hope was, and this occurred in very different ways, that folks would go back into the community and put into the community. Whereas before, maybe they were taking, maybe they were doing harm. You could tell a person, “Well, you know you are really doing bad things in the community,” but where does that get you? We wanted them to understand why were your choices limited to selling drugs. That requires political education. You have to help folks develop an analysis to really see what their world is like, and begin to understand the role that they can play in changing it. So that was really critical. And I think also at the core of a Friend of a Friend, is it was a love movement.

And love is political, love is revolutionary. I think it was James Baldwin who said, “Love has never been a popular movement.” And that was the truth. Because the other part of it, was loving each other and also getting folks to love themselves. So, if you love yourself-

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, exactly. That was a big thing.

Dominque Conway:

Yeah. You go about the world in a very different way when you have that kind of regard. But a lot of people had grown up in environments where not only were they not loved, but the world didn’t love them. The world said bad things about them, and still does.

Mansa Musa:

And you know what? And I like that, because I recall we had young guys in there, and they had this personas machismo about them. And then we had people in there was built that. They liked that, like the term, “I like the smoke.” We had individuals, they like the smoke. And so we had to deal with them and get them to understand that, “You need to look at yourself as well. Because you’re not here as a bouncer. You’re not here as the Sergeant Arms. You here like everybody else.” But I remember one incident with Timmy Poole, and for the everybody, Timmy Poole is a well-known individual in the Maryland system. And this kid was going back and forth, and Poole just said, “Man, all you need is a hug,” and grabbed him and hug him, and the kid started crying.

Because, up until that point, nobody never hugged him. But the thing about the political aspect, and you can talk about this, is… because you mentioned how people was taken from the community. Now everybody that I know of that was involved in Friends of a Friend, that’s out in society right now, or in the institution that was impacted by it, they’re doing things in terms of giving back to the community. They taking ideas and seeing some of the things that might need to be done, violence interruption, clothing, feeding people, having Friends of a Friend type activity in terms of within the community. Talk about your experience in witnessing some of this from individuals coming out, that you actually witnessed or that you knew was impacted by it.

Dominque Conway:

Yeah. I feel like early on, maybe 2009 or so, one of the first guys… because you know for a long time, we were working with folks, and our folks were serving long sentences and [inaudible 00:19:18] getting out like that. One of the first guys, Omari, was released, and I actually hired him. And that started a whole process of me hiring some of the men who were coming out, to do some work in the community, and engage the community. Because also I felt like it was important for us to mirror the very things that we’re talking about. And I worked for a nonprofit, and I was like, they need to put their money where their mouth is. [inaudible 00:19:47] talk about how great the program is, we need to be able to hire these men.

And so over the years, I hired quite a few of the men who were returning. But then you also had men who gradually came out and just engaged in very different ways. I think about Hussein Muhammad or William Freeman, who, he started going to classes inside, through Goucher University. He got out, continued at Goucher. Actually during graduation, he was the speaker. From there, got accepted into Hopkins, but also on the side continued to do work. He was involved with organizations, but he also attempted to help other folks. And that was actually how it was inside, because he was that person inside who was also trying to help, and trying to help folks negotiate their way out of street organizations. And I remember there’s a story that I have about him where we were actually paying our mentor stipends. Yeah, we did.

Mansa Musa:

Right. Right, right, right. Yes, right, that’s what we did. That’s what we did.

Dominque Conway:

I’m sure the DOC didn’t appreciate that, but we did. And he used his stipend to actually buy somebody’s way out of the gang. And I was like, “Wow, that’s deep,” because everybody else is buying Game Boy, whatever.

Mansa Musa:

Right, right. And that’s the paradigm shift. Because, when they took the Pell Grant out of the prison system, and prior to taking the Pell Grant out, this is where everybody went to school, because this was in Maryland… we had a oppressive warden that was pretty much saying that, if he think that you’re doing something, he going to put you on admin. So everybody started going to school to get around that. But in going to school, it put us in an environment we had to think, because we constantly aware like our classes.

But in terms of Friends of a Friends, that’s the takeaway. Because most of the guys that was in there, like I said, they went back on the tiers, or they got out, they thought about, their perspective about society changed, and their relationship with society, but more importantly, their relationship with the community. Their perspective changed. And then when they changed their perspective, their practice changed. And they started implementing ideas around things that could better improve their relationship with the community and better get the community to understand their value and their worth. Talk about how at the end of the process, what happened when… Because I know Eddie got out, and I think at some point in time, we got a stumbling block with Friends. Talk about that.

Dominque Conway:

So, after Eddie got out, I still continued to go in, and actually also was at that point doing trainings in the federal system in a couple of different prisons, to spread the program too. And prior to Eddie being released, there were always these hangups that we would run into, with the Department of Corrections. There were periodic bans. One time it was because I had a floppy disk in a planner that I stuck in a metal detector. I was banned for months at that point.

Even though, I was like, “You guys can look at the floppy disks, because you also are the only people who actually have computers that…

Mansa Musa:

Right, right, exactly.

Dominque Conway:

[inaudible 00:23:30] put the floppy disk in.” So that created a lot of frustration. And for me, that kind of sealed the fate of Hagerstown. Because once that ban was lifted, I didn’t feel comfortable going back to Hagerstown. I felt like that represented their desire to get rid of us, and I wasn’t sure what they might do beyond that. Especially because we won, in terms of the whole fight to get back in. So I continued to do the work down in the Jessup area, in the prisons there, and in the federal system. But even that, after a while, because like I said, we were also paying the mentors stipends.

I felt like that was important. It’s like these folks were doing work that people get paid well to do, out in the community. I was like, “Why are we not doing it?” We were actually even writing that into grant proposals. And one particular funder was giving us the money to do that. And so there was at some point though, at which there was a conflict. I think one of the mentors, they found a check or something, and that created a problem. And at that point, I was like, I’m not going back to meet with these [inaudible 00:24:51].

Mansa Musa:

Yeah, because yeah, you’d be fighting another fight. The fight ain’t worth that.

Dominque Conway:

Yeah. I was like, I’m not explaining anything. We did what we did because it was the right thing to do. There are rules and regulations, and usually, particularly when you talk about prisons, those are intended to really suppress people. We weren’t about that. We were about really uplifting folks. So once that occurred, I just made that decision. And Eddie was like, “Yeah, it’s time.” He was like, “You know, you did a bid too.” And it was time for me to stop the work anyway, because it was time for us to live too, and live outside of the system…

Mansa Musa:

Right. Outside of… Yeah, uh-huh.

Dominque Conway:

… that for so many years, had him.

Mansa Musa:

And you know what? And another part of the impact of Friends of a Friend that I see, is that, when guys was getting the stipend, it created income for them. When guys got out, they was being hired. We have this perspective in this country, and I want you to weigh in on this. We had this perspective in this country, we had the abolition movement, and people actually opened up and say… I was on a Zoom the other day, and the woman, she did her spiel and she said, “Oh yeah, by the way, I’m an abolitionist.” And her platform, and I’m not questioning her strategy or tactic, her platform is to engage in trying to get laws changed, that impact people. Mandatory minimum, trying to get mandatory minimum changed.

But then you had this purist mentality out there about abolition. And the purest mentality that’s coming, like all movements, the contradictions become apparent to me, based on a person’s level of conscious and awareness, when they make the analysis. But you had this purest movement like, hey, all buildings, all everything, prison industrial complex related, abolish it. And like the same way abolishing slavery. Talk about that, in terms when they’ll see some Friends… or they’ll see people coming in, interact with self-help groups, and might have a ulterior motive for coming in an interactive self-help group to create a political education class, network with people around, educating them, networking around [inaudible 00:27:33] coming in veterans group, but talk about, “You have a right to post traumatic stress disorder, and I got this radical lawyer coming in.” Talk about that part of the abolition as it relates to the concept of abolitionists.

Dominque Conway:

Okay. Yeah, it’s funny because that dialogue goes back so far for me in terms of doing this work for, I guess it was almost 20 years, and that ongoing dialogue about abolition. And I always avoided calling myself that. I personally don’t even believe in labeling myself. I don’t feel the need to.

Mansa Musa:

Right, exactly. Exactly.

Dominque Conway:

Your work will speak for you. But one of the things, especially being a student of history and having really looked at slavery, is that people were calling for the abolition of slavery, but they didn’t stop engaging with black folks who were enslaved. Okay?

Mansa Musa:

Exactly.

Dominque Conway:

It didn’t stop people from teaching people to read, it didn’t stop people from helping people get free. You always have to be willing to engage with the very population that you’re talking about. Because one, you shouldn’t be talking about them if you’re not really engaging with them. Because also people can speak for themselves and what they want. And it’s not that I don’t believe that prisons should be abolished. I do, but I also understand that there’s a long way to that, and we have to be willing to engage folks. Also, the communities that generally are impacted by the prison system, they’re still, for many people, a sense that they’re not safe.

And don’t get me wrong, I know police do not make people safe. Okay? That’s part of The lack of safety in the community. But also there are other things going on in the community that we have to be willing to address, and we have to look at ways to address those things. We have to create alternative economy for folks. People have to be able to live and eat, or they will revert to crime. That’s not a black thing, that’s not a Latino thing, that’s just a thing.

Mansa Musa:

That’s a social construct. Yeah.

Dominque Conway:

Yeah. So I feel like there’s a need to always be engaging with the people who will be affected by abolition. And not just engaging in a way that’s providing resources or telling people what to do, but actually finding out what people need and want, what they desire, what abolition really means for them. Because like I said, during slavery, you still had various people who were engaging with folks, who were preparing them for that point, who were educating, who were helping people sneak out, get to the north, cross them state [inaudible 00:30:35] do all of that work. And it’s still very necessary. Particularly with prisons, because I just feel like people inside just become more invisible over the years. And over the last decade, it seems to be that way. And it’s not to say that people aren’t doing work. I think a lot of those people who are doing work, it’s just simply not amplified. And the issues that they’re representing are not amplified in a way that they really need to be.

Mansa Musa:

Right. There you have it. The Real News. Thank you Dominique Conway, for coming on and educating our audience on the importance of the community, people in the community, as activists, however they define themselves, come into this environment and give this the prison environment some exposure to society. But more importantly, some of the political elements that’s in society, to change their thinking. Thank you for coming in. You definitely rattled the bars today. Appreciate you.

Dominque Conway:

Thank you.

Mansa Musa:

There you have it. The Real News rattled the bars. And guess what? We actually are The Real News.

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