[Pnews] That's Not Gangster, That's Love: Eddie Conway and Jose Saldaña Talking

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Nov 5 11:19:58 EST 2020

Not Gangster, That's Love: Eddie Conway and Jose Saldaña Talking
Susie Day - November 5, 2020

Why do prison abolitionists argue that people who spend years behind bars
are exactly the ones we need out in the world to help mend our broken
communities? The answer starts to emerge when you listen to Eddie Conway
and Jose Saldaña. Eddie was Lieutenant of Security for Baltimore’s Black
Panther Party when he was sentenced to life plus 30 years. He spent 44
years in Maryland prisons, was released in 2014, and now reports for The
Real News Network. Jose was in the NYC Young Lords Party when he was
sentenced to 25 years to life. He was paroled after 38 years in New York
prisons, and now leads Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP, which works to
change state policies that incarcerate thousands of people – mostly Black
and Brown – for decades. Jose and Edie spent most of their lives locked up,
and survived largely by mentoring men inside, based on what they’d learned
in the Panthers and Young Lords. What follows is a virtual haiku of their
90-minute online conversation
that I moderated for RAPP on October 28. I began by asking them what it was
like to face a life sentence as a politically aware person.

*Jose Saldaña:* I was a street-corner drug dealer. That was my identity and
my future. That corner was the only way out of conditions I inherited at
birth. As a first-generation Puerto Rican, I’m in New York, a high school
dropout, experiencing all kinds of discrimination.

When the Young Lords came on the scene, they changed my life, totally. They
gave me an identity of who I was that connected to a history of resistance
to colonial oppression. Before that my heroes was big-time drug dealers.
Now my heroes became people like Doña Lolita Lebron who were willing to
sacrifice their lives for the Puerto Rican people. This is what I entered
prison with.

I had a life sentence; I knew I may never get out, so I continued to
educate myself. Even if I didn’t get out, I was going to make a
contribution to this movement from inside prison.

*Eddie Conway:* My story is similar. I was in the army. Matter of fact, I
was on my way to Vietnam when the light came on and I realized that there
was tanks in Newark, NJ, on the street, pointing 50-caliber machine guns at
Black women. So I came back to America and it became clear that the Black
Panther Party was the organization we needed to get changes.

When I entered prison I was convinced I would survive and come back out –
and that I would survive this ordeal out in America, too. What fortified me
was the righteousness of the struggle to change things. So from day one, I
went in fighting. Forty-three years and 11 months later, when I stepped
out, I was still fighting.

*JS:* We all wore green in New York prison, all subjected to the same
degrading disregard for our humanity. We were insulted in just about every
way possible, 24-7. Even our families were subjected to some of this.
Everybody understood that racism dominated this system but most of us
couldn’t articulate it to the point where we could have full, head-on

So dealing with conditions gave me an in, trying to empower and help each
other. And we had help – one of the movements that evolved from NY prisons
was the Resurrection Study Group. It was founded by incarcerated men,
including former Panther Eddie Ellis, and was like what the Young Lords and
the Panthers were in the streets.

*SD:** What did you study?*

*JS:* The history of resistance, for one. But resistance didn’t stop at
learning who our enemy is. It also encouraged a moral commitment to return
to our communities and repair the harm we’d done there. This was so
important. You cannot be a leader if you haven’t acknowledged that you’ve
harmed someone. And people started to realize that this was a part of their

*EC:* That’s absolutely true. We were about changing the harm that most
people had engaged in. We recognized the history of oppression and tried to
change that. It’s almost the same experience you had, Jose. I just came to
it in a different direction.

When I stepped into the prison system, I was determined *not* to work with
prisoners – I was gonna spend my time freeing myself. But the first day I
got there, I realized everybody was treated like animals. I wasn’t going
for that. So we started political education classes and organizing. We had
a group – about 100 of us in the beginning – that ended up becoming the
Maryland Penitentiary Intercommunal Survival Committee. The Black Panther
Party was closed for memberships at the time, so we had to name it
something else. And that spread to other prisons in the state.

*SD**: What books did you read? *

JS: I did so much reading. *Das Kapital*, Chairman Mao, *Wretched of the
Earth*, Kahlil Gibran, Kwame Nkrumah. But the book I used more than
anything was the prison letters of George Jackson [*Soledad Brother*].
Because I understood that the people I was trying to empower had a certain
way of thinking that the Young Lords rescued me from: being a person who
will resort to violence against my own. That’s how most of my peers
survived. So we addressed that survival mechanism by redefining concepts
like loyalty, courage.

I told them this story. I had a codefendant. He was more than a brother to
me; he was my number *one* brother. He was arrested before I was, when I
was in hiding. And the police, they hung him from a roof by his ankles. His
wife was there, she told me about it weeks later. They hung him from the
roof, saying, “Tell us where Jose is!” He says, “You want to know? OK, I’ll
tell you.”

They bring him up a little so they could hear him say where I’m hiding –
because he did know. But he yelled at the top of his lungs, “F-U, pigs!
Drop me.”

All these guys look around. They say, “That’s *gangster*.” I say, “No,
that’s not gangster. That’s love, man.”

That’s love and loyalty. Not just to each other, but to a principle greater
than all of us in this room. This is how I would try to educate them,
bringing them into a movement that’s greater than themselves. Because this
is about liberation for people that have been enslaved for hundreds of

*EC:* Well, we built a library, is what we did. We took two cells and lined
the walls with books. We had everything in there from *The Black Book* to *The
Green Book*. But mainly what helped us was Malcolm X’s autobiography
and *Soledad
Brother*. They were what prisoners with no consciousness at all was willing
to work through.

I did a number of programs. The last one was Say Their Own Words, which
brought together 100 prisoners and speakers from around the country. It was
a college level, interactive program. At the end of that program, they
shipped us all around the state, so we wouldn’t continue it. Of course,
when we got to other prisons, we polluted that population also.

We ended up building something called Friend of a Friend, which was an
official mentoring program focusing on skills that members of street
organizations needed to negotiate with each other. The last prison I was
in, every week, somebody would be murdered. And after three or four years
of Friend of a Friend, it was down to two murders a year.

*JS:* We need to recognize that mass incarceration is a reality for
literally hundreds of thousands of families in our communities. This is the
legacy of racism, which dominates this criminal legal system. This is where
mass incarceration came from – imprisoning or actually murdering grassroots
community leaders, and imprisoning the communities that support them. What
do we do about it?

>From the RAPP perspective, we have to create legislation that will correct
this and ensure our communities will never again be subject to these racist
policies. Doesn’t matter what the crime or conviction was. Doesn’t matter
the length of sentence. Doesn’t matter whether the charges are violent or
nonviolent. The only way we can correct this is by returning everyone to
their families.

*EC:* I was in prison with fathers, grandfathers, grandchildren. That’s
generations of people – that’s genocide. But honestly, I wouldn’t let
everybody out. Some people might need to be incarcerated. I’ve come in
contact with some serious sociopaths. They preyed upon young boys in
particular. I’ve been almost forced to kill some of them, trying to protect
young men. So Jose, I’m gonna be honest with you. There are some people I
wouldn’t let out.

*JS:* I’ve met a few like that. But I don’t think laws should be made based
on that few. And I notice that when they’re released, after maybe 40 years,
they’re committed – a civil commitment – to an institution. The state
recognizes there is something terribly wrong with them. But it doesn’t
actually treat them until after they get 40 or 50 years out of them. This
is why I say that prisons should not be for anyone. Because if they create
that law to imprison one sick person, they will imprison others. And those
others are going to be us.

*EC: *You know, Jose, you’re absolutely right. They need treatment. Prisons
don’t do anything for them, except let them feed on the young innocent

*SD:** Jose, you had four kids when you went to prison. Eddie, you had two.
Did your mentoring have anything to do with your kids you weren’t allowed
to parent?*

*JS:* It’s extremely difficult to be a good dad when you’re doing a life
sentence. I realized that I failed as a father. A dad doesn’t want to admit
that. My daughter once told me that I wasn’t there for her. So I tried to
make up for it by helping these younger kids, to really help them. It
helped me keep going…

*EC:* Probably my major regret is, before I went to prison, I was so caught
up in making the world a better place for everybody that I actually lost my
family. I didn’t take the personal time to make the world better for my son
or my wife. I got a chance to make up some of it with the counseling

That’s something I counsel everybody now. No matter what you’re doing, pay
attention to raising your children. Don’t sacrifice everything for your
politics. Politics are important, but this is a long, long-term fight.
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