Do right in prison, suffer the backlash

The Baltimore Sun

Talk about a Catch-22 situation.

Mentors in the Friend of a Friend program at the Maryland Correctional Training Center take on the responsibility of talking to other inmates in an effort to defuse violent situations and encourage peaceful resolutions to conflicts. Inevitably, this will involve talking to an inmate who's a gang member.

But, Dominique Stevenson says, at least one FOF mentor has told her that talking to gang members has gotten him "tagged" by prison officials as a gang member himself. That inmate, Stevenson said, told her he is now restricted from talking to the young inmates he was trying to help.

Stevenson works for the American Friends Service Committee, which helped start the FOF group with inmates at the now-defunct Maryland House of Correction. The AFSC provides training in conflict resolution and leadership development for group mentors, who then advise and counsel other inmates so they can be mentors.

The AFSC also works with a Friend of a Friend program at the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit for Women and started, only yesterday, Women of Wisdom, a program for female inmates 50 years of age and over at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. The AFSC would like to revive a drama program at the Hagerstown facility that is on hiatus, but, Stevenson said, inmates who've been "tagged" as gang members won't be allowed to participate.

"This is really a shame," Stevenson wrote in an e-mail, "because these programs are designed with the intent of addressing the issues that the gangs present."

I'm sure honchos at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services have their reasons for the policy, and some of them are probably good ones. But I have a question: how accurate is this "tagging" business? Is it possible prison officials might erroneously tag an inmate as a gang member?

"A lot of the men feel it's more arbitrary than anything," Stevenson said. The mentor tagged as a gang member, for example, told Stevenson he feels he may have been targeted because he reads black nationalist literature on a regular basis.

Frankly, I didn't know there were any bona fide black nationalists left, but Stevenson told me a story about Marshall "Eddie" Conway that left me scratching my head. Stevenson said Conway told her that three years ago, when he was at the House of Correction, prison officials ordered him to be photographed for a gang catalog. When Conway asked why, he was told it was because he was a member of the Black Panther Party.

"What am I? A gang of one?" Stevenson said Conway asked. It was then that Conway learned that his Panther affiliation made him a member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. (You poor, benighted, miseducated-in-Baltimore-public-schools refugees who've been spray-painting "Black GORILLA Family" on walls around the city, please note the correct spelling of the word in the previous sentence.)

This flies in the face of what I know about the BGF/Panther relationship. Conway's being a Panther is just as likely to make him a target of, as well as a member of, the BGF. Remember Huey Newton, the founder of the Panthers? A BGF grunt fatally shot Newton in a drug deal gone bad in 1989. (One day some reader will e-mail or snail-mail me a letter about what constitutes a drug deal gone good.) According to Hugh Pearson's Shadow of the Panther, the guy who smoked Newton could be heard shouting, "I'll move up in rank!" right after the shooting.

Newton made several bad choices in his life; running afoul of the BGF was at the very top of the list.

There is no room here to go into the history of Newton, the BGF and prison activist and BPP member George Jackson, the reputed founder of the notorious prison gang. There is only room left for a response from corrections officials, so here it is.

According to Rick Binetti, a corrections spokesman, "MCTC does not prohibit any inmates identified as gang members from participating in programming, as long as they are in the general population. Being in the general population is a prerequisite for participating in programming at MCTC and is applied to all inmates."

That answers the charges Stevenson said inmates made about "tagging." But what specifically about Conway and the BGF? Judging from Binetti's answer, I can only conclude that comes under the heading of "classified information."

"For security reasons," Binetti wrote in an e-mail, "DPSCS does not discuss publicly specific policies and procedures related to intelligence-gathering efforts of any kind."

The Eddie Conway/BGF connection will have to, for now, remain a mystery.

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