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North Neighborhoods
TV movie portrays former Indiana Township resident's work in prison

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

She was a Quaker and a college professor, married and living in Indiana Township, where she was raising four sons, two of them adopted.

He was a convict, a violent predator who had spent most of his life behind bars in some of the toughest prisons in America.

It was as unlikely a story idea as they come, but a perfect Hollywood pitch. It's the true story of Martha Conamacher as the catalyst for a life change that led Philadelphia-born Carl Upchurch to become a productive citizen credited with brokering a peace among warring street gangs across the country.

He wrote a book about it. "Convicted in the Womb" has sold tens of thousands of copies.

The story is now a television movie, currently airing on Showtime and starring Omar Epps as Upchurch and Dana Delany as Conamacher.

"She didn't get the feistiness," said Conamacher, who now lives in Philadelphia, in a recent telephone interview, speaking of Delany's portrayal of her in the film. "Otherwise, she did a good job. I think [Epps] did a good job."

Conamacher also said Upchurch did a good job on his book and his screenplay.

Delany bears no resemblance to the now 59-year-old Conamacher, whose hair at the time -- the early 1980s -- was prematurely white. She also suffered from a then-unknown infection of Lyme disease that left her fatigued and her eyes ultra sensitive to light. She wore dark glasses indoors and out, night and day.

In addition to her responsibilities as teacher, wife, mother and part-time instructor at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, Conamacher, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry, was a special environmental consultant to Indiana Township.

She taught science to inmates at the Woods Run prison. But her lessons did not stop there.

"I taught them science and the morality of using it," Conamacher said. She also did impromptu tutoring to some prison students in remedial math and reading to prepare them for her classes.

Conamacher said she wasn't intimidated by her surroundings behind the prison walls. She frequently was challenged -- intellectually and physically -- by inmates, but she remained undaunted.

One time, after handling a close encounter with a rowdy inmate, another convict whispered to her, "Is it true that you have a black belt in karate?"

"I just smiled," she said, neither confirming nor denying the rumor. "It was the only way they could understand why I was not afraid of them."

When Upchurch was paroled, the Conamachers took him in. He was like one of the family.

Her relationship with Upchurch had a rocky start. He still was a maladjusted product of the streets who sat in the back of the classroom. Had she been consulted about the movie, she said, she would have pointed more to his hostile attitude toward her in the beginning.

After one class, she said, she returned test papers to the inmates. Most or all of them had failed the exam and Upchurch confronted her.

"Carl came up and grabbed the grade book and growled, 'Do you think these grades are fair?' " To which she answered, "Do you think I'd come back in here, one of me and 20 of you, and not think they were fair?

"I wasn't afraid, and he wanted to know why," she said.

Eventually Upchurch, who was a leader among the inmates, began to soften and he became more amenable to earning his college degree along with the other prisoners.

She said she found that most prisoners had "a very rigid sense of morality. They wouldn't bend."

It's what got most of them in trouble in the first place, she said. They did not know how to achieve justice without taking matters into their own hands.

So, she said, she taught her captive charges to learn how to get along, how to disagree without being disagreeable.

"I specifically made that part of my curriculum," she said. "I was teaching people how to stand up for what's right and do it in a pleasant way."

Upchurch was a quick study. After his release, he took post-graduate courses and began to apply himself toward becoming part of the solution to the world's problems. And the Council for Urban Peace and Justice was born.

At his first gang peace summit in Kansas City, Mo., hundreds of hardened gang members convened and agreed to a truce. He did the same thing in Pittsburgh, persuading many gang members to lay down their arms.

The organization now is headed by Khalid Raheem, an Upchurch disciple who had been with him from the beginning.

Conamacher continues to teach in Philadelphia. This time it's religious studies for civilians.

She said she had selfish reasons for taking on the prison job.

"When guys got out of prison, I didn't want someone who had been brutalized all that time, nastier than when they went in, to be my neighbor," she said. "I wanted someone who had gotten a chance to learn something to be my neighbor."

Upchurch, married with a family of his own, is just such a person. He now lives in Ohio.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1939.

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