Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Every year as soon as my calendar’s page flips to the month of August, I feel a tinge of anxiety creeping up in the pit of my stomach. You see, August marks the anniversary of my arrival in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) some 16 years ago.

Sitting by my slim plexiglass window at midnight, looking out at the dark cloudy sky alone, I find myself searching for my friends — my favorite stars. For some years now, they have been my silent and loyal companions. The clouds have ruined quite a few meetings but it’s alright, I enjoy them too. They sort of provide a veil to my sorrow and add to the melancholic ambiance of my prison cell.

Then it happens, as if in a trance, the clouds seem to open and I can see that first day here as vividly as I can see the stars glinting through the cloak of haze. I can still see that young Tariq entering inside these thick castle walls; a young man who couldn’t even begin to understand the depth of this incessant vacuity. A place that is a bit more than just a never ending lesson in evil, prejudice, and despair. A place of utter torment.

“But when it comes to torture, not a day goes by that I don’t get to realize that it can get worse.”

The prison environment is fueled by hate, open racism, and blatant bigotry among other reprobate vices. But when it comes to torture, not a day goes by that I don’t get to realize that it can get worse.

My saga began in October 2002 in the county jail where I first got introduced to select catch phrases for a Muslim captive in America. I guess the events of 9/11 provided a carte blanche to the jailers towards someone who represented the physical traits and ancestral links to the perceived “enemy.” I was brown, Pakistani and Muslim — all attributes that tied me to the terrorists.

Yet, I endured.

In 2005, after losing at trial, my first stop during my transfer to NJSP was at the ‘Central Receiving Facility’ called “CRAF.” I heard his voice discussing me while being stripped after getting off the NJDOC transportation bus, also known as the “Blue Bird.”

“That’s him!”

“Oh yeah, you sure though, cause he looks like he’s Spanish or something.”

“Nah, that’s him. I bet you. He is the ‘real-deal’. I can spot them good.”

“Fuck him. Fuck ’em all. He is here now.”

[Laughter]

Upon hearing their racist rant, I can’t properly share in words what I felt in that vulnerable moment. You see, getting stripped is probably the most humiliating thing a human being encounters in prison. An exercise devised specifically to dehumanize, an ode to the western world’s inglorious days of slavery.

With modern day technology, especially with full body scanners at the airports in mind, I don’t understand why human beings still have to be stripped as animals. But it still happens. Perhaps the humiliation is the point.

Anyhow, later on, I saw the ‘one’ who could “spot” me “good” and was rather enticed by my arrival. He was standing next to the property desk waiting with my Qur’an in his hand, and had taken the liberty of leafing through it intensely as if it was something dangerous.

“You… where the fuck are you from?”

“Here,” I answered.

“Fuck that, where are you really from?”

“Lived in New York before that.”

“No, motherfucker, you know what I’m saying. You got ‘this’ [Qur’an] in your property. You ain’t from New York.”

I just looked at him. I wanted to say a few things, but after almost three years in county jail I knew well enough what would happen had I shared my true feelings with him. So, I remained quiet and he stood there smirking that smirk.

My first day in NJSP was memorable as well. Once again, after being stripped for the umpteenth time, I was taken to the infamous “6 Wing,” where I was temporarily housed in a cell on the bottom tier. The room was probably 6x6x7 with walls made of metal, a literal ‘hole-in-the-wall’ type toilet, and a cell door that was made of iron bars. It had a claustrophobic grave-like feeling as there were no windows in the cell. And without any fans, the humid August heat was beyond intolerable.

It reminded me of a dog shelter I visited once. There I saw a large Rottweiler locked up in a similar small cage with bars for a door. Except this time I was the one inside unable to even whimper.

“Being looked at through the bars reminded me of that dog, and I finally learned the perspective of that poor animal.”

Within the first 30 minutes of my arrival, multiple corrections officers came by to peek into my cell, looking for a “real terrorist.” Being looked at through the bars reminded me of that dog, and I finally learned the perspective of that poor animal.

After a while, a sergeant finally came and put an end to the viewing. But it’s never really stopped.

What started that day, morphed into a new norm over the past 16 years or so. Almost every day of my life here, I hear a steady stream of comments. 

“Osama, you are going to die here motherfucker.”

“Why did you guys do it?” 

“Watch that motherfucker. They love blowing shit up.” 

“What was your job that [9-11] day?” 

“Check his shoes real good. They just caught his cousin on the plane with a shoe bomb.” 

“So, in your country do they shout Allahu-Akbar all day?” 

“How many of the terrorists do you know?” 

“How many family members you got in the Taliban?” 

“Taliban!” 

“Isis!” 

“Your ethnicity doesn’t help.” (This was a very real reason a Sergeant gave me for repeatedly singling me out for searches called shake downs). 

Yet, I continue to endure.

Without any real oversight, NJDOC officers have unchecked authority over prisoners. At times, when I hesitantly complain, I am told that I am being too sensitive. But, to be sure, if any one of the earlier mentioned remarks was uttered in a corporate setting or for that matter to even a civilian or custody employee of the State of New Jersey, it would lead to termination and lawsuits galore. 

But when it comes to a prisoner, a convicted felon, the scum of the earth, it is all kosher.

Every year in August around midnight, I ask The Almighty to let this be the last year of my captivity. Over the years my alienation has grown steadily and prison becomes a darker place. I watch the growing power of the ‘Blue Wall’ which rallies supporters from the judicial system, the media, and the various political arenas. I realize that, in society, being accused and then convicted of a crime relegates us to a status even lower on the scales of humanity. Something just above an animal and its beastly existence.

But as I look out my window lost in these despondent thoughts, as always, my twinkling friends come to my rescue with a joyful smile and a promise of a better day to come. They remind me of the mercy of God Almighty. I then pray, hope, and yearn to receive that mercy.

And until that day, I shall continue to endure.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Tariq MaQbool

Tariq MaQbool is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project and maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. He was convicted of double homicide in 2005 and is serving 150 years at the New Jersey State Prison. His work has been published in The Marshall Project and The News Station.