Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

Today is January 4 and I am sitting in New Jersey State Prison, South Compound, cell 40. I find myself staring at the calendar. On this very same day, 16 years ago, the jury selection for my trial began, and that led to my conviction.

I remember the day before it too, because on that day I still had the optimism that the system would work and my innocence would be proven. The three months that followed, however, are a blur. Even after all these years, I am still baffled as to what actually happened in that courtroom.

I also remember the day I was sentenced as if it was yesterday. Not because of what happened inside the courtroom, but what transpired outside.

I was standing waiting for an elevator to take me to the courthouse basement. I was surrounded by six armed sheriff officers. My hands were cuffed and my feet shackled. A belt circled around my waist, reinforced with a steel chain; on both ends a sheriff officer held on to the belt, I guess just in case I made a move.

I had just received my sentence and exited the courtroom where my parents, brother, as well as other family and friends saw me getting “ironed-up” by the same officers a few minutes before. At that moment, I don’t know if I was more scared for what was to come or whether I was more ashamed that my family had to see me in that state.

“I hope you die in there,” said a woman who I had never seen before. She stood to the side of the elevator watching me get escorted.

She was short, petite, with bright dark eyes. Her long brown hair was twisted and cropped over one of her shoulders. She had this smirk on her face which I still can’t forget to this day. She wasn’t even there for my trial or related to anyone, including the victims, who were involved in my case. As far as I could tell, she was a complete stranger.

Her comment brought me back out of the numbness that I had wrapped myself in since my life sentence was read. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t feel anger or any animosity towards her.

“That’s enough lady,” one of the sheriff officer interjected. He was a nice man. I remember him well. He was kind, fair and firm. A perfect cop, which is an oddity in my experience of the world of law enforcement.

“It’s okay,” I said quietly. I heard myself from a distance as if I was watching from another dimension. “You have a nice day, Ma’am,” I said to the woman as the elevator door opened.

Watching me in shackles, I realized she had already defined who I was. It was an experience I was starting to get used to.

Prior to that exchange, I had spent the previous few months in a courtroom being defined by other people I had never met. At times, listening to the prosecution talk about me and describe the person they wanted the jury to convict, it felt surreal. As a human, I acutely felt the pain that the victim’s family carried in losing their loved ones. It was almost too much for me to bear.

And I felt even more horrible knowing that I was the one being blamed for every pang of their pain. Guilt or innocence aside, to know that you are the symbol of someone’s ultimate loss, is so very hard. During the trial, there where many moments as the details of the case were discussed that I just wanted to scream “stop” just because I wanted to halt their suffering.

I know it sounds very self-indulgent, but it’s the truth. My truth. Not that it ever mattered or ever will.

Over the years, I often think of that lady by the elevator. Years have gone by. Yet, I still carry her gaze as if it was a burn scar, still tingling. Her words echoing every now and then in my head. It is as if her voice is carried by the breeze forever.

“I hope you die in there,” she said.

Why did she say that to me? I’ve been thinking about it since that time. My only conclusion is that she must have been deeply hurt by something or someone terrible. And just happened to be there at the right time for her to feel better somehow. The thought of being the cause of someone’s solace even if it’s for one angry moment, it makes me happy on some level. Relieved even that I gave her a place to project her pain.

On the other hand, having been at the receiving end of her bile, it makes me a reflect on a word that I heard a few years ago: revanchist. It’s defined as a person who advocates for or supports policies of vengeance. It seems to define the actions of the woman that day, who knew nothing about me, but felt empowered to wish me death just by looking at me in shackles.

It also reminded me of some of the very deep rooted, dark tendencies of the larger American society which often reflects a revanchist appetite towards criminal justice, seemingly so at odds with the Christian identity many hold dear.

That dichotomy has been front and center of our public and political spheres in the recent, days, months, and years. With the upcoming new leadership at the helm, I pray that among other things, the retributive and vindictive mindset of people in this country can be set aside and room can be made for some healing, forgiveness and true rehabilitation.

I am hoping this much for all our society, the free and the captive.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Tariq MaQbool

Tariq MaQbool is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star Ledger, Slant'd magazine and The News Station.