Coronavirus Behind Bars

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Author: Tariq MaQbool
Incarcerated writer, fighting to prove my innocence. You can reach me at Tariq MaQbool #532722/830758C PO Box 861 Trenton NJ 08625 or via

It is well past 2 am and I find myself pacing back and forth in my cell on a double tier housing unit. Looking down from my skinny slit of a plexiglass window on the second level cell, I can see the empty dark encapsulated ‘bubble’ from where the officers control the entire unit.

During night, or rather the third shift, there is only one officer on duty and he, or she, comes out on the unit itself and sits on a desk. At night the control panel inside of the bubble is disabled and the unit is literally locked-down electronically.

The view from my cell door window has been the same for over a decade now. My cell is almost in the middle of the second tier, and looking to the left I can clearly see the two showers at the left end of the long corridor. On the other end of the hallway there is a large square-paneled window that overlooks the vast sprawl of the prison yard below and the behemoth, and notorious, castle wall of the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) around it.

Anyhow, the ceiling of the corridor outside my cell is painted off-white and over time it has taken a peculiar tint and looks more yellowish now. On the ceiling itself, about every six feet or so, there is a rectangular light fixture. Staring down the hallway at night, when all other lights are turned off, the brightly lit rectangular light fixtures look strangely like an inverted piano keyboard. I often find myself contemplating this juxtaposition of my life being turned upside down in here.

Yet, now, it seems like life has turned upside down for everyone, even in the so called “free world”.

Only a month ago the Corona Virus/Covid-19 pandemic seemed like a faraway hysteria. A ‘foreign’ plague. Something that the people of this country couldn’t bother to dispense with. It was called politics, a hoax, a figment of someone’s imagination, a plot, a conspiracy, a screenplay, etc.

But, it was, is, and will remain a reality. And perhaps due to the ambiguity of our national “leadership”, it will remain a bitter one at that.

In prison, life is ambiguous as well. Elon Musk has argued that our life and world is a projection. I do not know the intricacies of astrophysics or the complexities of multi-dimensional calculus but, I would attest that life in prison can be defined as a projection of the actual thing. Because, a prisoner is often reminded by his guards that, “This here ain’t the real world.”

Covid-19 was also spoken in those terms by the prison guards. A vast majority of whom live and swear by the edicts of the national propaganda machines such as Fox News, and the Drudge Report, amongst other stalwarts of the ‘Right’ media outlets. To them the Chinese “invasion” was actually geared to slow the economy and required nothing more than a regular flu shot. There were tones of bravado spreading conspiracy theories that Corona Virus was concocted by the liberals to”mess” with thei historic gains of the stock markets. All for the real purpose of safeguarding the Biden’s and their corrupt Ukrainian ways.

Then the reality struck and the gravity of the events outside became blatantly obvious. The guards got quiet, and an eerie feeling took over the prison.

Besides my customary misgivings about everything New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) the Administration acted swiftly within the first two weeks of March and, in consultation with the Chaplaincy and other departments, shut down the major prison religious and nonreligious services, classes and programs. All large gatherings of the prisoners were also stopped, including contact and window visits. The weights were removed from the prison yard and the weight rooms in the gymnasium were closed. Most of the prison job details were also suspended. And the NJDOC enacted a policy of functionality of only the “essential” staff and work details.

Additionally, a week prior to the main shutdown, as a precaution, by the order of the prison Administrator, all staff, employees, and visitors were checked for high temperature as they entered the prison. Anyone with a temperature around 99° was not allowed entry.

Moreover, the prison population was given extra soap with proper and timely guidelines, via emails and on-unit bulletins, to keep clean and to practice social distancing. A crucial practice that must be more closely monitored but that is a subject for another day.

In order to make up for the lack of contact with family and loved ones, the Administration also provided each prisoner with five (5) free stamps for mailing letters. And also started to allot each prisoner with five (5) e-stamps, free of charge, on weekly basis to be used for emails. The proactive efforts by the NJDOC must be commended.

So far the NJSP has no positive cases among the prisoners. However, there are some reports of multiple staff members being infected. I guess the inevitability of the spread within the prison is well understood. Albeit, perhaps, the gravity of the conditions and actual complications related to an infection are vastly misunderstood.

You see, prison by nature and practicality is quarantined. The layers of security work to further enhance the isolation. If there is a spread among the population – a large amount of which has a plethora of severe underlying, and preexisting, conditions – the problem will be of a catastrophic magnitude.

The same security layers that act as a shield will become a disastrous impediment. There are NO ventilators available to the NJDOC and the surrounding hospitals are not able, nor are they willing, to take in prisoners with Covid-19 infections.

I say this with some merit since as recently as last week, reportedly, there was a prisoner that was sent from South Woods Prison with Covid-19 symptoms and the local hospital refused to take him in. Instead he was brought to NJSP and was housed in an isolated cell. Suffice it to say that the prison staff was not happy with the entire ordeal.

With all the Corona related uncertainties, there is a lot of tension among the staff and prison population. I will share more of that with you in the next episode of this current saga.

For now, I will leave you with something my aunt once told me when I was young. It was after a calamitous flood that killed thousands in Pakistan. As a famous professor and educator, she was very active in social work. I visited countless relief centers which she established and ran. On one occasion, I remember she told me to get in the car and she drove around the busy thoroughfares of the city of Lahore and we stopped at a makeshift morgue. I can’t tell you how many rows of shrouded dead bodies I saw there. That site and the stench of death made me uneasy. She held my shoulder and lowered her head to whisper, “Don’t you worry Tariq, we are Pakistani, we are a resilient bunch, this shall pass too, Insha’ Allah (God Willing)!”

Through the toughest times of my life, her words always seem to echo in my ears. So, I want to share her advice with all of you. We, humans, are a resilient bunch,, so don’t you worry, this shall pass too, Insha’ Allah!

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