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An Unsung Friend

June 20, 2021 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | No Comments

Author: Michael Abdur Ra’uf Edited by, 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 JPay.com

As a Muslim, I found that throughout our Holy Book, the Qur’an, GOD instructs His believers to be good and dutiful to one’s parents. The cornerstone of Islam is the singular belief to worship one GOD who has no equals in any respect. And that fundamental principle is followed by being subservient to one’s parents, highlighting the importance of parents. Looking back as a 40 year old man, I realize that Islam’s mandate of respecting parents gave a whole meaning for a then young teenage Muslim convert. Because before converting to Islam, growing up as a typical American teenager with hormones, pop culture, haughty thoughts and yes, of course, drugs and alcohol greatly crafted my view that my parents, specifically my father, wasn’t for me but against me.

In my limited view of that age I used to question why he wanted me home by 11 o’clock on a weekend night. Why would he want me to keep a job an live a sober life. Why would he want me to walk around with my pants pulled up. He was the antagonist to my protagonist, or that was my distorted outlook anyways. He was difficult and he and I bumped heads to say the least.

My father to this day is a difficult man in many ways, but I’ve learned to appreciate his reasons. Born in the middle of 1940’s to a singles mother of nine, his prospects for a future were bleak. Southern Illinois didn’t have any meaningful opportunity of employment beyond coal mines. Poverty was rampant, and children don’t sleep too easily when they’re visited by pangs of hunger. As such, his mother needed him to quit school after the 8th grade to get a job and help bring in more money. Beyond that, the culture of Southern Illinois wasn’t that much different than the Mississippi Delta. There were, and still are to a degree, like the “Sundown Towns” in which African Americans weren’t safe after the sun had set. And such a racist-poverty stricken culture jades a man’s mentality, and it infected my father as well. And growing up in that particular environment my only reaction as a teenager was to rebel entirely and seek comfort in other places from his absurdities. An now, years later, regardless of his irrationalities, my evolution as a man, a Muslim, and a son, has left me trying to be dutiful from behind prison walls.

Part of the dutifulness includes simple things like spending the money he sent me from prison to make sure that someone performs routine maintenance on his home, a chore that he is unable to do himself. Or, urging and pleading with him so that he goes to the Oncologist with questions to better understand his particular type of cancer and treatment options since he can’t articulate such inquiries properly. Beyond those efforts, through dialogue, I try to show my father the beauty of life and humanity despite someone’s race, creed or religion.

Evolution in my personal life has also coincided with recent reforms in juvenile criminal justice law. Instead of natural life sentence, I am now eligibility for release this year. I suppose juveniles are no longer looked at as miniature adults or “super predators.” Although my turn in front of a judge is approaching fast, and regardless of how giddy others like me are feeling, the fact is that my reality is an ominous one. I worry, and instead of having dreams of what I’m going to do upon release, I think about taking care of my father. I wonder whether I will be enough for him and wether he will even be alive once I’m out because his cancer is reoccurring and may have metastasized. Often haunted by these visions, I think and hope that these thoughts are evidence of what a good dutiful son suffers through. The reality is that his life stopped when his only son was arrested; so maybe it is only right that even when I am free my life stays on pause to attend to him and his needs. If this is a measure of what it means to be a dutiful son, then I readily accept the responsibility.

As much as it hurts to see my family dynamic change in the past twenty years of my incarceration, the biggest being the loss of my mother to cancer when she was only 50 years old, I’ve come to embody my father’s pains that rivals my mother’s death. He watched his wire of a lifetime wither away from cancer. He is now the last surviving person from his own family unit. With his body turning against itself from crippling arthritis, and his cancer refusing to be subdued, I find myself sleepless thinking of his anguish. And I guess I am finally learning to understand the sleepless nights, perhaps similar to that of his, when as a father his teenage son didn’t come home for days on end.

They say with age comes wisdom. As I write this I think that many fathers and sons have tumultuous relationships, maybe even worse than the one that I had. But I also believe that in moments of clarity, no matter how murky the situation may get, no matter how much cussing and fussing occurs, every son will admit he has an ‘unsung friend’ in his father because I know I do.

HAPPY FATHERS DAY!

This Is Prison

June 6, 2021 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | No Comments

Author: Michael J. Doce Edited by, 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 JPay.com

It was my first morning waking up in prison. The day before leading to my arrival started at dawn so I slept hard that night. The next morning, the unit officer, referred to as “CO” – short for Corrections Officer – woke me up at 5:30 AM while doing his regular morning “count”.

“Doce, you good,” He asked.

All I could make out was his silhouette as his flash light shined brightly in my face. “Yeah,” I replied with hesitation, while thinking at the same time, “am I?”

Suddenly I was hit by the foulest smell. I looked and my toilet was backed up with raw sewage.

“CO!” I tried to call out before he slipped off. “My toilet is backed up, and shit is pouring into my cell.” He walked back and looked at me with a blank stare an said, “This is prison,” and walked off leaving me with a memory that I will never forget.

Little did I know that his comment, “This is prison”, will become a mantra. Those words echo through these walls as if we’re programmed to stop asking questions once we hear them.

* * * * *

I often think when a judge sentences a person to prison, what else comes with that condemnation. I mean, regardless of the guilt and innocence issue, a person is taken away from the free world, taken from his or her family and friends, and everything about their lives is controlled. So, basically an incarcerated person can’t do the things that people on the street can do, period.

My question is, who decides that prison isn’t enough, and who says confinement is only PART of the punishment. Because by law, my confinement in itself is supposed to be the penalty; and the extra layers of hardships that are placed on me is an added consequence that has no basis in the criminal code.

In here, the phrase, “This is prison” is used for everything. I would love to learn which criminal code or statute provides this terminology as an official excuse:

“I’m freezing in my cell.” … “This is prison!”

“The food is spoiled and the fruit is rotten.” … “This is prison!”

“There’s no job training for my release.” … “This is prison!”

“There is no extended education after your GED.” … “This is prison!”

Unfortunately, the list for the usage of this terminology is endless. I just want to know why this is so common in prison for prisoners to be voiceless. Why can’t I get healthy food, why are my unit and cell spaces crawling with critters, and why there is nothing to do in here except to exist in a cell.

“This is prison” isn’t good enough anymore, my humanity itself – condemned as it may – demands better.

I don’t have much hope in the evil system of mass incarceration and the powers that run it to change. But the world needs to see what really goes on in here, and the society needs to know what is taking place in its name. I still hold on to the hope in humanity and I’m counting on the world that it still cares.

Winter Wonderland

April 26, 2021 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | No Comments

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 JPay.com

Traveling through the corridors of New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), I hear a lot of conversations. It is the usual mixture of all the current events and topics like politics, sports, and entertainment etc. But, today, the entire hallway that takes me to my daily work detail at the prison chapel was full of talk about the, yet another, approaching snowstorm.

Fellow prisoners and some guards were having an interesting conversation about the global warming and its causes from, obviously, very divergent points of view. The news on cable and TV channels was of a whiteout from the Midwest and as far south as Texas and the all the way up to the Northeast. With reports of a polar-vortex plunging Chicago and the surrounding areas dipping 30 degrees below, well that provided a lot of airtime by almost every news anchor worth his/her salt.

Entering the chapel, my fellow coworker, a 35 year veteran of NJSP, and one of my best friends, Shaykh Rafique, stated that it might be a short day of work since it was supposed to snow later and the state of emergency might be declared by the Governor. He was speaking with the institutional Imam, the supervisor of NJSP Chaplaincy Department, and the Protestant staff chaplain, about the severity of the weather and anticipated snow accumulation.

“Well, I hope it’s not that bad, and it doesn’t snow too much,” said the Imam.

I just smirked causing Shaykh Rafique to chuckle, “He wants a big one,” he said as he shook his head laughing. He knew me well enough to know my preference of a massive snowstorm.

They all looked at me with feigned disapproving eyes in a playful manner.

“Yes, I want it snow a whole lot. Actually, I want a complete whiteout. A proper winter wonderland!” I declared my wish openly and proudly.

“Yeah, that is because you don’t have to drive in it,” said the Imam.

“Or, to clean up all of that mess,” added the Reverend.

In response, I just stood there with an exaggerated shoulder shrug and a wide grin.

I love snow. My enchantment began since the very first time I saw a snowfall in the Northern Pakistani Hill Station of Muree when I was just a young boy. It fell thick from the sky in a slow rhythm. It seemed as if white cotton candy slowly floated towards me from the heavens, as if a gift from the angels. I remember running around with my mouth open trying to catch the large white flakes that landed all over my face. There was almost no wind that day and it seemed that time itself had miraculously stopped.

My infatuation with the snow grew as we travelled further into the Northern Pakistani Himalayan labyrinth of snow peaks, glaciers, and valleys in the summer vacations. And it took a whole new meaning when we would come to New York for winter holidays. As a child, watching NYC all decorated during Christmas, and the tree at the Rockefeller Center, changed my entire view of a winter wonderland.

Later, during H.S. years in Long Island, New York, I could smell the snow before it arrived as it refreshed the core of my soul. In those days, since our house was at a short distance, I happily walked to the school thrashing and carving my own path in knee high snow mounds. On the days that school was off due to snowstorms, watching the snowfall sitting in our sunroom was beyond delightful. I would sit and eat a bowl of chocolate ice ream with chocolate sprinkles and watch snow stack up against the sliding doors of the spacious sunroom. The surrounding trees and garden with thick rows of plants would turn powdery white and sitting in that snow covered cocoon felt as if I was in fairy tale of a land beyond imagination. Till this day, those days in Long Island, watching the snowfall, is one of the most serene and cherished memories of my life.

For me, snow has a whimsical effect as it provides a reprieve from the mundane nature of life. Just the mere act of a leisurely swirling earthbound snowflake is enough to calm a restless soul. If you doubt my observation then follow one on a snowy day and you will never need any other meditation technique. It is pure Nirvana!

Nowadays, being incarcerated in a maximum security prison, where I am further isolated – if such feat is even conceptually possible – due to COVID-19 pandemic, snowfall brings back the good memories of my childhood, the best periods of school years, and my first real kiss as a teenager behind the high school gymnasium in Long Island. Even in here, thinking of those days makes me feel nostalgic, yet I also find myself smiling.

But, there is another ‘practical’ reality of why I still love to watch the snowfall in prison. You see, snow provides me with a momentary relief from the sadness of being imprisoned. It somehow magically provides me with a sense of freedom and relaxation. During days when the snowfall is the deepest and hardest, and when the visibility from my cell window is down to almost nothing, the thick coat of snow covers the prison walls, the barbed wires, the never ending chain linked fences, and the entire ambiance of an American prison is changed to something mystical. And, perhaps, for a little while, it almost feels as if I’m sitting in our sunroom in Long Island watching the snowfall.

When it stops snowing and the entire prison compound is covered with white powder, it feels as if the whole world has frozen and the hands of time are held in place by the Grace of GOD. There, frozen, I find a place, a moment, an instant to breathe freely. I inhale and exhale, thinking of the fragrance of fresh snow, as if for the very first time, and perhaps, the very last. My lungs feeling full, and my veins warmed with life, I find my heart and soul tranquil. In the midst of that misty white veil, I also find myself feeling easy, relaxed, and momentarily, alive!

So, I pray, wish, and hope for more days of a snowstorm, a whiteout, and a proper winter wonderland.

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 JPay.com

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

When I was a boy growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, I vividly remember a local puppeteer who would bring his show to the big bazaar near my house during the Kites Festival. Children ignored the lure of video games and became mesmerized by the timeworn art of the puppet show and the simple tale of a young boy and his kite.

 In the story, the young puppet boy flies a kite, then loses it. A puppet girl emerges and finds the missing kite. She returns it to the crying boy, and he is happy again. It is an innocent tale of loss and love.

While everyone else in the audience cheered and clapped at the end, I could never get past the sad look on the puppet boy’s wooden face. He had two vertical black strips for eyes, a round dot for a nose and a tight line for a mouth. The puppeteer’s strings seemed to cover his whole body. With every tug of his controller, the boy’s body shook. I desperately wished for him to be free of his strings, so that he could chase his own kite and run away with his little girlfriend. 

Now, as a man in my 40s sentenced to life in prison, I think back to that puppet boy and I see myself. Sitting here in my cell at the New Jersey State Prison, where I’ve spent the last 15 years, it can be hard to find hope and humanity in a structure designed to take that away from you. I am the wooden boy in this prison, controlled by all sorts of strings. And with COVID-19, despair is all around. I haven’t seen my family since March 2020. Instead, I’ve seen men around me get sick and die from this virus. I worry that some of my own loved ones won’t be around when this pandemic is over.

All I have is the hope that one day I will be free. That hope is what gives me the strength to go through the degradation and futility of prison life. President Obama called it “the audacity of hope.” I know it simply as faith.

In prison, we live in an alternate reality filled with arbitrary rules and shifting restrictions. Prisoners have to grasp for some semblance of structure to reaffirm our humanity and place in the world. As a Muslim, it is my faith that provides it for me. 

I have always been spiritual, but it wasn’t until I was incarcerated that I began to study the tenets of my faith in earnest. My belief in God provides me with the redemption that the criminal justice system denies me, even if that second chance comes on the Day of Judgment. So now I turn to Mecca five times a day and pray for the day when I don’t have to conform to the arbitrary whims of my puppet masters. I pray to be back in the real world.

In some ways, though, I feel like I’ve been living in a nightmare that I can’t wake up from for the last 18 years. I was arrested for murder in 2002. I was held in solitary confinement for over two years before I was even convicted. When I lost my trial in 2005, it was a shock to my system. The case against me relied heavily on the testimony of one man who had been a person of interest earlier in the investigation. There was no DNA or forensic evidence, and it never occurred to me that I would be convicted. Yet, even then, I placed hope into the vessel of prayer and focused my eyes toward the horizon of possibilities.

While planning for my case to go before the appellate and then state supreme court, I repeatedly told myself, “There is the direct appeal.” After losing that appeal two years later, I found myself standing before the 6-inch plastic mirror taped on the wall of my 8-by-6 foot cell reciting the same words about my post-conviction relief appeal. That process took six years to wind through the trial court, the appellate court and the state supreme court. My faith in God never wavered even as I lost one appeal after another.

Last year on Nov. 11, I received the final letter about my federal appeals case—denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a moment that should have made me want to give up. Instead, I stood in front of my mirror looking at a photograph of my family. 

The picture is from my nephew’s 5th birthday. My mom and dad are smiling at the camera and my brother and his wife are next to them with my nephew. My 3-year-old niece appears to be handing a piece of cake to the camera. She later told me that the cake was for me so that I could be a part of the family celebration. That scene helped me to hang on to that ever-elusive goal of hope. I am still loved, so I still have hope.

In Urdu, we have a saying that I often heard from my elders: Umeed per dunyaa qaa-em hai. Loosely translated it means, “Hope is the foundation of the world.”  

My faith is the ultimate litmus test of that hope. So I say the words of prayer and, feeling rather audacious, I hope for a better day to come. One when I can finally be without any strings.

Revanchist

February 25, 2021 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | No Comments

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 JPay.com

Today is January 4th, 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 will work and my innocence will be proven. The three months that followed, however, are a blur, and even after all these years, I am still baffled as to what actually happened in that courtroom.

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

I was standing waiting for an elevator to take me to the courthouse basement between 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 was just given my sentence and had just exited the courtroom where my parents, brother, 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’s to come or whether I was more shameful to have to have my family see me in that state.

“I hope you die in there!” Said a woman who I had never seen before. Standing to the side of the elevator, she was watching me getting escorted.

She was short, petit, with bright dark eyes. Her long brown hair were twisted and cropped over one of her shoulders. She had this smirk on her face which I can’t forget till this day. She wasn’t even there for my trial or for that matter she wasn’t even related to anyone including the victims in my case. She was apparently a complete stranger.

Her comment brought me back out of my trance. Surprisingly, 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, an oddity in the world of law enforcement, at least from my experience.

“It’s OK.” I heard myself say as if I was watching from another dimension. “You have a nice day, Ma’m.” I heard myself again as the elevator door opened.

I had spent the previous few months in a courtroom being defined by people I had Never met. At times, listening to the prosecution talk about me, it felt surreal. I couldn’t bare the amount of pain the victims family had felt for losing their loved ones. And I felt even more horrible that I was being blamed for every pang of their pain. Guilt or innocence aside, to know that you are the symbol of someone’s ultimate loss, it is so very hard. During the trial there where many moments where I just wanted to scream “stop”, only to just halt someone’s 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, it is as if her voice is carried by the breeze forever.

“I hope you die in there!”

Why did she say that to me? I have been thinking about it since that time. My only conclusion is that she must’ve been deeply hurt. And I was just there at the right time for her to feel better somehow. The thought of it, to be a cause of someone’s solace, in turn, makes me happy, relieved even.

On the other hand, living in the bile of it, I do believe that the American society at large has some deep rooted peculiar tendencies, reflecting perhaps an omen of a darker past. It also has a peculiar mob like mentality, reflecting a revanchist appetite that seems at odds with its Christian identity.

That oddity 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 can be set aside and room is made for some healing, forgiveness, and rehabilitation. I am hoping this much for all our society, the free and the captive.

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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 JPay.com

he motto of the State of New Jersey is “Liberty and Prosperity”. It is an axiom that sounds hollow in light of its overwhelming incarceration rates of minorities. In comparison to its neighboring states if New York and Pennsylvania, where real efforts have begun in earnest, starting with retraining of law enforcement and in providing sentence relief, New Jersey’s smug reality is quite shameful.

In 1787, New Jersey was the third state of the Union’s original thirteen states to ratify the Construction, and the first to approve the Bill of Rights. That was without a doubt a great historic achievement.

Yet, despite the state’s original commitment to equality, the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission’s (NJCSDC) 2019 report revealed that the state’s incarceration rates for Black people was 12 times that for Whites, the highest disparity of any state in the nation. Hispanics and other minorities were also incarcerated at the rate double that of Whites.

Acknowledging that Black citizens made up 14% of the population but accounted for 61% of the state’s prisoners, the report recognized the “long and complicated history” of racial bias. “Racial disparity in New Jersey’s Prison population continues to dwarf national and regional disparities,” it said, adding that a “fair justice system cannot tolerate such disparity.”

The racial disparity is obvious and plain to see in New Jersey prisons. In 2005, upon my own arrival in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) the racial mix was evident from the very first “Mess-Hall” movement. I literally counted 17 white prisoners in a hall that held over 300 and even today, on my housing unit, there are only 4 white prisoners out of 72.

In this post-George Floyd era when other states are taking a look at their own policing practices, judicial systems, and prison reforms. New Jersey is playing only nominal lip-service to its systematically racist judicial system. An example of that is the utter inaction following the recent NJCSDC’s 2019 report. Because this report is one of many in the recent decade, that are collectively accruing dust on the New Jersey Legislatures’ desks.

In truth, there are many ways the state can begin meaningful reforms, starting with its sentencing practices, which also demonstrate a deep inequality between Whites and people of color. For example, there is my own case where I, a first time offender, was given a 150 years sentence on a case that rested almost entirely on circumstantial evidence”, and without a scintilla of forensic evidence linking me to the crime. No DNA test was performed. As a matter of fact, my case investigators didn’t even bother to “dust” for fingerprints, a practice that is a common law enforcement affair since the 1920s.

Yet, in comparison, one of my former cellmates, M. O’Brien, a white prisoner, received 30 years for shooting a taxicab driver in the head, where he openly admitted, “I just wanted to see his head explode!”

The interesting thing is that O’Brien and I shared the same Hudson County judge, Paul M. DePasquale. The only difference was, at the end of my trial, the judge threw the quintessential “book” at me, and for O’Brien, well, the good judge actually invited his parents into his chambers and subsequently gave him the minimum most time allowed by law.

According to NJCSDC’s Report, 74% of those incarcerated are serving brutally long mandatory sentences, of which they are required to at least complete 85% before being eligible for parole. The report also acknowledged that. “Although the 85% is intended to prolong the duration of confinement, empirical data suggests that it does not bear a proven relationship to the offense, recidivism rates, or public safety.”

Thus, the focus should be squarely on rehabilitation and sentence relief, above anything else. Because without such mitigation, the entire exercise of incarceration is useless. And if there is any logic afoot, then humanity deserves a second chance m I can say from personal experience, there are a lot of us in NJSP who are willing to learn, improve, and work towards rehabilitation. With proper guidance, and education, we can be the positive change, and perhaps a living breathing example of redemption.

The change needed in New Jersey has to be systematic, as the long overlooked problems are of a similar nature. To fix a problem, the grassroots issues need to be addressed. Therefore, the state should also take concrete steps to address the racial inequality in its policing as the inequity starts with the biased policing system.

In New Jersey’s biggest cities, communities are racially diverse, but they are regularly policed by personnel who tend to be White and who have no roots in the area. In Atlantic City, for example, Whites make up just 16% of the population but they comprise 70% of the police force and 76% of its higher ranked officers, according to a 2016 analysis by the Wall Street Journal. This racial gap leads to situations of everyday heavy-handed police brutality examples where unfamiliarity itself becomes an aggravating factor.

Also, worth paying attention to is the diversity of our courtrooms. Unfortunately, as of right now, there is an over reliance on appointing former prosecutors to the bench in this state who happen to be predominantly white. This can perhaps be mitigated by expanding the judges’ pool from public defenders offices, civil rights attorneys, and those from private sector backgrounds.

This past June, the state’s House of Representatives took a good step by passing a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to establish minority recruitment programs and make demographic reports public. Citizens of New Jersey now need to make that the governor signs this bill and departments responsible commit to its mandate.

The public will also have to demand that the state officials actually act upon their promises to reform, and enact all of the prior NJCSDC’s recommendations, to effectuate the required changes in the state’s judicial system.

We should encourage New Jersey to live up to and be guided by its noble motto, “Liberty and Prosperity.” Otherwise, New Jersey will simply remain as a black eye, infamous for its legendary corruption and waste of public funds, rather than its aspiration of being another bastion of modernity and civility likely its other two neighbors.

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Denied

December 5, 2020 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | No Comments

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 JPay.com

Amid COVID-19 outbreak, on April 10, 2020, the New Jersey Governor Bill Murphy publicly announced his Executive Order #24 (EO24), pertaining to Emergency Home Confinement (EMHC), that would temporarily release some prisoners to stem the spread of Corona Virus within New Jersey Prisons.

However, this so-called ‘temporary release order’ became yet another waste of precious paper and law as the New Jersey politicians, once again, managed to write a Prison Reform law for people who do not exist, at least not in the main state prisons.

Among many other prisoners in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), who were denied this so-called relief was a 69 year old prisoner, named Vernon Collins.

I first met Vernon Collins, aka Noor-ud-Deen, some 15 years ago in the small yard adjacent to the “6-Wing” housing unit of the NJSP. The 6-Wing is further divided into two sides, one being 6-Right, and the other 6-Left, both units house approximately 120 prisoners each. It is the same unit that is mimicked in the Hollywood movie, staring Denzel Washington, about the life of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.

In 2005, we were both new in the building and had just came out of the mandatory “quarantine” period on 6-Left. I first saw him standing next to the free weights in the small 6-Wing yard that is encapsulated by the red brick walls of the newer part of the NJSP’s North and South Compounds and a guard tower. He had a peculiar way about him, a very welcoming and disarming demeanor that is rather unusual behind these walls. The genuine sincerity in his eyes and a glow on his face provided validity to his given name Noor-ud-Deen that literally means Light of the Faith in Arabic.

Our conversation started with a simple Islamic greeting, “Assalaammualaikum.” Almost two decades have since passed, over the years our relationship went through the regular rigors of time, with all the requisite hardships of prison life and agreements and disagreements, I can say for sure that he is one of the best human beings I have met in my life.

We both are intricately involved in the Islamic Community in NJSP. He is one of our elder statesman, and a pillar of our Muslim society in here. I call him “Shaykh”, a term of respect and honor, due to his age and wisdom.

The thing that made Noor-ud-Deen’s case worse was the fact that not only was he denied relief, but the callous manner it was done. You see, EO24 was crafted to allegedly protect the elderly and vulnerable, and Noor-ud-Deen, a 69 year old man, who already served 33 years behind bars qualified for that relief. Yet, he was denied due to the following reasons among other:

1. History of Escape – A play on words of course, as the incident led out of Noor-ud-Deen leaving a ‘half-way’ house some 40 YEARS ago.

2. Facts/Circumstances of Offense(s): 86.08.0769. – That happens to be the number of his Indictment; a matter of transporting drugs, a NON-VIOLENT offense.

3. Lack of adequate furlough plan – A technical term for the public. In reality it meant that a man who has been behind bars for 33 years wasn’t able to provide a ‘home address’ that would satisfy the State’s liking.

4. Other agency objection, specify: Mercer County Prosecutor – Basically, the prosecutor objected to Noor-ud-Deen’s release. [Quite a shocker!!]

Adding insult to injury, Noor-ud-Deen actually caught the Corona Virus while he waited for the State’s final decision on his EMHC release. He finally learnt of the denial being housed in an isolated cell on 7-Wing lockup unit created especially for all COVID-19 positive prisoner.

Listening to Noor-ud-Deen’s plight, who wasn’t looking for sympathy, I requested him to allow me to interview him. In that way perhaps I might be able to highlight his, and similar others’, saga. Or, maybe I just wanted to quell my own anger and helplessness. In as much, that the State of New Jersey has had the worst infection and death ratio of prisoners within its care in the entire nation. [* PLEASE ADD CURRENT COVID-19 #’s from NJDOC WEBSITE].

I remain hopeful, however, that someone outside might come across this article and will choose to do something about this travesty.

Following is a conversation with my friend, my brother in faith, and my Shaykh, Noor-ud-Deen:

WHO ARE YOU, WHAT IS YOUR NAME AND AGE, AND WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I am Vernon A. Collins, 69, from Baltimore, MD. I am a Black man, Muslim. I have been incarcerated for 33 years. No institutional infraction.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN NEW JERSEY STATE PRISON?
I have been in prison for 33years, 15 years in NJSP.

WHAT CRIMES WERE YOU CONVICTED OF, AND HOW LONG OF A SENTENCE DO YOU HAVE? AND WHAT ABOUT YOUR APPEAL PROCESS?
I was convicted of Possession with intent to Distribute Narcotics – Heroin. I am in court at the Appellate level on a Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence.

HOW DID YOU COME TO KNOW ABOUT THE COFVIDE-19 FURLOUGH PROGRAM, AND HOW DID YOU FEEL UPON LEARNING ABOUT IT?
I was told about the COVID-19 program by another inmate. I was surprised when I had a counselor come to my door and ask me questions such as, my name, number, age, medical conditions, and etc. Also, where would I stay if I was released on the Emergency Medical Home Confinement. I answered all of those questions. However, when I gave a Baltimore address for the above program, the counselor asked if I had a New Jersey address. I answered, “not at the moment.” She then rushed away and in a few days another counselor came to my door and gave me some papers to sign which I found out later were Release Papers. Later on, I heard from an attorney, Matthew Mandas, who said he was appointed to follow my case and ensure my rights were safeguarded. I actually never got to meet him.

WHAT WAS THE RESULT; KINDLY PROVIDE A SUMMARIZED ACCOUNT IN YOUR OWN WORDS?
Denied. [Smiles]

WHAT WERE YOUR PLANS HAD YOU BEEN RELEASED?
To go home and stay home until such time as this virus is no longer dangerous. In accordance to the rules you could not do anything but stay in your home.

DID YOU GET HOPEFUL ABOUT THE PROSPECT OF GOING HOME?
When I had them people contact me out of the blue I felt cautiously optimistic. I however had been locked up 33 years and know how easily a thing can be denied. Nevertheless, I informed my family and some friends and they all were hopeful that I would be able to get out since the danger of virus spread in the prison, where people were housed close together, was great.

HOW DID YOU FEEL.WHEN YOU GOT DENIED?
I felt a little disappointed when I was denied especially because of the reasons given. I have been incarcerated for 33 years with no institutional infraction. I have been involved in positive endeavors and thought this could count for something. However, it appeared to not matter at all. And at the end, I tested positive for the virus anyway.

HOW ABOUT YOUR FAMILY, HOW DID THEY TAKE IT?
The denial of EMHC was a great letdown for my family who had great anticipation for my release, that hurt me the most. I had reminded them not to get their hopes up. However, they did and were letdown and hopefully something better will come along that will benefit people like me.

SHARE SOME LESSONS, OR SOME THOUGHTS, THAT YOU THINK WOULD BENEFIT THE YOUTH OR THE PEOPLE AND SOCIETY OUTSIDE?
I am of the opinion that I have shown over many years to have changed my life and know I would be of benefit to my family, the youth in the society as well as the general populous. But, that can’t happen if one is denied an opportunity for such. I think we have a world of potential in many of these prisoners.that are just going to waste away. They could prove very beneficial if released into society and given the tools necessary to effect change for the entire society and many even the entire world.

PROVIDE A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOUR INVOLVEMENT AND EFFORTS IN SUPPORT OF THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY IN PRISON; AND YOUR PERSPECTIVE ABOUT ITS FUTURE?
I have been in the Islamic Community since my arrival in 2005. My efforts have always been to participate in its functions and help in any way I can . I have been mentoring young Muslims in particular, teaching them about the religion and life. We are always hopeful about the future of the community.

WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE FOR PEOPLE OUTSIDE?
There needs to be more support for incarcerated people. Many here are elderly and “Model Prisoners” and would be of great benefit to the greater society through their wisdom and lessons learned along the way, especially for the youth.

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Amazing Grace

November 23, 2020 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | 1 Comment

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 JPay.com

“I just want you to know that Jerry died today,” New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) Catholic Staff Chaplain called me in the Chapel office to inform me in a somber tone. I simply nodded and suppressed a rising lump in my throat. Exiting the office I felt numb.

COVID-19 pandemic had halted most of our prison activities including religious services and volunteers. With moderate decline in the infection rates, our religious services were gradually resumed with reduced capacity. However, no volunteers were allowed back in the institution. So, I was unable to see Jerry and our other volunteers since March. And now, I will never be able to see him. It hurt.

Later on that night, sitting alone in my cell I tried to play back the whole day’s events as per my usual norm. It is a habit of mine that I have developed over the years to rethink and gauge my actions of the day. A self imposed oversight perhaps to see how I can do better the next time around. But, this particular night I kept thinking about Jerry. Like an old reel of a film, our conversations kept repeating and I found myself smiling. It was so real.

I met Jerry in the NJSP Chapel a few years back. I work there as a chaplaincy clerk, and Jerry was one of the regular Catholic volunteers. Jerry was slender and of medium heigh. He had white cropped hair, neatly combed to the side with a pronounced part. – Just like the way my mother combed mine when I was young. Jerry had kind eyes and a friendly demeanor. But, most of all, he was normal, unpretentious, a trait I loved dearly.

Jerry had a way of talking that was no nonsense, matter of fact. Leaving the superficial sanctity and ambiance of the prison Chapel aside, Jerry would openly curse; Of course, when the occasion called for it. And I would crack up because he would often leave the other person confounded. It usually happened when Jerry, a staunch Democrat, was lambasting the Republicans and the presidential shenanigans. The best part was when Jerry quoted Rachel Maddow. If you have seen the Shawn Hannity and Laura Ingram types from the Fox News world, well, I can tell you this much from personal observation, they had nothing on Jerry and his MSNBC rhetoric.

Every Friday like clockwork, Jerry would makes his rounds with other Catholic volunteers to the lockdown units of NJSP to see men he didn’t know personally. He would pass out religious literature, Catholic or not it didn’t matter, because in reality he wasn’t there for proselytizing. You see, men and women like Jerry are driven with a baser instinct. It is called humanity.

Over some years, I got to know Jerry well. On his return from his rounds, he would often pull up a chair and sit next to me while I typed on my computer making participants lists for religious services. At other times, Jerry would skip the housing unit visits and spend the entire time with me. We talked about religion, prison, politics, life, and of course his boat and fishing – the second love of his life. Because, his true love was his companion of a life time, his wife, whom he simply referred to as, “My Grace.”

“She will like you Tariq.” He would say with a wry smile. And I would simply nod in reply. He told me how much he loved her and how she kept him grounded. “She is my anchor,” Jerry said once. “And you are the boat,” I replied with pun intended. He smiled and said, “A lost boat. She manages to keep me in check.”

Over the years, I have learned that life is like a journey on a swift river. We are like driftwood floating on that river to an uncertain end. Every now and then, other debris runs into us and we get to float together for a while. Later, the swift current and waves separate us. In the journey of our lives, beginnings and end are not important at all; it is about the journey itself. And to find good companions along the way, well, that is what makes it all a fun trek at the end.

I am grateful for Jerry’s company. During those ephemeral moments in the Chapel, floating together, he taught me a thing or two about being a human. I also developed a love for boats, got to know the difference between aft and port, flounder and snapper, and the freedom of the sea. He also encouraged me to continue writing. – Yes, I wish I had met Jerry and his Grace in a different setting, but I am just glad for the time I had with him.

Today, watching the conclusion of our presidential election with the victory of Joseph Biden as the 46th President if the United States, Jerry’s face flashed before my eyes and I smiled. Later on, sitting outside in the “Big Yard” of the NJSP, I looked up at the bright blue sky as the sun glared down making this November afternoon feel as if a summer day. I could almost picture Jerry on that boat of his, floating on heavenly clouds, sitting with a cold drink in hand, kicking back with a line in the water, swaying on oscillating waves.

For a moment, it all made me feel melancholy, yet in it there was happiness too. Meeting Jerry was beyond special for me, a prisoner condemned to life behind bars. In here, the life I live is by design made to dehumanize. And, it is people like Jerry who renew the hope for the deplorable folk like us that there are those in the society who believe and champion the cause of mercy and redemption. For that and much more, I will miss Jerry more than I can express. I wish I had a chance to thank him for making me feel, … human.

So, thank you Jerry. Till next time I suppose, until then, I shall often think of you, our time together, your humanity, and most of all, I shall pray for the true love of your life: Amazing Grace.

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Sweet Memories

November 23, 2020 | Prison | Incarceration | Inmates | No Comments

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 JPay.com

My food package just arrived. The New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) allows all prisoners who remain charge/infraction free for a year to order an “Incentive Food Package” from an outside approved vendor. If you are charge free then you can order up to sixty (60) lbs, otherwise they slash the weight. Prices are extremely expensive but that is a subject for another day.

Carrying the two large cardboard boxes from the center bubble of my housing unit to the location of my second level cell, I could literally feel the eyes of my fellow prisoners following my every foot step. I smiled knowingly as it is a norm for everyone to “eye-hustle” when someone gets a food package.

One of my Muslim brothers yelled out, “Tariq, send them Cotton Candies down, Insha’Allah (God Willing).” Another brother replied even loudly, “Yeah, you can Insha’Allah some-else brother. You KNOW he ain’t givin them Cotton Candies up for Nothin!”

LAUGHTER

Yes, everyone who knows me well enough in NJSP is aware of the fact that I like Cotton Candy. And I am OK with that. You see, Cotton Candy is a universally understood statement of happiness. A ‘gesture’ that automatically places a smile on everyone’s face. – Look at yourself in the mirror, you are smiling RIGHT NOW! – It is a ‘feeling’ that makes you giddy, and perhaps even silly. In it as much that if you went out for fun and had Cotton Candy, you can bet your bottom dollar, that you will forever remember that outing.

Growing up in Pakistan, pre-teen years, I remember eating Cotton Candy, called “Luch-aa” in Urdu, from the street vendors who went from door to door in our neighborhood. They would loudly announce their presence as they passed through the alleyway, referred to as a “Gully” in Pakistan. As if a wolf, playing my Atari videogames in our drawing room, my ears would perk up and I would dash down the stairs, past the verandas and shrubbery of my house, running into one of our beloved housemaids, Preeto Baji, then crossing the painted white wrought iron door to reach the parking lot, there after carefully clearing my mother’s blue Nissan Charade and my aunt’s white Suzuki 800 hatchback, I would finally turn left towards the Gully.

“Slow down Tariq,” some neighbor or family member would scream. But, as I ran, or floated in the air, I only heard the chirping of birds as there were so many sparrows, quails, crows, and parrots in Lahore. Ignoring all people and birds, I would look for the vendor. And as always, I would find him under the shade of a Poplar tree at the mouth of the Gully. He would be standing there with his makeshift strewn-straw made dais upon which he had that plastic see-through box containing the colorful stacks of Cotton Candy.

“There you are Haneef”, I would say smiling as I reached into my pocket to pull out the two rupees to make my purchase.

“Only for you Tariq Bhai (Brother),” he would say with his sincere smile. I would then take my colorful bundles of happiness and enjoy them one pinch at a time, standing on the second story veranda of our House watching people go and birds fly by, wondering if Heaven had Cotton Candy for clouds.

Good days!

A time, etched in my memory.

Years later, in my late teens in New York, I would go to Coney Island often. I remember riding the Cyclone – The best rollercoaster in the world – and then walking down the boardwalk with my friends from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long island. We would do what boys of that age do best, gawk and mess with the beautiful girls all around, picking fights, and then look for some thing to eat. Among all the food options, from Nathan’s and the ice cream on the boardwalk, it was a rather hard choice to make. But, for me, it was always simple.

“You want some pizza, or hotdogs?” Someone would ask and then I would look around to always find the colorful puffs of joy up ahead as if a hanging rainbow. They beckoned me to come, and I followed and floated in the air as if under an enchantment.

Just like days in Pakistan, Coney Island boardwalk was also full of people, seagulls and other birds. Once again, ignoring all people and birds, I drifted towards the vendor. And just like Haneef in Lahore, the vendor in New York also received me with the, “Only for you Tariq,” sincere smile. I would then take my potpourri bundles of happiness and enjoy them one pinch at a time, while sitting on a wooden post watching the people on the beach, the waves lapping on the pier, and the humongous cargo ships in the bay, wondering if Heaven had Cotton Candy for clouds.

Good days!

Another time, etched in my memory.

Nowadays, in prison, I open my food package boxes and after putting away all my “goodies”, I crawl next to my window and looking at the bright blue sky, the pigeons, the sparrows, and the hawks of Trenton, I enjoy eating my Heavenly clouds one pinch at a time, thinking of days past, hoping, and praying, for yet more good days to come. And perhaps, another good memory.

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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 JPay.com

As a prisoner, watching the social upheaval all across the country from within these prison walls is a surreal feeling. Every new police shooting or episode of abuse spilling out on national media creates another awkward moment in my day to day interaction with the police.

When I travel through the prison building, the watchful gaze of the lined uniformed officers in their black helmets, bulletproof vests over blue shirts, and black riot batons, provides an almost infernal ambiance. They watch us prisoners, and we watch them uneasily, both sides knowing the truth, or farce, of it all.

Jacob Blake is yet another addition to that awkwardness. As with other such “newsmaker” events, the Wisconsin episode also has our prison-chatter buzzing with the present travesty. And once again, walking about the prison complex, I notice the gawking eyes of the guards. A select few seem almost ashamed, yet the others, a majority perhaps, seem indifferent. And then there are the eyes that almost glare as if to taunt.

The 13 inch screen TV in my cell is usually turned-on to escape the lunacy of it all that I call life behind bars. To me, the usual political coverage on TV is more likely entertainment. It’s like watching the Olympics every four years. I get excited about a select few events, say the selection rumble of the opposition candidate, the RNC/DNC Conventions, the subsequent nationally televised debates and, then for finale, the election night theatrics. The “Presidential Inauguration” event is more like a Pro-Bowl or All-Star game. Mostly, I try to stay aloof.

Yet, with the advent of Donald Trump, I must admit that things have gotten a bit more ‘Reality-TV-esque’. Politics has rarely been so affective and effective in my life. Say what you want about Trump, he surely has changed the fabric of our society. So much so that even in this hidden labyrinth encased behind castle walls, I feel his presence everywhere. I can’t say that about any other politician in my life.

New Jersey Department of Corrections “NJDOC” policy prohibits any political advertising or symbols on its premises and further forbids its employees from engaging in political activity while at work. Yet, that policy is more of a textual nature. The true reality is that the Prison Authorities have discarded their duty of overseeing the political tenor of its employees, because political slogans and rhetoric have become a norm for a lot of its officers.

For example, wearing a mask has become a bone of contention for a lot of NJDOC staff. A lot of Corrections Officers, commonly referred to as “C.O.s”, openly declare COVID-19 to be a “Hoax”. One particular C.O. cringed at my mention of the COVID related death toll and stated, “Those numbers ain’t true MaQbool. The fucking State Government gets money from our ‘Feds’ for every Corona death. That is why they are making the numbers so high. It’s all about money and politics to make Trump look bad.”

Another C.O., who is well known to profess his love and affinity for Trump openly, proudly showed me his “Make America Great Again” T-shirt under his blue uniform shirt and even produced a matching “MAGA” red hat that he kept under his vest.

Others openly talk degradingly about the former President Obama, Vice President Biden, Governor Bill Murphy, and Mrs. Clinton. And words like “liberals”, “socialist”, and “radicals” are common tongue epithets in here.

Interestingly, prior to this year, no one in the Prison Administration really cared for the prisoners’ political thoughts or views. And no former protest, “March”, movement, or prior elections ever incurred even a raised eyebrow from the prison authorities.

But, this election cycle appears very different, there seems to be a concerted effort in ‘making things clear’ for us prisoners.

You see, a few years ago we were given cable on prison TV. The service was actually paid for by the prisoners collectively through a Prison Welfare Account. Since the approval of the cable we have been trying to get more channels activated that come with our basic cable package. The common request was for more channels like Travel Channel, HBO, NFL Network, MSG, and other such sport and entertainment related options. Not once, however, were there any problems with political channels. We were given the regular Cable News set of FOX News, FOX Business, CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN. There were also local PBS and news channels. Suffice it to say that there was more than enough politics related material that anyone in the prison population cared for.

Then, things seemingly started to change with President Trump’s election. And with the start of this year 2020, things changed rapidly. The arrival of COVID-19 and the social upheaval changed the dynamics of our political scene outside and affected and restricted our lives inside. The constant scrutiny of law enforcement and the inflammatory political rhetoric has caused an enormous shift in the attitude of the NJDOC uniformed Junta.

This year, this summer, for the very first time, the NJDOC Administration inexplicably added far-right leaning channels such as One America Network (OAN), and Newsmax to the prison viewing without any request. An officer told me that it was to keep the ‘balance’ to show that there are ‘alternative’ views as well. He ended his explanation with the words “Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter.”

It has been a few weeks since I heard those comments but I am still stunned by his response. You see the obvious juxtaposition of having majority Black and minority prison population being presented with such bigoted content is beyond my scope of comprehension. But, then again, living in the era of Donald J. Trump, with all its other “new” things, this too is becoming a new normal.

So, to escape this lunacy, this time around, I find myself turning off my 13 inch TV screen. Time for a good book I suppose.

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