The year 2020 started with a whisper of something going awry in the Far East. Yet, looking back all of those rumblings seemed benign next to the prospect of Donald J. Trump Leaving the Oval Office. Because for majority of Americans and perhaps the world nothing mattered more and everyone hoped for a change. But, before people could celebrate or breathe a sigh of relief our entire life changed forever.
For us prisoners, in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), hidden from the ever-present cameras of outside media, COVID-19 entailed something more. It fundamentally changed our existence.
In prison, for the majority of the previous year, prisoners were kept locked in their cells as most of the recreation movements like yard and gym were heavily curtailed or outright terminated. Educational programs and visits were also cancelled, and not being able to see family and loved ones took a toll on everyone. Although extra phone times and and access to emails via kiosk was made available through policy, but in practices no measures were taken by the Administration to actually see that the housing unit officers were following those directives. Additionally, with courts being closed and the appeal process grounded to a halt, the sense of being lost and forgotten seemed to enhance and the signs of depression and frustration among the prison population were ubiquitous.
The New Year has ushered in a sign of reprieve. With 1 in every 5 Americans being inoculated according to a report by ABC News, the COVID-19 related infections are dropping across the nation and life is returning to normalcy. In here too, we are starting to crawl toward “soft openings” and guys re looking forward to visits an other activities.
To better understand what a year under COVID-19 meant behind bars, I spoke to few prisoners from my housing unit:
SO, GUYS, WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THIS PAST YEAR, 2020; AND LIVING WITH THE NEW REALITY OF COVID-19?
CHRISTOPHER HALL (CH) – SBI#687174C: It is a struggle being in prison knowing you can’t do anything about staying away from people. Worry about loved ones. I know y’all of all people understand what it feels like to have someone you love in harm’s way and be powerless to do anything about it.
LENROY LAURANCE (LL) – SBI#407603E: The worst year I’ve experienced, I call it the death year. Along with COVID-19, begin in here, and I am from another country (Jamaica) makes it more stressful and worrisome.
ANONYMOUS-1 (AN-1): The federal government knew about it and did not take the adequate measures. And with COVID-19 all around, I survived by being cautious and careful.
JOHN BIDDLE (JB) – SBI#158578B: The reality is, COVID-19 is like many other assorted germs, illnesses, and sickness that has plagued our society. Many will die and many will survive the COVID-19. However, the real test is, accept this reality and learn how to overcome this hurdle in 2021as we did in 2020.
KORY McCLARY (KM) – SBI#572398C: My take on the past year, it has been exhausting. COVID-19, 2020, just everything about the past year went “left” (meaning went wrong). The reality of COVID-19 is serious. Even in here, less yard, no classes, the pandemic ceased all movements, and there are a bunch of guys all around whom have tested positive.
SANTISE ROBINSON (SR) – SBI#TMP1000271: Every aching thought of each and every day was filled with nothing but fear and anxiety.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR YOU THIS PAST YEAR?
CH: Couldn’t see my family and daughter.
LL: Not being able to be with my loved ones. Not being able to help my family financially, emotionally, and physically.
AN-1: Not being able to get down to the law library.
JB: My biggest challenges were teaching myself to stay and remain humble regardless of the many evils I face daily.
KM: My biggest challenges this past year were losing my last state appeal. Then having to pull myself out if depression, and give myself the will and courage to keep up this fight and file my federal habeas petition.
SR: During the last few months of 2019, my wife began a battle with stomach cancer. This is after a few years of cancer terrorizing other parts of her body. Within the last year, especially during COVID-19, her condition worsened and the simple act of eating a meal became such a challenge that the occasion became repulsive.
HOW DID YOU COPE WITH IT?
CH: Keeping faith and putting all my worries in the Lord’s Hands. When everyone change and give up, He is right there!
AN-1: Stayed in contact with my family and friend’s.
JB: I cope with all of my obstacles by bowing and praying to GOD to bring me through each situation. I also meditate throughout the day.
KM: I coped by praying. I cried a little, slept a lot, and went ‘ham’ on the workout!
SR: Prayer and patience.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY DURING THE PANDEMIC?
CH: It is not easy. You got to have strength. They are always in my thoughts and heart.
LL: Stressful, sad, and depressing.
AN-1: I feel stressed and always worried, even before this COVID-19 and more now.
JB: being away from my family and friends in the pandemic and countless other life changing episodes, made me realize how much I took life and my freedom for granted.
KM: Being away from my family during this pandemic was worrisome. Every time that I called home, I was worried about being informed of bad news. I just wish I could be there with my family.
SR: I have been unable to hug my with wife and it hurts.
HOW DID THE INSTITUTIONAL RESTRICTIONS AFFECT YOU?
CH: I don’t let anything affect me. I stay humble and I try to keep the right people around me. Also, you can’t believe everything you hear, because in prison rumors fly, especially when things are locked down. So, I try to stay focused.
LL: Not much, because I’m already locked up so there is nowhere for me to go even with infected people all around … it was bad.
AN-1: Not being able to get down to the law library as normal. I was unable to fight my case and prepare my appeal since I don’t have a lawyer.
JB: By being restricted, we’re unable to have visits with our family and friends.
KM: The restrictions that were placed upon the prison immensely affected my way of living life behind the wall. The things that helped me to cope with the reality of my sentence were taken away. I am unable to see and hug my loved ones, and I couldn’t even see my Muslim brothers in prison or go to religious services. Moreover, for some time I couldn’t even go outside to the yard and being locked up in my cell, I was left with my LORD and my faculties. I am grateful but it was the toughest time of my life.
SR: Since the facility has been locked down there are no visits. And I can’t see my ailing wife, and I am unable to transmit my love to her in order to provide her an iota of emotional fortitude in her time of need.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT YOUR STRUGGLES, UPS AND DOWNS, HOPE, ANYTHING THAT YOU FEEL ABOUT THE PAST YEAR, AND WHAT YOU WISH FOR 2021?
CH: As criminals we all had a bad past, but that has already passed. Whatever allegation or involvement, we are not proud of it. But I’m here trying to make a step in the right direction, not everything about me is perfect. I know I have flaws, but the greatest thing is that I learnt from them. I’ve managed to be at a place where I’m comfortable with change. With a better mind, and hopefully with a second chance, I can make my surroundings better, and help my family and community.
LL: I’m struggling to get out of prison with no appeals in courts. And not being able to see or be with my family, I am just holding on hope that we get past this pandemic. I wish 2021 and the future be better than 2020. I am ready to put 2020 behind us and looking forward to a better tomorrow.
AN-1: I’m just focused on my freedom and putting this unforgettable experience way behind me.
JB: I can sum this entire thing by saying that I will continue to pray for us all through the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
KM: I don’t like to complain about my circumstances because everyone has their own problems. But, this COVID-19 shit came through and made me realize that I am lonely and I need to talk and I hope and pray that I’m able to slide up out of here in 2021.
SR: COVID-19 has muted every sensation of being human. So, I’m hoping for a better year.
–By Tariq MaQbool