I’m Serving Life in Prison. It’s a Slow-Motion Death Sentence

TARIQ MAQBOOL IS an incarcerated writer serving two consecutive life sentences at the New Jersey State Prison. He is a member of the mentorship program Empowerment Avenue, which pairs writers with editors in the outside world to hone their craft and pitch stories to the media. Their mission is to “normalize the inclusion of incarcerated writers and artists in mainstream venues by bridging the gap between them and harnessing this creative proximity as a path to de-carceration and public safety.” MaQbool — who runs his own site, Captive Voices — has been working with Rolling Stone’s Chief Research Editor Brenna Ehrlich on his writing since June 2022. This is his first story for Rolling Stone.

The other day, I got into an argument with a custody supervisor at New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) over how my fellow “lifers” and I spend the rest of our days behind bars. I said that we should be offered more vocational-training opportunities and educational activities — otherwise, we’re just sitting around for hours with nothing to do, our brains atrophying. He shot back, “Why should the Department of Corrections spend money in here? I mean, you guys ain’t going nowhere!” He laughed and walked away. I continued to stew — quite literally, as this summer saw record high temperatures and some areas of the building don’t have sufficient air conditioning, turning cells into ovens.

His statement is true, of course. Aside from some sort of divine intervention where I’m provided with relief on appeal, I’m never going to leave this facility, and neither will many of my friends. But it also encapsulates the feeling of utter uselessness most incarcerated women and men like me experience on a daily basis. Every day, I contemplate whether it’s even worth it to leave my cell. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I’m good or bad; the day will end the same exact way. I’ll be back in a cage. That is the reality of a life sentence — it’s really death by incarceration. 

“I can only continue to try to be a better man.”

Given our lot in life, my friends and I could easily just sit here and rot, becoming the animals the state already thinks we are. Instead, we try to improve ourselves. My friend Bobby Brown, 57, has been working on himself for decades now. He tells me he spent two years on death row — what he calls “simply solitary confinement while awaiting an execution” — in the Nineties after he and an accomplice were convicted of murder. When the death penalty was abolished in New Jersey in 2007, he was resentenced to life with a mandatory minimum of 30 years for two of his charges, meaning he’ll be up for parole in 2050. Today, he’s just trying to be useful: owning his actions and becoming a prison paralegal. 

“I can only continue to try to be a better man than when I came here,” he says, a much-improved version of himself “than the twentysomething-year-old idiot” he was at the time of the crime. “I have accomplished a lot being in here that is positive, and I believe that growing in here gave me another chance at life,” he says, ever hopeful. “I have no desire to hurt, harm, or destroy anyone, or anything. I love life.”

Still, that doesn’t mean he’ll get the chance to show folks on the outside who he’s become — unless he lives to see his parole date, at which point he’ll be 84 years old. Regardless of Bobby’s positive attitude and attempts to become a better human being, he, too, will likely die here at the NJSP. 

And then there’s my friend John Allen, 54, who, like me, maintains his innocence — yet will never see the outside. John is serving two life sentences with a mandatory minimum of 30 years with his twin brother, with whom he shares the same stocky build and mustache. John is part of the Inmate Legal Association (ILA), and also works at the prison school area. I met him when I first got here in 2005. He told me that he appreciates life over the death penalty, yet, in his experience, as a prisoner and a prison paralegal, such long-term sentences are a death penalty, as well. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2049, at age 80. Innocence doesn’t mean much when you’re never going home. 

And that’s the rub. Despite keeping hope alive — despite working to become better men — there’s no real escape. And, according to Kelly Orians, assistant professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law and the director of the Decarceration and Community Reentry Clinic, keeping people in prison for decades has no real practical purpose, since recidivism rates for folks who have spent a decade or more behind bars are extremely low. The U.S. Sentencing Commission concluded that after 10 years of incarceration, recidivism rates decline by a third. So why keep folks in prison indefinitely when they likely won’t return?

“Since at least 1994, Department of Justice studies have concluded that the recidivism rate for people released after a homicide conviction is considerably lower than the rate for people released generally,” Orians adds. “In particular, less than two percent of people convicted of homicide are ever convicted of another homicide.” Still, the state of New Jersey rarely paroles anyone with violent crimes, and there remains a strong appetite for the state to further increase sentences — there’s even a cadre of Republican politicians who want to bring back the death penalty.

In contrast, even in some red states such as Mississippi, there has been movement toward reform. There, the Legislature recently passed a new law that provides an opportunity for violent offenders to show that they are capable of rehabilitation. Toward that endeavor, Mississippi has passed the Earned Parole Eligibility Act, which sets mandatory minimums for unarmed violent crimes (excluding some more serious crimes, like murder) at 50 percent. Therefore, a person sentenced for an unarmed violent crime in Mississippi would automatically be eligible for parole consideration after serving half of their sentence. 

“Sentences for murder vary widely by jurisdiction,” Orians says. “In some states, there are types of homicide offenses that are punishable by only a few years imprisonment (if that); in others, the sentence is mandatory life without the possibility of parole, regardless of any mitigating factors. In some states, parole rules allow prisoners to seek some form of conditional freedom after serving only a fraction of their ‘full’ sentence; in others, parole either doesn’t exist or is practically unavailable, limiting the ways for people to earn their way out of prison.”

Unfortunately, in New Jersey, the sentencing scheme has been a political yo-yo, with several attempts made over the years to reduce the prison population. While the number of prisoners did drop more than 45 percent between 2017 and 2022, according to the ACLU, there’s still a massive disparity between who is sentenced to what. The New Jersey Sentence and Disposition Committee’s own report states that Jersey has the worst racial disparity in sentencing in the entire nation. “The disparity is still roughly the same as it was a decade ago (Black folks today make up 59 percent of the incarcerated population),” Orians adds. New Jersey’s schools are also some of the most segregated in the country. “And I’ll say, this is a pretty sobering stat, especially considering how New Jersey has been held up as a national model for decarceration,” she says. 

Although I’m not Black, I am a minority, which I believe contributed to the harshness of my sentence; I’ve met men with the same charges as me who are serving far fewer years. Prisoners and custody staff alike are often shocked that I’m serving 150 years. And, at times, I feel beyond hopeless and sad that the proverbial book was thrown at me, a first-time offender. 

“You’re treated better on death row.”

No one ever really talks about the indignity of life in prison. I get it; they likely assume it’s better than being put to death — plus we deserve whatever we get. And with the death penalty back in the news in a big way — with former President Trump calling for the return of firing squads, for one — most people’s attention has been focused on death row. But as someone on the inside, there’s something unsettling about that — how we’re all too willing to argue about the inhumanity of executions and ignore those of us who are still alive. People seem to care so much about the sanctity of life — enough to argue how to most humanely end it. Yet those same folks find no issue with sentencing a human being to physical, mental, and financial torture. 

Many of us are kept in literal hot boxes where temperatures rise above 100 degrees. We’re crammed into cramped spaces, with no room to move around, and only see the sun a few times per week. We’re fed food that wouldn’t be given to zoo animals, and although prisons claim that they no longer punish folks with solitary confinement, they basically do — they just use more sterile terms, like “restorative housing units.” If the free society has a propensity for “cancel culture,” our humanity has been summarily canceled. 

In contrast, in a lot of ways, people on death row have it better than regular inmates. The food isn’t as bad, and, according to my friend Marko Bey, 58, you’re actually treated more kindly than in general population. Marko spent more than 20 years on death row before the death penalty was abolished — the majority of his life, since he went to prison at 18. Although he academically excelled in his early years of schooling and was good at sports, he was physically and mentally abused as a child, which led to drinking, and eventually, NJSP’s death row. “Your mental state [on death row] is more unstable and fragile due to your situation,” he tells me, “but NJDOC seemed to go the extra mile to resolve any medical, dietary, legal access, and other issues.” Comparing the death row with the gen-pop, he adds, “You’re treated better than those [whom] the prison is tasked with keeping alive.”

That’s not to say death row is pleasant by any means. Due to a moratorium on actual executions, back in the day, the New Jersey death row became equivalent to doing life without parole, albeit in extreme isolation. Take it from Thomas “Tommy” Koskovich, 45, a friend of mine with a long, dark wizard beard streaked with silver, who is now a teachers’ aide in NJSP’s school and a member of my Captive Voices Writing group. He spent two and half years on death row, from 1999 to 2001, before his sentence was commuted to life. Tommy says he was numb when he was indicted for capital murder. When he actually got the death sentence, however, the feelings crashed in. “When you realize that the state just sanctioned your death, it gets heavy. You feel utterly alone; no matter how many people are in your corner, they can’t protect you … you can’t protect yourself,” he says. “Even though we [knew] New Jersey never kills anyone [due to a moratorium], it [was] difficult to separate the intellectual from the emotional.”

“I have nightmares now where I’m put back on death row and I feel trapped,” he adds. “It’s a suffocating feeling, and I wake up with my heart racing and cold sweat slicking my brow.” And although regular prison isn’t a treat, either, Tommy much prefers living without the specter of execution. “Life is always better than death; with life, there is always a chance,” he says. As for hope, Tommy says: “I am far from ambivalent. I literally just put in a motion for Reconsideration of Sentence due to changing laws and, if a current trend toward youthful offenders continues, I might be able to gain my freedom before I die!” He is currently up for parole in 2072, when he will be 94.

“Doing time with you.”

I’m not sure I have hope like Tommy does. Prison rarely makes sense, and my life has fallen prey to those inanities. Although I was spared the death penalty in 2005 right before it was abolished in 2007, I also missed out when I was sentenced to life. You see, back when the death penalty was nixed, those on death row had their sentences commuted to life in prison, and the majority received the built-in parole bracket of 30 years. As a result, some former death row inmates will be eligible for parole after they complete their 30 years. I remember my friend and mentor in the Inmate Legal Association, Kevin Jackson, consoling me back in 2006 as we worked on a legal motion for a fellow prisoner: “I made it off death row and I’ll be going home in a few years. Anything is possible. Hope is a powerful thing Tariq, don’t lose it.” Still, he’s eligible for parole in 2028; I’m not eligible until 2130. 

When I was 25, I found myself entangled with the law: a Pakistani Muslim American facing down the New Jersey police just one year after 9/11, charged with a double homicide. In the end, yes, I eluded death row, but I was sentenced to more years in prison than I could possibly live. As per New Jersey’s laws, my sentence requires me to serve at least 85 percent of the 150 years before I am eligible for parole, thus, I will certainly die here.

Over the years, seeing others with similar or more egregious charges getting a lesser sentence has made me feel depressed. I understand that murder is the most serious of crimes, yet it’s hard to understand the apparent disparity in punishments. I still don’t understand the fact that my sentence — as a first-time offender, with no previous criminal history — is on par, and in some cases more severe, than even that of serial killers. In fact, Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten — who participated in one of the most infamous crimes of all time — recently got parole in California.

I probably could have gotten out eventually, too. In fact, I was offered a plea deal of 30 years in prison, but chose to go to trial because I didn’t want to admit to a crime I didn’t commit. And although staying true to myself has kept me sane, my life has been in constant turmoil. Being condemned to die in prison is beyond torturous — not only for me but for my family, too. In prison, your loved ones “do the time” with you. My claims of innocence aside, I remain very much aware of the fact that my existence is equally painful for my family and for that of the victims’ relatives. To be the bane of so much hurt is heavy, to say the least.

Over the two decades, my family and loved ones have come to see me almost every week. The costs associated with their travel from New York and all over the metropolitan area — as well as phone calls and legal assistance — have truly been a financial burden for them. Their emotional toll, especially on my parents and brother, is also incalculable. After one of my brother’s countless visits, an officer I’m friendly with commented: “MaQ, you must’ve been a very good person on the outside. After all these years, your family and your people still love you and come to see you. You are blessed.” Indeed, I am blessed. Yet, when you love someone, you also want the best for them. So, I often think of the death penalty, wondering if it would have been a better end for all.

I imagine that scenario because I wonder which would be better: to die every single day for something I did not do, or to be put out of my misery quickly with some modicum of honor. I know it sounds defeatist and selfish — some might even call it suicidal. Yet, in reality, it’s none of that. To be condemned to life in prison with no possibility of ever walking free is also beyond words. Moreover, the pain of my loved ones and friends who have stood with me over the past two decades is also unbearable, and the emotional, financial, and psychological toll on them is very real and seemingly unending. No one deserves that sort of trauma.

American conservative judges and lawmakers often cite “finality” when denying death row inmates appeals. Meaning, executions give grieving families closure, an end to their suffering. When I think of my family and loved ones, I sometimes wonder whether that finality would also be a mercy for them, an acceptance, and perhaps a closure. When I was a kid in Pakistan, a friend went out for a small chore and never came home. The entire community searched for him, to no avail. Some years later, I visited Pakistan and went to see the boy’s mother. As soon as she saw me, she started to cry. I remind her of him, she said. When I asked if the passing years had helped at all to ease his loss, she shook her head.

“There is no closure,” she told me. “I constantly watch the door, wishing that he might return. I know it might sound cruel, but I would’ve preferred it if he had passed away. This hope is what kills me.”

Many of my friends may be steadfast in their optimism, but sometimes I find myself becoming ambivalent about hope. I do believe in it, yet with each passing year, I seem to lose more of it. In one way, hope is a lot like water: It always finds its way. But on the other hand, it tears me apart to think that somewhere my parents are frozen in time in perpetuity, sitting, waiting, filled with false hope, and never finding closure.

This story was originally published on RollingStone.com

Tariq MaQbool is a published writer and journalist. He is currently incarcerated in NJSP. He is the creator & facilitator of the Captive Voices Writing Program at NJSP. Tariq is a member of the SPJ and is also a correspondent for the Prison Journalism Project (PJP). You can see his writings on Captivevoices.com.

Tariq MaQbool, SBI#000830758C, is currently incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison, P.O. Box 861, Trenton, NJ 08625. You can email him via JPAY. com

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