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.
–By Tariq MaQbool