Michael, 41

Michael, 41

Meet Michael…

“Unless you want a better criminal, stop sending kids to prison. There has to be a better option if we want a brighter future for our youth.”

Incarcerated: 4 years

Housed: New Jersey State Prison. Trenton

For the past five years, I’ve held the same job inside New Jersey State Prison. I’ve seen inmates come and go, some even multiple times as they seem to come right back on a minor parole condition they can’t help but violate. I’ve seen hundreds of faces but one, in particular, I will never forget.

I remember his first day. He was so young, just celebrating his 18th birthday he barely had any peach fuzz on his face. He looked scared and he answered every question with “yes please” or “No thank you”. His name was simple, Gabe. No nickname, no street swagger. Gabe was just a kid that got caught up in an assault with three co-defendants, one who happened to be his older cousin.

At the moment of arrest there were two paths the State of New Jersey could have taken with Gabe. Making these major decisions lies with one person and one person only, the prosecutor. Even though Gabe had no criminal history, the prosecutor in his case felt this child deserved seven years with a mandatory minimum of 85 percent.

The first few months were not easy. I watched Gabe struggle with bullies and cell mates. I offered him the best advice I could and even went as far as asking some of the older guys to keep an eye on him. Tired of having his commissary taken he finally stood up for himself. His moment of bravery ended with him getting beat up and sent to the hole for six months. Once he was back I noticed he was much more detached.

Solitary has a way of sucking what life you have left in you. Still he was eager to sign up for classes and wanted more than anything to get an education. Unfortunately for Gabe, there were no options for him in NJSP. He required more than a worksheet education and New Jersey makes it very difficult to even sign up for classes.

I noticed him just wanting to do something, to be someone. He was alone and was looking to feel like he had a purpose. Since Gabe didn’t live on my unit I couldn’t show him a better path and eventually he would be shipped out to another prison filled with younger offenders we call the Gladiator Camp.

Two years passed and he was back. After just finishing another bid in the hole for fighting, the mental health department wanted to keep an eye on him before they shipped him out again.

This time he was more rough around the edges. I noticed right away he started to get some prison tattoos on his arms and neck. His beard was starting to come in and he even grew in size. I asked him if he was finally able to get some of those classes he was asking for and he shrugged his shoulders and moved on to the next subject. He was different.

A few weeks later he would get into another fight with a different bunkie and this time he would spend even more time in Adseg.

Years passed and the COVID era began. Word had gone around that inmates were being sent home early to ease the overcrowding inside the joint. Days before the big release Gabe, who now calls himself Vicious, would be back as he was included in the executive order to be released. It’s been over five years since we first met and he was finally graduating from Criminal University.

It would seem that he did end up making new friends as his face was now covered with gang tattoos. He was a scared little kid. He was a fearless man wearing his prison sentence like a badge of honor. He kept his head up and proud and no one was ever going to ever push him around ever again. I asked him about school and he just answered “F— that”. Instead he talked about how he was going to scam bitcoin and make ‘cook up’ (Crack cocaine).

Most 18 year olds go to a college and earn a degree. I literally watched this young child grow up into a real criminal. I hate to say it but his chances of success are not looking good. Yet if he commits another crime society will blame him for being a bad person.

Unless you want a better criminal, stop sending kids to prison. There has to be a better option if we want a brighter future for our youth.

 

Tariq, 44

Tariq, 44

“SPACE MAN”
COVID-19 seems like a saga without an end. Our prison is experiencing a new wave of COVID-19 Delta infections. Talk and rumors of new restrictions are everywhere. The recently resumed limited visits have once again been restricted to being held outside under a canopy. And all religious services have been curtailed and religious classes are cancelled until further notice.

People outside are screaming about cabin fever, and in here, well, I guess we are just barely holding on to our sanity. That is why during nights I am spending more time than usual at my cell window staring at the outer-space searching for some consolation.

Admittedly, I am getting tired of it all. The pandemic “believers” and “deniers” are always at odds. And logic in here and outside seems like a fleeting commodity. I often find it hard to just be in a moment without conflict. So, to quell that uneasiness, I look at the heavens, searching for some solace.
Looking at the stars from my window has always provided me with tranquility and peace. I see my regular celestial companions through the misty dark sky, twinkling, playing that never ending game of hide and seek. A game, I still enjoy playing.

I always try to look at the bright side of things, but I must admit the last few months have been very hard. COVID-19 reached my house. My mother, brother, and sister-in-law were all sick. And hearing their labored voices over the phone had left me with a feeling that I can’t explain in words. I felt desperate. My little nephew and niece also had symptoms but with the Grace of God, they recovered and rebounded in a few days. My father too, who is almost 80 years old, with multiple strokes and other serious health issues, was spared. As of now, they are all vaccinated; yet the new Delta variant is still a palpable cause of concern and has left my father in particular more isolated than the other family members.

“I am imprisoned too,” my father stated awkwardly over the phone. “your brother is like a jailer. He is always trying to keep me inside.”

“He is only looking out for you, Dad,” I attempted to defend my brother. “You know he was sick too. He is just trying to look out for your health. We need you around for a while, old man.”
My father just laughed that uneasy laugh, leaving me wondering whether he understood or was under the impression that I didn’t take his side and have turned on him as well. To me, it is a losing proposition. I feel hapless, and helpless – like a floating spaceman.

Indeed, it has been a very tough year and a half in every possible way. And, in reality, I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over. Sitting by my window, looking out beyond the stars, I can see a quiet darkness. I wonder if out there anyone has any idea what is taking place in our planet. Space is so very spooky and scary, yet inviting too. I am amazed by its magnetism.

In my thoughts while looking out my window, I often transpose and see myself in space. With a lifetime’s worth of Sci-Fi books and TV shows about space exploration in mind, my trance-like state is so vivid that I can almost feel weightless. Flying about in the heavens, seeing nature’s light show, it is liberating. Yet, in theory, I am also aware of its hazards and pitfalls. Because losing control up there, well, it can be extremely total and can lead to a very uncertain end.

In a way, our lives on earth are quite similar and losing control can lead to a tragedy. Life here also has its own gravitational pull, dangers and dark-holes. I for one can speak to the validity of that notion. As a prisoner, I lost control a long time ago. Now with every fleeting year, I am like an astronaut who lost his tether and broke off from the space station. I too find myself flying through the cosmos, unable to do anything or control anything. I can’t change my trajectory, my direction, velocity or vector. I am alone, and in control of only my body and mind, and nothing else. Years, months, weeks, days and hours pass, and further away I get, bleaker and lonesome it seems. Like that lost soul in space, with every ephemeral day, I find myself too far removed. Alone! And the probability of a return seems exponentially improbable.

Yet, hope is a science of possibilities. And the gravity of discovery has its own invisible pull, one full of blind optimism. So, until my time runs out, I shall buckle down and enjoy the ride.
Till next log entry,
Space Man out!