One winter day, sitting in the Big Yard of New Jersey State Prison, a close friend asked me a complicated question: “Do you hate cops more than anything?” I get questions like this a lot, not only because I write about the state of affairs at my facility, but because police officers testified against me during my trial almost two decades ago.
“No, I don’t,” I replied, drawing a skeptical look from my friend. He’d just read one of my pieces about a police union holiday gathering that might have been a COVID-19 super-spreader event. “Trust me,” he said, “even if you don’t hate all cops, they all definitely think you do. And they hate you back.”
I smiled, looking up at a bright blue sky filled with golden sunshine. “Like I said: I don’t hate cops. I actually can’t. Let me tell you a story.”
When I was a child, around 6 or 7, I lived in Mirpur, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. My father worked for the national airlines, and we lived in a large bungalow with a vast lawn. I had free rein over the hillside our house overlooked, which included the headquarters of a special intelligence branch of a Pakistan military group. It was a large brick villa with iron doors encrusted with a red and black insignia.
I probably shouldn’t have been playing around this highly sensitive area, but my father was friends with Amaan-Ullah Khan, the superintendent of police who ran that paramilitary compound. A hulk of a man with a crew cut and a permanent scowl, Khan cut an imposing figure. But to me, he was just Uncle Amaan. The compound was my playpen, and the guards, who met visitors with stern faces and machine guns, gave me candies when I scampered by.
Besides practicing my “driving” in the top-down police Jeeps, my favorite hobby was fishing in the big pond in the middle of the courtyard. I would tie a string to the end of a stick, dip it in the water, and wait for a fish to bite. But, of course, there were no fish in the pond, only thirsty birds that stared at my follies.
One day, as I fished, I watched Amaan Uncle usher a cuffed and shackled man out of a van. The man muttered something I couldn’t hear, and another officer, Arif, hit him with the butt of his machine gun, knocking him to his knees. My heart thumped in my chest.
As another officer went to pull the prisoner to his feet, my uncle stepped in front of Arif and shouted: “He is arrested, and now under my supervision!” Arif took a step back as Amaan roared, “Regardless of what he has done, he is now under my protection. It's a matter of honor. Is that understood?”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Arif and the others responded.
Shaken, I tried to focus on my fishing. A few moments later, Amaan Uncle cupped the side of my face. “What are you doing, Tariq?” he asked in the softer voice he reserved for me.
“I'm fishing,” I replied, almost in a whisper.
“There are no fishes in here, baba,” Arif said. He’d appeared behind my uncle smiling at me, all traces of their fight gone.
“If Tariq wants to fish, then he shall have fish,” Amaan Uncle pronounced, then placed a light kiss on my head and walked away.
The next day, I found the pond full of small silver fish. Smiling from ear to ear, I rushed to tie my string to my stick.
“You better hurry up, Tariq, before the crows grab all your fishes!” Arif shouted as the other officers chuckled.
I’ve never forgotten that gesture — that sweetness from the stern lawmen of my childhood.
In the ‘90s, my parents moved to the United States to join the rest of our family. In 2002, due to some unlikely circumstances, I found myself in Hudson County Correctional Facility, arrested for murder. At that time, 9/11 was still raw for people, and the so-called War on Terror was raging. As a Pakistani Muslim American, my pleas of innocence went unheard. My ethnicity, my religion, and my very existence were abhorrent to society. It didn’t matter that the evidence against me was circumstantial, and that I had no prior run-ins with the law. The fact that someone had blamed me to save their skin was enough. The criminal justice process seemed a formality — judgment immediate and permanent.
While I awaited trial in the Hudson County Jail, inmates and corrections officers alike looked at me with suspicion. When I angrily told an officer to call me by my proper name instead of “Pakistan,” the whole tier got quiet. Later on, a fellow inmate said, “Man, I thought you were about to go crazy.”
“Why would you think that?” I asked.
“Man, you know what y’all known for! I thought you was about to get Allah-Akbar and blow his ass up!”
I stood, aghast, as the other inmates around us laughed and nodded.
Suffice it to say that my time in the county jail felt like living on a whole different planet. It was a daily reminder that, to many people, I was an alien.
Almost a year into my stay in the county jail, I got myself into some trouble and landed in lockup. Most inmates were kept in solitary for 30 days. I was there for almost two years.
I was confined in a cold cell for 31 hours at a time, with only an hour of indoor recreation afforded. I couldn’t even go to the outside yard. In that one recreation hour, I had to shower, clean my cell, make a 15-minute phone call, and boil water to make coffee or a soup. Since I wasn’t allowed an electric socket in my cell, this was my only opportunity to prepare a hot meal or beverage.
I never really knew when I would get my rec time. Sometimes it was at 9 p.m.; other times it was at 4 a.m. I was often sleep-deprived, as was my family, who woke up at odd hours just to hear my voice. As if this wasn’t enough, the administration started searching my cell every shift.
First, second and third shift, a sergeant and two officers would search my cell thoroughly. They tossed my limited belongings all over the floor. Sometimes, I was too exhausted to clean everything up, and during the next search officers would step all over my spoons and bowls. They’d leave dirty footprints all over my single towel and my legal papers. At times, I cried; at other times, I felt nothing.
In reality, I was at a dangerous precipice. I was a man with nothing to lose. What kept me going was my faith — Islam — and the kindness of one man I’ll call “Officer A.”
When I first arrived at the isolation unit, Officer A seemed indifferent and cold. I noticed him because his demeanor reminded me of Officer Arif’s from Mirpur — rough and rigid, but full of pride in his profession. Like Arif, he softened toward me, mostly because of the way the other officers treated me. He even began standing up for me, telling the sergeant that he had already searched my cell to save me the aggravation. “Don’t get personally involved with the inmates,” the sergeant warned him once. Officer A replied, gruffly: “I’m a cop. I treat everyone the same. That kid is not being treated like others.”
I could understand why Arif and Amaan had liked me — I was a child, after all. But it was hard to believe that Officer A would stand up for the adult me, in jail on murder charges.
As the days went by, he kept showing up, even after the spring of 2005, when I lost my trial and all hell broke loose. I was convicted of a double homicide, for a robbery in which two people lost their lives. And I was being tried for the death penalty.
After almost four grueling months in the courtroom, I was found guilty. I wasn’t surprised. As early as jury selection, it became evident that as a Muslim Pakistani American, it would be virtually impossible for me to receive a fair trial in Hudson County. Many potential jurors spoke about their inability to judge me fairly due to my religion and ethnic background. To this day, I still don’t know what was worse: the trial where I was declared a monster, or the jury selection where I learned that no matter how American I felt, my fellow Americans didn’t accept me.
As there was no physical nor forensic evidence such as DNA or fingerprints that tied me to the crime, the prosecution relied on the testimony of two witnesses. One was the guy who police originally sought out for questioning. The other was a cop who testified that I had given him a false alibi. It was a fabricated statement, an account that he probably wrote days after my arrest.
I couldn’t fathom why it was allowed in a court of law, and that an officer would be so devoid of honor.
After convicting me, the same jury had to decide whether I would spend the rest of my life in prison or be executed. Lockup immediately got worse. The authorities posted a special sentry to watch me, essentially to make sure I didn’t kill myself. From then on, an officer was posted in front of my 8x9x10 cell, watching me eat, sleep and use the bathroom.
It was an intrusive circus, and it caused a lot of ruckus within the lockup. Even my fellow inmates started to complain about how I was treated. No one seemed more appalled than Officer A. Often, he would tell the sentry to take a hike, and he’d hang out with me during his shift, talking about sports and travel. Some days, he’d do extra overtime to make sure I was OK.
Officer A made me feel human. He’d give me privacy for basic things, like using the bathroom, and he would share his bagels with cream cheese. To keep up the guard/prisoner pretense, he’d eat half of the bagel and, with a smile, “order” me to take care of his “garbage.” And his kindness didn’t end there.
When it came time for my sentencing, Officer A was appalled that I was facing the death penalty. One day, while I was cleaning my cell, he asked what my lawyers were doing to fight for my life. I told him that they planned on bringing in family and friends to speak to my character and seek leniency due to my age, education, work history and lack of a criminal history.
“OK, well, tell your attorneys if they want they can call me to testify on your behalf,” Officer A said.
“Are you sure?” I asked, stunned.
“Kid, I’ve been here for a while, and I know motherfuckers who should be executed. Trust me, you are not one of them,” he replied. “Now, I don’t know whether you did it or not. People are saying you’re innocent, but I don't know. What I do know is that I have watched you very closely, and you are not someone who should get the death penalty.”
When the officer came by later, he said his partner, Officer B, was also willing to testify on my behalf. I fought hard to control the rising lump in my throat. Officer A smiled that tight smile of his and gruffly knocked my shoulder. “You’ll be alright, kid.” he said.
In the end, the state didn’t have enough evidence to secure the death penalty. I’ve always wondered if my attorneys and the prosecution struck a silent deal thanks to the officers’ willingness to testify. Either way, I credit Officers A and B with sparing me execution.
A few months later, as I was leaving for the state penitentiary, Officer A came and shook my hand. “I truly hope that if you’re not guilty, you get a reversal and go back to your family,” he said. “But if you did it, I hope you stay in prison. That’s the best I can do!”
“I’ll take that,” I said, tears in my eyes.
It’s been over 20 years since I was arrested, and 17 years since I last saw Officer A. But not a day goes by that I don’t think of that man. Although his actions might seem inappropriate to some — the official law enforcement term is “undue familiarity” — to me, he was simply honorable.
Tariq MaQbool is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project. He maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays and the writings of other incarcerated people. He also created the Captive Voices Writing Program, which is currently training a cohort of 10 writers and mentors at New Jersey State Prison. As a tutor certified by Learning Volunteers of America, he worked with students who have learning disabilities or are learning English. MaQbool was convicted of double homicide in 2005 and is serving 150 years at the New Jersey State Prison.
A spokesperson from the executive office of the Hudson County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to specific questions about MaQbool’s stay in solitary confinement, writing, “The Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Center follows the State of NJ’s code as promulgated by the NJ State Department of Corrections. Any claims of treatment that varied from that code we would reject as false.”