A view of prison life — from the inside
We’ve seen sanitized glimpses of prison life before, in print and on television magazines. There is a distance to all of them from the inner reality of those institutions. Such efforts are almost always approved by corrections officials, and we see very little of the life those officials don’t want us to see. And then comes Omar Broadway.
Broadway, a member of the notorious Bloods gang, with a hair-raising criminal record, had served seven years in solitary confinement at New Jersey’s infamous Northern State Prison in Newark, on multiple felony convictions. Someone, presumably a sympathetic guard, smuggled him a digital video camera in 2004 to document conditions there. For six months, he recorded the life around him.
Despite limited camera range because of the small opening in his cell door, bad lighting, and jumpy camera work, he presents hallucinogenic sights and sounds of prison life — the remote echoes of voices, blurry frames of cell bars, indistinct figures of guards, inmates in their cells engaged in furious shadowboxing.
What he ends up with is “An Omar Broadway Film,’’ codirected by Broadway and Douglas Tirola, which was well received at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. HBO bought it during the festival, he says, following its penchant for airing documentaries you can’t imagine seeing anywhere else.
This one chronicles the appalling prisoner abuse by guards as well as the terror of the officers working there. The guards are a gang in their own right, formed to protect themselves from very dangerous men who are behind bars 23 hours a day. There exists a vicious intimacy between the two camps.
Most shocking are the protests by prisoners who refuse to return to their cells. They cover themselves in plastic to minimize the effects of pepper spray from the guards in riot gear, who charge in force. The guards quickly overwhelm the prisoners and beat them on the floor. Broadway chronicles a number of these ghastly rituals. The prisoners know what to expect, yet wait for the onslaught anyway, out of bravery or nihilistic resignation.
The documentary presents the prisoners as victims of the brutal environment. They are, but missing is what brought them there in the first place. These are bad actors, the most difficult gang leaders and members. They were sent to a special place — the Security Threat Group Management Unit, devised to isolate them from the general prison population — yet mention of their crimes in any specificity is lacking.
Tirola, president of 4th Row Films, directs those segments filmed outside of prison that focus on the mean streets of East Orange, N.J., where Broadway grew up. Drugs, violence, the neighborhood has it all. Broadway’s mother, Lynne, gives us a tour of the area. She is a strong-willed woman, defending her son and minimizing his criminal life.
Eventually, sympathetic guards, who all identify themselves as “Walter,’’ contact Broadway on his cellphone and help smuggle out the tapes. Broadway expects outrage from the public when it sees the footage. Not a chance. A local network affiliate airs some of it without result. Oprah Winfrey never responds to a request to air it. Broadway’s mother tries to sell DVDs of the footage on the streets. She sells 32.
She need worry no longer. HBO2 presents the film tonight to a national audience. Omar couldn’t ask for more.
Sam Allis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.