Compact video cameras smuggled into prison have allowed New Jersey prisoner Omar Broadway to become an amateur documentarian of life behind bars. His first video, taken inside a New Jersey state facility in 2004, has been turned into a full-length feature, and he plans to use footage of prison conditions in Maryland for another film.
After receiving a 10-year sentence for carjacking a cabbie with a sawed-off shotgun in 1999, Broadway was placed in the Security Threat Group Management Unit at the maximum-security Northern State Prison in Newark. For 14 weeks he filmed covert footage from within his cell using a smuggled Panasonic PV-GS12 video camera.
“My relationship with several officers allowed a camera to fall into my lap and record how we were living back there, how life was in a gang unit,” Broadway said. “We just managed not to get caught with the camera,” which was passed from prisoner to prisoner to avoid cell searches.
He captured incidents of guards abusing prisoners. In one scene, guards drag a restrained prisoner down a flight of stairs by his feet; in another, prisoners protest their treatment and refuse to return to their cells. They are shown using plastic to cover themselves in an attempt to blunt the effects of pepper spray as they are subdued by guards clad in riot gear.
With his raw, uncut video footage in hand, Broadway set about to expose the guards’ brutality and bring about change (though he initially hoped the video could help him obtain early release). He used a contraband cell phone to contact the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and the rapper 50 Cent. None expressed interest, so with the help of his mother, Lynne, and a group of accommodating guards who collectively called themselves “Walter,” he smuggled the footage out of prison.
Lynne began selling copies of the video for $5.00 each. She sold 32 copies and one eventually made it to a local news station, which aired it with little public interest.
Director Douglas Tirola, however, was interested in the footage. He used it to create a feature-length documentary, titled An Omar Broadway Film, that portrayed the influences in Broadway’s life, his criminal past and the psyche of a prisoner in lockdown. It included interviews with Broadway’s mother and video of the neighborhood where he grew up.
The movie, co-directed by Broadway and Tirola, was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2008. It was later picked up by HBO, which aired the documentary on July 14, 2010.
“The movie is much more equal-handed in terms of its views of people, both those who are incarcerated and who work in the system,” said Tirola. “Certainly, there are moments where you see Omar frustrated by his situation and the people there. I think the movie is better for that. It recognizes it’s a stressful place for everybody.”
As interest in the film grew, so did Broadway’s profile within the prison system. He was transferred from New Jersey to Maryland’s Eastern Correctional Institution to serve the remainder of his time. The conditions there were better than in New Jersey. “It’s sweet down here,” said Broadway. In Maryland, prisoners can wear street clothes and have amenities such as video game consoles.
The abuse and violence that Broadway witnessed in New Jersey were less prevalent in Maryland. As Maryland prison spokesman Rick Binetti put it, “our facilities are safer and more secure than they were four years ago.” Consequently, Broadway had to alter the subject matter of his filming.
Still able to access a video camera while incarcerated, he collected “a great deal of footage” of the conditions in Maryland’s prison system and the “illicit activities” that regularly occurred at the facility where Broadway was housed. His video, he said, revealed that Maryland prisons are overrun with gangs, disciplinary rules are routinely disregarded, and prisoners sit around playing video games and making homemade wine.
In March 2009, Broadway was caught with a camera so small that he was able to conceal it in his mouth. Court records indicate that in addition to the camera, which contained video footage of Broadway in his cell and of a guard, he was found with marijuana. New charges and a guilty plea to possession of contraband added 13 months to his sentence.
Prison officials kept Broadway in administrative segregation for over a year and restricted his recreation and telephone access prior to his release in January 2011. Nevertheless, Broadway said it will all be “worth it.” He noted that most prison documentaries “are censored and edited ... and don’t allow for a prisoner’s perspective to shine through and see how we’re living.”
He assures that the next “Omar Broadway film,” with footage from Maryland’s prison system, will be a raw portrayal of life behind bars shot from the perspective of someone who has lived the experience.
“I feel the world really needs to see what’s going on inside of the country’s many prisons because people see what they see through the [National Geographics] and the Discovery Channels,” he said. “But they’re authorized productions with people coming in, a lot of stuff is contrived and it’s not a natural look at what’s going on with everybody knowing that a camera is there and you not being able to act out in certain ways.”
Sources: The Baltimore Sun, www.mtv.com, www.hbo.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login