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Locked Up

9 Incarcerated New Yorkers Got to Watch the Eclipse; For Others, It Was a ‘Cruel Joke’

"Almost everybody put the glasses on and went to the window to see if they could see it. They all wanted to see it."

Monday’s solar eclipse in New York. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

As millions of people across New York gathered in parks, on street corners, and rooftops on Monday afternoon to catch the solar eclipse, nine incarcerated men waited in a hallway at Woodbourne Correctional Facility with the prison's superintendent. They would be the only incarcerated New Yorkers at Woodbourne, and possibly the entire state, who would watch the rare solar event. Just before 2 p.m., they were led into the prison yard, where three rows of three plastic folding chairs awaited them like a makeshift auditorium.

For the next two and half hours, the men sat and looked to the sky through their eclipse glasses as the moon slowly passed in front of the sun, casting its shadow on the Earth. While Woodbourne was not in the path of totality, the temperature dip at the eclipse's peak was palpable, sending shivers down their spines; as the sky darkened, nearby birds appeared confused. 

"It was sort of like an ascension," Jeremy Zielinski, one of the nine men, said of watching the eclipse. "It was a new kind of experience." He added, "The sun looked like a giant smiley face in the sky. It was like the whole universe was looking at everybody and smiling and saying, 'This is awesome,' and we all agreed." The spectacle in the yard was shared by several corrections officers, as well as a sergeant, and a captain, who Zielinski said all seemed as awed by the event as the incarcerated observers.

Zielinski is one of six men who successfully sued the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) for the right to gather and observe the eclipse, after DOCCS ordered a system-wide lockdown for April 8, ostensibly for security reasons. (A DOCCS representative declined to further explain the security rationale when asked by Hell Gate.) In their lawsuit, the men argued that the eclipse was significant to their various religious practices, and that by insisting on a lockdown during the eclipse, DOCCS had violated their rights. 

In a settlement reached last Thursday, the plaintiffs were granted the right to watch the eclipse. While it was a win for the men at Woodbourne, the fact that it granted explicit permission to watch the eclipse only to the six plaintiffs tarnished the victory for many of them. "My peers were very exuberated and joyful to witness God's creation," Jean-Marc Desmarat, one of the plaintiffs, told Hell Gate. But, he added, "I felt bad that my fellow Muslim brothers could not experience it with me."

Further upstate at Franklin Correctional Facility, one of the prisons in the path of totality, talk of the eclipse leading up to the event had reverberated throughout the prison. Joseph Perez, who is incarcerated there, told Hell Gate he had never seen an eclipse and was excited to possibly catch a glimpse. 

"It sounded like a big deal on the radio," said Perez. "Everybody was talking about it."

Among the strangest features of the March 11 lockdown memo issued by Acting Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III was a paragraph that said eclipse glasses would be distributed to all incarcerated people in prisons that fell in the path of totality, like Franklin, even though everyone would be confined to their housing units. In practice, Perez said, this choice landed like a cruel joke.

"Almost everybody put the glasses on and went to the window to see if they could see it," Perez told Hell Gate. "They all wanted to see it."

But for many of the people craning their necks to watch, it wasn't possible to see the sun from inside the prison. 

"Then after it was over, they collected the glasses, and the prison literally opened up the doors an hour after it happened, and it was regular movement," Perez said. "Once in a lifetime event, missed."

At Woodbourne, three additional men had successfully filed religious requests to watch the eclipse after the settlement was reached, though that had not come without some back and forth, according to Zielinski. On Friday, Zielinski said, DOCCS had granted the requests of a Christian and a follower of Kemetism, but denied the request of Clint Edwards, who is Muslim. Then, after both Edwards and Zielinski filed grievances on Monday morning, Edwards was allowed to join the others and watch. DOCCS did not respond to a request for comment on the denial. 

"It was great," Zielinski said of Edwards joining them. "It was like when the person who you thought was not going to make the train suddenly makes the train at the last minute."

In the days leading up to the eclipse, news of the lawsuit caught the attention of media outlets nationwide. The men at Woodbourne were shocked to see their story broadcast on TV, radio, and in newspapers. Some coverage seemed to celebrate their legal battle, while other coverage mocked it. Desmarat described listening with frustration as Fox News host Brian Kilmeade recounted the convictions of the six plaintiffs, questioning how it was fair that they got to watch the eclipse. For Desmarat, who has spent years trying to turn his life around, it was painful to see the focus on the offenses behind their convictions, rather than the simple fact that they wanted to look to the sky like everyone else and practice their faiths.

"I am still haunted by the reality that words will never repair the damage I have caused, and how I feel horrible that my victim's family had to endure his death," said Desmarat. But since the time of his crime, he told Hell Gate, "I made a conscious decision to engage in positivity and address my issues head on."

The men at Woodbourne were struck by the eclipse's unifying effect. 

"Going forward, we hope this event can serve as a model for bringing people from different backgrounds and faiths together, and for the gains we can make by realizing that, beneath everything else, life is beautiful," Zielinksi said.

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