The way Omar Broadway sees it, Maryland prisons are overrun with gangs, disciplinary rules are ignored and inmates pass the time playing video games and making wine in their cells.
You don't have to take his word for it: He says he's getting it on film.
Broadway, a New Jersey native serving a 12-year sentence for carjacking, has gained notoriety as an amateur documentarian of life behind bars. The choppy footage he captured in a Newark prison was turned into a full-length feature ("An Omar Broadway Film") that aired at a prominent film festival and was broadcast on HBO this summer.
The popularity of the recording — a massive breach of security — led officials to transfer Broadway to the Maryland correctional system in 2007.
Before long, cameras were rolling again.
He has collected, he says, "a great deal of footage" depicting living conditions of a typical inmate in Maryland and the "illicit activities" that he says take place in the corrections system, some of it captured on a device so small he could fit it in his mouth.
Here, he said, gang members are so prevalent that the general prison population resembles gang-only units in New Jersey, and that increases the pressure to join. Abuse of inmates is not as widespread as his past experiences, he said, though he believes he has been improperly held in segregation for a year.
While cameras are not allowed in prison, Broadway is willing to risk criminal charges because he believes it's important that the public get an insider's view of prison life. But others have questioned whether his motives are fueled more by self-promotion than a sense of justice.
Most prison documentaries "are censored and edited," he said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun, arranged with the help of his mother, "and don't allow for a prisoner's perspective to shine through and see how we're living."
Broadway, 29, has already been charged criminally in Maryland after being caught with a recording device in 2009. Prison officials played down the incident, saying he had recorded very little, and that the footage was "not substantive."
But Broadway said that that's just the camera they know about and that his efforts are broader than officials know.
Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the state corrections system, would not discuss Broadway's case in detail, but said that "because of the publicity surrounding the movie, officials were aware of his actions in New Jersey." Binetti said conditions inside Maryland's prisons have become "safer and more secure" during the past four years.
Maryland officials, like their counterparts in many states, have been grappling with the problem of illicit devices behind bars, but Broadway's escapades appear particularly troublesome.
Belinda Watson, director of the National Institute on Corrections, said an inmate's being able to obtain a video camera is a "serious, serious breach."
James Upchurch, head of security operations for the Florida Department of Corrections, said a growing number of images are being sent from prisons because of the proliferation of contraband cell phones with camera capabilities. But he said he had not heard of any instances of inmates with video cameras — with the exception of Broadway's first exploit.
"Like with the phones, as these cameras get smaller and more compact, it could be a problem," Upchurch said.
Footage of the state prison system would compound the challenges for corrections officials who in the past year have seen wiretapping investigations reveal how gang members ran an intricate criminal enterprise from behind bars. In one case, with the help of corrupt corrections officers, inmates have been accused of directing killings and drug dealing through contraband cell phones while feasting on lobster and vodka.
Broadway began selling drugs at a young age on a tough street corner in his hometown of East Orange.
He grew into a short, powerful and animated young man who became a member of the Bloods gang but never lost the support of his devoted mother.
He was caught carjacking in his late teens. After his conviction, he was placed in the maximum-security gang unit of Newark's Northern State Prison when, in 2004, he began filming from the inside his cell.
Over the course of six months, he captured corrections officers dragging a bound inmate down a flight of stairs. In another scene, inmates protesting treatment and refusing to return to their cells are shown covering themselves in plastic to dull the effects of pepper spray as armored officers charge in to subdue them.
His goal, Broadway said, was to expose brutality and spark change.
But few wanted to pay attention to the struggles of men serving time for heinous crimes. On a contraband cell phone, he attempted to reach out to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and the rapper 50 Cent, but didn't get any interest. Eventually, the footage was leaked from prison with the help of a group of corrections officers who collectively referred to themselves as "Walter."
On the streets, Broadway's mother, Lynne, hawked copies of the raw footage for $5 and sold 32 copies. The tapes eventually made their way to a local news station, which aired them with little response.
But the footage caught the interest of director Douglas Tirola, who built a feature-length documentary that included the influences in Broadway's life, his criminal activities, and the psyche of a prisoner on lockdown.
The movie was picked for the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Moved to Maryland
As the project gained notice, Broadway's profile grew, and, by 2007, he was sent to serve the rest of his time on Maryland's Eastern Shore, at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County.
Broadway said conditions in Maryland prisons aren't great, but they're generally better than what he experienced in New Jersey. In contrast, "it's sweet down here," he said. General population inmates can wear street clothes and have access to what many would consider luxury items, such as flat-screen TVs, sound systems, video game consoles and jewelry.
"I've got a 30-inch chain around my neck right now," he said. The state Division of Correction confirmed that those items are available for purchase, with restrictions. He also says he has on tape the process of making wine in prison cells, by scraping together juice, sugar and other ingredients.
But when inmates get in trouble, he said, the punishment is swift and severe. His treatment after being caught with a camera in March 2009, is an example, he said.
According to court records, Broadway was charged with possession of marijuana and a small video camera, which contained footage of him in his cell and of a correctional officer. The camera was so tiny — about the size of a thumb, according to Broadway and confirmed by prison officials — that he was able to conceal it in his mouth.
He was charged with five counts, including "interception of communications," and pleaded guilty to possession of contraband in a confined place. An extra 13 months was tacked on to his sentence, causing him to miss a premiere celebration of his movie. He is scheduled for release in January.
No employees were disciplined in connection with the camera that was discovered in Broadway's cell, but a source familiar with the investigation said a staff member suspected of involvement has since resigned after an unrelated investigation.
Broadway said he has been held in administrative segregation for more than a year after refusing to cooperate with investigators trying to track the source of the camera. He claims officials are not following written procedures for such punishment, and have restricted his telephone access and recreation time. He claims to have not been allowed outside for a year, and has filed an appeal in Somerset County District Court.
Binetti, the prison spokesman, would not comment on Broadway's punishment.
But he said the system is doing better at rooting out contraband. Acknowledging that it is "unlikely" for corrections systems to block contraband altogether, "the bottom line is, this incident aside, our facilities are safer and more secure than they were four years ago," Binetti said in an e-mail.
Broadway said he is undaunted and has taken up his chosen mission with renewed vigor.
The footage he gathered in Maryland has made it outside state prisons and is in the hands of an associate, he said.
When it's released, he promises, the effort will be "worth it."