Lessons from the Stimulus Debate: Sex Ed For Talking Heads, Male Lawmakers

Jodi Jacobson

The mainstream media discussion of the inclusion of family planning in the stimulus bill ranged from the ridiculous to the pathetic and illustrates the need for sex ed for male lawmakers and talking heads.

The three-ring circus on the stimulus bill and the Medicaid waiver provision for family planning services might have been avoided, some in the advocacy community and Congress say, if there had been more comprehensive sex education.

Nope, not for teens.  

Apparently, the target group most in need of some good old fashioned sex ed can be found among the male members of the Democratic Party and among the talking heads in the media. 

A number of Congressmen attending a House Caucus meeting on the economic package earlier this week reportedly could not stop snickering when the words “stimulus” and “family planning” were used in the same sentence, and continued to tee-hee their way through a presentation by female colleagues until asked to stop.

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“They acted like they were in junior high,” reported a participant in
the meeting.  “It made me realize that not only did they not understand
this issue, but that they are uncomfortable even talking about it." 

Rather than chastising their male colleagues further, the women members and staffers involved in the meeting took this as a serious learning experience. 

It should be a lesson for all of us.

“These issues are second nature to the majority of women in Congress,” said one Congressional staffer speaking off the record, “so when we talk to women members or their staffers about the connection between family planning and women’s economic security, they don’t need an explanation.  They just get it.”

"Many of the men, however, do not," the staffer continued, "It is clear we need to educate them.  If they don’t understand the issues, they won’t be able to defend them effectively."

To be fair, some male legislators obviously do get it: Robert Wexler of Florida and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland both made valiant efforts to explain these issues to rather dense talk show hosts on MSNBC.  Congressman Henry Waxman, a long-time champion of evidence-based comprehensive sex ed and of women’s health, supported the Medicaid waiver in the stimulus in the first place.

But the majority of male Dems have not been asked to do much more to cultivate the female vote for reproductive health services over the past decade than to declare their support for Roe v. Wade in election campaigns.  

"We have not had to deal with these issues much beneath the surface the past 8 years," said the staffer, "because for the most part we did not control the debate.  But now we are in the majority, and women helped put us there.  This is going to come up again and again.  Anyone who understands the role of women in elections needs to get educated quickly, because even if they are uncomfortable with making these connections now, men in Congress are going to have to get comfortable very fast with funding for these services" or risk alienating voters.

It appears that while some lawmakers are apt to act like adolescents on the subject of women and sex, they have no problem working aggressively to ensure male sexual needs are met.

Take the case of Viagra.  The National Research Center for Women and Families reported on a similar debate pitting programs for low-income children and families against other "priorities" (remember the "bridge to nowhere?") in 2006.

As we consider our goals for the New Year," wrote Diana Zuckerman in a January 2006 op-ed published in the San Jose Mercury News and a number of other papers,

"what is more important to
American taxpayers: free Viagra or providing essential food, health care and
education for our neediest families? According to our congressional leaders,
free Viagra is the priority.

This sounds like a bad joke. It isn’t. Congress decided this week to
restore Medicare funding for Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction drugs at a
cost of $90 million for 2006. To do so, they had to cut other programs,
mostly for our country’s most vulnerable adults and children.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, led the charge in favor of Viagra
funding, insisting that Congress keep its promise to the drug industry —
which had expected ED drugs to be reimbursed under Medicare in 2006. He
apparently thought it was unfair when, a few months ago, Congress decided to
instead use those $90 million in taxpayer money for relief efforts after
Hurricane Katrina.

In the ideal world, we would have enough federal dollars for disaster
relief, food stamps and Viagra for seniors. In the real world, however, tax
cuts and the war in Iraq have meant that billions of dollars in essential
programs have to be cut. And so, Congress decided to come to the aid of
pharmaceutical companies even if it meant harming parents who were counting
on after-school programs, pregnant women who were counting on prenatal care
and low-income families who were counting on food stamps.

The gender gap on life experiences clearly runs very deep.

The mainstream media discussion of the family planning issue revealed a similar level of discomfort among male talk show hosts, but in public view and ranging from the ridiculous to the pathetic.  From Sunday through Tuesday, mostly male talking heads babbled on about an issue on which they clearly had little background knowledge and on which they clearly did not bother to gather much in the way of factual information. 

As has been widely reported here and elsewhere, for example, Chris Matthews, making clear he understands little about women’s health, compared the stimulus to China’s one-child policy the first day, and kept insisting subseqently that the stimulus plan was an effort by the Obama Administration to limit the number of births in the United States. 

What is it about the words "voluntary family planning" and "unintended pregnancy" he does not understand?  What is it about the economic costs of an unintended pregnancy, childbirth, and childraising when you are not prepared to bear a child (or another child) that he does not get? 

It is worth asking if this kind of uninformed blather would have taken place on more "serious" issues.  Imagine Chris Matthews or Sam Donaldson going on air unprepared to ask intelligent questions of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Iraq or Afghanistan.  (Okay, maybe not such a stretch with these two, but you get the point).

And make no mistake, the media aided the Republicans in their long-running strategic plan to stigmatize family planning services.  In fact, "Matthews," noted the Congressional staffer, "may have been our single biggest problem."

"If," the staffer continued, "instead of throwing us to the lions [with such a large audience], Matthews had done his homework, he could have helped turn the issue for us."

The staffer imagined a productive session of Hardball during which Matthews took the Republicans head-on by stating:

"This is a red herring issue…what do you do if you are a woman trying to avoid an unintended pregnancy who is not insured, has no sick leave, has no maternity leave, can’t afford to lose her job and cannot afford contraceptives? This is obviously an economic, a jobs and a family security issue."

Alas for now, it remains the stuff of dreams.

While the mischaracterization of the Medicaid waiver was mostly the province of male commentators, at least one female host, Nora O’Donnell, also got it totally wrong.  She repeatedly tried a gotcha strategy on Congressman Chris Van Hollen, as he attempted in turn to explain the issue on its merits.

"I take your point Congressman. but go ahead and answer what Congressman
Boehner said. How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on
contraceptives. How does that stimulate the economy?"

Obviously not "taking the point."

But for the most part, it was left to women, such as House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Julie Menin of the DNC’s Women’s Leadership Forum trying in vain to educate Neal Cavuto on Fox News, to bring substance and sanity to this debate. In referring to the contraceptive waiver for Medicaid, Cavuto–underscoring the point that many of the talking heads could not deal with this issue without a smirk–asked Menin:

"How is this, no pun intended, ‘stimulative’ of the economy?"

Menin, in perhaps the most intelligent explanation of this issue to date, referred to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

"I think FDR said it best in the 1930s, when he talked about the economic stimulus is really about relief, it’s about reform, and it’s about reconstruction.  And this falls into the relief package.  You’ve got 50 million Americans with absolutely no health care, 40 percent of Americans have severe medical debt, and this is really what this is targeted to."

But….this was too much for Cavuto, who interrupted….

"This is contraceptives…."

Menin continued to try to explain the economic link for women of an unintended pregnancy, the need for these services among young people, and the savings to both states and the federal government of lower health care costs associated with expanded choices in family planning. 

This led Cavuto, who apparently considers Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale as a possible guidebook for federal policy to suggest  that maybe we needed more people to pay taxes and….providing family planning would prevent women from producing those people!

Come to think of it, Matthews and Cavuto need the remedial sex ed course.

To a certain extent, this episode has done us all a big favor by underscoring early in the new Congress that we can not take for granted that "Democrat" or "national talk show host" = "understands the concerns, needs, aspirations, or human rights of women."

One thing is clear: We have a big job ahead of us and we should take it seriously. 

If we are going to reverse the concerted effort by the far right to undermine basic reproductive and sexual health care, then we need to create a sex education program — I am serious — for men and women in the Democratic caucus and in the media who may not yet fully grasp the importance of these issues.  It has to go beyond the cultivation of a few "champions" to make sure that the majority of the Democrats in Congress really get it.

This strategy must also go beyond leaving talking points with a staffer in a one-off visit.  It should involve at the least one day-long basic sex ed and economics retreat that brings together advocates, researchers, staffers and members of the media to discuss how basic reproductive health care is health care.  It might also include some of the college students and recipients of Medicaid who themselves were lobbying–and eloquently so report some–on the waiver this past week and who are direct users of the services.  And like any good outreach effort, it should include continuing education, reaching out to a broader community, using new technology and media such as YouTube.

And it needs to start now, before we find ourselves in this same situation with the Omnibus, or with the health care reform process.

The Republicans are leaving this weekend on a retreat to do their own planning on how to subvert the majority Democratic agenda….we need to work aggressively to ensure the success of ours.

If we are going to win this and other battles in the long run, we need to develop our own program of sex education for the very adults in whom we’ve vested the power of the purse.

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Daily Struggle for Muslim Women

Kanya D’Almeida

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.

Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.

In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”

When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.

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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.

Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.

A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.

Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures

Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:

Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.

While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.

As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]

In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.

In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.

Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.

In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.

March wrote in the Times:

As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.

March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.

Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.

Because cases based on material support statutes tend to paint the accused as extremely dangerous persons, they are often accompanied by harsh conditions of confinement, both pretrial and following a conviction.

From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.

Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.

He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Times article that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.

Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.

Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.

“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.

At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.

Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.

From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence

Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.

In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.

Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.

It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.

Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.

At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.

Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.

Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.

In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.

“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.

“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”

They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.

The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.

“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”

They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”

CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”

Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.

This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.

Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.

CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.

“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.

CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.

“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.

“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.

In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.

In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.

“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.

The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement

The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.

Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.

“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”

Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.

His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.

Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.

“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”

Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.

In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.

Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:

My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?

“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”

Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.

“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.

Analysis Media

The Notoriously Anti-Choice Media Outlet Co-Sponsoring the Next Democratic Debate

Ally Boguhn

Why is the Democratic National Committee, chaired by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, partnering with an anti-choice publication for Saturday's debate if it seeks to only work with media outlets in line with its key principles?

Last week the Democratic National Committee (DNC) pulled WMUR-TV from co-sponsoring the next Democratic debate scheduled for this upcoming Saturday over the New Hampshire television network’s refusal to move forward with union negotiations.

Citing the labor dispute as the reason for the move, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley explained in a joint press statement that the issue sat at the core of the party’s ideology and couldn’t be ignored.

“The right for workers to form and organize a union is a key principle of the Democratic Party, and is key to ensuring the economic safety of the American people by protecting their rights and benefits. It is the right to organize that made it possible for the middle class in America to grow over the past century, and it is as important today as it has ever been to keep our economic growth as a nation moving forward,” the statement read.

“We remain confident in our strong partnership with the ABC network and know that our Democratic candidates will have a robust debate, with a focus on the issues that matter most to hard working Americans across the country,” the statement continued.

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The removal of WMUR-TV from the agreement left just ABC News and the New Hampshire Union Leader as sponsors of the debate, raising the question: Why is the Democratic Party partnering with a notoriously anti-choice publication if it seeks to only work with media outlets whose principles are in line with the “key principle[s]” of the party? 

According to the Democratic National Committee’s website, “protecting a woman’s right to choose” is one such core component.

“The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports” Roe v. Wade, its website explains, specifically with regard to its 2012 party platform, “and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

Over the years, however, the Union Leader has carved a place for itself as a stringently anti-choice outlet through a series of editorials positioning the publication in opposition to birth control, abortion, Planned Parenthood, and politicians who champion these causes or organizations.

Most recently, in the wake of November’s deadly shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood, the media outlet responded by denying that the violence had anything to do with abortion, claiming that “pro-lifers have no reason to apologize” for what happened.

Without evidence, the president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains claimed that the shooter ‘was motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion,’” a November editorial claimed. “This blame-shifting is not just opportunistic. It’s irresponsible.”

The Union Leader dismissed the accused shooter’s own reported comments relating the killings to “baby parts” and any commentary from pro-choice advocates about the political motivations behind the event.

“Robert Lewis Dear is a madman,” it wrote. “Blaming your political opponents for the violence done by insane criminals is pathetic. Those who speak their minds are not responsible for the warped logic of raving lunatics.”

But as Jodi Jacobson explained at Rewire, “Rhetoric and language do indeed have consequences”in this case, the rhetoric surrounding the anti-choice movement and the Center for Medical Progress’ deceptively edited videos. In the wake of the debunked videos released by the anti-choice organization, politicians and anti-choice activists used the very same sort of violent language parroted by Dear when he reportedly told police “no more baby parts.” 

And that same language on abortion is something with which the New Hampshire Union Leader‘s editorial board is all too familiar, having spent the large part of the summer promoting CMP’s videos despite mounting evidence that the organization and its videos had been deeply discredited.

In July, the Union Leader used its pages to call on the state not to renew their contract with Planned Parenthood and to begin a state investigation into the organization, citing CMP’s videos and calling abortion the “actual horrific practice of killing and dismembering human infants.”

An August editorial, recycling false and discredited claims made by CMP, referred to New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) a “shameless puppet of the abortion industry” for defending Planned Parenthood.

A few weeks later, the Union Leader wrote yet another editorial falsely claiming that CMP’s videos showed actual Planned Parenthood staffers participating in the “selling” of fetal parts.

Earlier this fall, the Union Leader again featured its leadership’s anti-choice viewpoints in a September editorial criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, falsely suggesting that the former secretary of state and others in the party have “lied” about later abortions by claiming they are a “medical necessity” for many.

“The ‘medical necessity’ line is a dishonest talking point fabricated by the abortion industry,” said the Union Leader’s editorial board.

Glossing over how critical access to care is for those who need it, the editorial went on to discuss “a University of California, San Francisco study of 200 women who had abortions after 20 weeks” despite not having a medical reason. It then lamented that some women choose abortion due to health problems found in the fetus. 

In truth, abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy account for just 1 percent of all abortions. The availability of the procedure is key to keeping women safe and healthy, as complications can arise during any point in a pregnancy. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, many life-threatening conditions in both the mother and fetus aren’t discovered until this point of gestation.

And the 20-week abortion study cited by the Union Leader to prove that later abortions aren’t necessary? The Daily Beast reported that those 200 women who sought abortions at that point in their pregnancy had done so largely because they were “simply desperate, often because of the lack of access to decent reproductive health care.” About two-thirds of those included in the study had to have an abortion after 20 weeks due to financial barriers resulting in the delay of earlier abortions, delays the Union Leader‘s own policy stance would appear to aggravate. 

Even before this year, however, the Union Leader was busy spreading misinformation on reproductive health.

Back in 2014, the paper posted an editorial blasting Gov. Maggie Hassan for releasing a statement on a state-owned website announcing the introduction of the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Hobby Lobby.

“When women are denied health insurance coverage that covers their basic health care needs … then women are—unfairly—being compensated less than their co-workers,” Hassan said. 

Calling the statement both “factually incorrect” and “propaganda,” the editorial board falsely claimed that it is “no secret that no woman is being denied coverage of their basic health needs by this decision. The owners of Hobby Lobby craft stores were paying for 16 types of birth control before Obamacare ordered them to. But they objected to being forced to pay for four contraceptives that they believe amount to abortion.”

“The court agreed and pointed out that if government wants to make employers provide abortifacients, it should pay for them itself,” the editorial continued.

Of course, the contraceptives at the center of the Hobby Lobby case were not abortifacients, but that wasn’t the only thing the newspaper got wrong.

As the National Women’s Law Center explained in a brief for the case, denying women parts of their preventive health services is a form of discrimination. “Employers that exclude women’s preventive health services from their health insurance plans while covering men’s preventive services discriminate against women. Such exclusion means that women are denied the comprehensive preventive health coverage provided to men.”

The New Hampshire Union Leader already endorsed a candidate for the 2016 election cycle, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; its editors think the gender pay gap is “complete hooey“; and it devotes considerable space to spreading anti-choice misinformation and rhetoric.

If the Democratic Party is truly concerned with its debate co-sponsors espousing its values, why is the Union Leader participating?