Giving Birth in Chains: The Shackling of Incarcerated Women During Labor and Delivery

Anna Clark

As birthing choices are increasingly part of the public conversation, pregnant women are increasingly empowered to decide what sort of care is right for their bodies and their child. Except for those pregnant women who are incarcerated.

As birthing choices are increasingly prominent in the public
conversation, pregnant women are more and more empowered to decide what sort of
care is right for their bodies and their child.

Not so for pregnant women who are incarcerated.  Not only are their decisions about care
restricted, but many incarcerated pregnant women are physically restricted
while giving birth: during labor and delivery, they are shackled.

Consider the case of Shawanna Nelson.

When Nelson was six months pregnant, she was incarcerated in
Arkansas for passing bad checks. She went into labor during her short sentence.
A correctional officer shackled her legs to opposite sides of the bed that
transported her to a delivery room, removing them briefly during a nurse’s
examination. Nelson was re-shackled immediately after giving birth to her
nine-pound son.

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"She suffered both mental anguish and injury to her back,
intense pain because she couldn’t move or adjust her position through her birth
process," said Dana Sussman, legal fellow at the Center for Reproductive

Nelson later had surgery to treat symptoms resulting from
the delivery of her son, according to The Arkansas Times. She sued the Arkansas
Department of Correction, charging that her treatment violated the Eighth
Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

After winning her case at district court, Nelson’s charges
were dismissed on appeal by a judicial panel that said prison officials
"couldn’t have known the shackling was unconstitutional," said Sussman. Nelson
was granted a rehearing before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals,
supported by the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. Her
case was argued in September 2008. A decision is pending.

Perhaps most surprising about Nelson’s case is that it’s not
uncommon. Last month, a former Washington inmate sued the state for shackling
during her birthing process and high-risk pregnancy, treatment that included a
leg iron and a metal chain across her stomach.

Also last month, former inmates of Cook County jail filed a
federal lawsuit in Illinois challenging the facility’s shackling practice.
Illinois was the first state to have legislation that prohibited shackling; it
remains one of four states that make shackling explicitly illegal.

"I had no idea women were treated like that anywhere," said
Tina Reynolds, who was shackled during labor and the birth of her son fifteen
years ago.

"Shackling is a brutal and inherently unjust practice, so
blatantly draconian," said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Rebecca
Project (and contributor to Rewire).

"The problem is that policies for incarcerated men are
extended to women without adapting to distinct circumstances," Saada Saar

The Practice of

Shackling usually happens when pregnant women are
transported from one facility to another-when a woman is transferred to a new
prison, for example, or when she’s taken to a hospital for medical care.
Reynolds herself was shackled around the waist during labor. She knows others
who were subjected to a black box placed between their wrist and belly, which
keeps the arms in front and facedown. Shackling also happens around ankles in
transport vans and in wheelchairs, while breastfeeding, and while in neonatal
nurseries, Reynolds said.

To date, 46 states have no legislation that restricts the
shackling of pregnant women in prisons, jails, and detention centers, leaving
the practice to the discretion of individual facilities. Illinois, California,
Vermont, and New Mexico prohibit it entirely, though, as the Cook County case
reveals, implementation of anti-shackling policy can be patchy.

Non-federal facilities are exempt from the U.S. Bureau of
Prisons policy that, in October 2008, barred the shackling of pregnant women,
"except in the most extreme circumstances." This policy is in alignment
with the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. ratified.

Shackling policies are especially pertinent given that women
are the fastest growing demographic in U.S. prisons, according to the Women’s
Prison Association. As with the general prison population, most are serving
sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Among detained immigrant women who are pregnant, the
research of Meghan Rhoad of Human Rights Watch (and an Rewire
contributor) found that shackling frequently happens during transport and
occurs less often during labor. Many pregnant women are deported before they
give birth because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tries to
expedite the process for them.

"We know that some pregnant women in detention are pregnant
as a result of rape that happened in their home country or while they crossed
the border," Rhoad said. "That they may be forced to endure shackling as rape
survivors is absurd and horrifying."

The practice of shackling discourages women from seeking
needed care, Rhoad said.

"The degradation is such a disincentive," Rhoad added. "It’s
related to who’s in immigration detention, including refugees, survivors of
trauma that may have involved shackling, and people with no experience in
detention centers."

The Rebecca Project’s advocacy engages ICE and associations
of county jails, because detained immigrant women are often placed in jails
where shackling is standard practice.

"For some reason, jail policy trumps ICE policy on
shackling," said Saada Saar. "This could be alleviated if ICE and others at the
federal level made a clear statement."

Rhoad is optimistic that pregnant immigrant women in
detention will soon have better circumstances.

"We’ve seen an openness in the new (Obama) administration to
examine the practices in women’s care," Rhoad said.

As well, The Rebecca Project’s anti-shackling efforts
acknowledge the frequency of shackling occurring while women are transported.

"We’ve done extensive work with the U.S. Marshals because
they’re responsible for the transportation of prisoners and are often
responsible for shackling," said Saada Saar.

Movement Builds Momentum, Wins Allies

The 2008 federal policy against shackling cued renewed hope
among advocates for the humane treatment of incarcerated women. Beyond lawsuits
and advocacy with individual departments, legislative campaigns to restrict
shackling are finding unprecedented success-after years of falling on deaf

New Mexico is the most recent state to bar shackling through
a bill signed by Governor Bill Richardson this spring. New York and Texas
currently have bills backed by legislative support that await the word of their
governors before they become law.

"For us, it’s not enough to change regulations (on shackling
in particular prisons)," Saada Saar said. "To do this campaign through the legislature
gives us a way to respond to violations of the policy. Through state statutes,
mothers’ rights are better protected."

"A lot of states do have corrections policies that restrict
shackling, but (the policies) aren’t commonly known or understood," Sussman
said. "A law allows us to go to court; it makes it hard for others to say they
didn’t know (that shackling is restricted).

"We have a strong case in Illinois because of the law there,
for example. We need to bring cases to ensure enforcement," Sussman added.
"It’s a dual strategy."

It’s a strategy that inspires diverse support. Broad
coalitions are signing on to legislative and legal campaigns to transform the
experience of giving birth in prisons, jails, and detention centers.

Among those backing the New York Anti-Shackling Bill are
women’s health advocates, prison rights organizations, medical and public
health groups, and "even fellowships and ministries that aren’t our frequent
allies," Sussman said.

In Texas, there’s even more strategic alignment with
religious organizations and politicians in the campaign against shackling, said

"With religious groups, what resonates is the simple
inhumanity (of shackling)," said Sussman.

Rhoad said that her organization took on the anti-shackling
campaign because, she said, shackling is "not just a women’s right issue; it’s
a human rights issue."

Meanwhile, when Reynolds attended the National Organization
for Women conference in Indianapolis last month, she was invited to submit a
resolution for NOW to take on shackling in its national advocacy. Her
resolution was adopted, which Reynolds called "a huge step, because they are a
huge organization."

"That was remarkable to me to feel empowered, as a formerly
incarcerated woman who had joined NOW the week before," Reynolds said.

Leaders in the anti-shackling movement credit the campaign’s
momentum to centering the experiences of women who were shackled. Their stories
are featured at press conferences, in letters, in briefs, and other campaign
vehicles. Many are collected through Women on the Rise Telling HerStory
(WORTH), an association of formerly incarcerated women founded by Reynolds.

"It may be possible to resist changes (to the practice of
shackling), but when you’re confronted with the reality of women who’ve had to
endure this, that’s a hard position to maintain," said Rhoad.


Despite the multifaceted support for anti-shackling
legislation, the movement is not without its challengers.

The New York Department of Correctional Services (DCS) opposes
the Anti-Shackling Bill that won near-unanimous legislative support and now
awaits Governor Paterson’s approval. The DCS contends that shackling doesn’t
happen in its facilities, and if it did, the department is capable of
addressing the problem independently.

Serena Alfieri, associate director of policy with the
Correctional Association of New York, said that DCS’s point about shackling not
occurring is fueled by a lack of documentation. She notes that many women don’t
file complaints about the practice out of fear of retaliation.

Stories about shackling most frequently come from women
after they are released. There are documented stories of shackling happening as
recently as February 2009, according to Alfieri.

Alfieri said opponents of anti-shackling efforts often cite
security concerns about inmates using the opportunity of pregnancy and birth to
escape. The New York Anti-Shackling Bill includes exceptions for terrorists and
past escapees.

"It’s interesting that the only argument opponents (to the Anti-Shackling
Bill) really have is that prisoners will escape and therefore community safety
is at stake," said Alfieri. "But (in New York) they’re not even using that
argument. Their saying it just doesn’t happen."

It is Alfieri’s theory that DCS might have taken a different
strategy if "they ever vaguely even thought this bill had a chance to become a

"After similar bills haven’t passed in recent years, (DCS)
underestimated the amount of support for this," Alfieri said. The
Anti-Shackling Bill’s success comes after at least seven years of the issue
being dropped by the legislature.

Reynolds said, "I wonder if (the DOC) knows that there is a
difference between labor and birth. Because there is a difference. They might
remove shackles during the actual birth, but labor-and labor pains-is
experienced beyond that.

"It is painful and horrific to be shackled during labor
pains," she added.

While New York’s DCS goes through the pains of downsizing
and union pressure, its leaders and employees are trying to ensure that not a
lot of more changes are happening, Alfieri said.  She believes that this contributes to DCS’s
opposition to the Anti-Shackling Bill-the department resists out of a desire to
not cause any more upheaval than is already happening.

"Security is where they come from; the impact on the health
of women and children just doesn’t occur to them, it’s just not on the table,"
Alfieri said.

Turning Point for
Incarcerated Women, Reproductive Justice Advocates

Nonetheless, awareness of the impact of incarceration on
women and children is rising across the nation.

Reynolds believes that growing national attention to
shackling is partly attributed to empathy for the child involved in births that
happen in prisons-though, she said, she hopes people recognize the connection
between the child and its mother.

The momentum is further fueled by international standards
against shackling pregnant women. Sussman said that the movement’s approach
frames the issue as violations against UN standards of torture.

"Gains on the international level are powerful for
advocacy," Sussman said. "We use it in our letters, all through our campaign."

Rhoad echoed Sussman’s ideas.

"Exploring this as a human rights issue is imperative,"
Rhoad said. "We can look at the basic standards of treatment and the strong
support in the international arena for prohibiting shackling in all but the
most extraordinary circumstances."

It’s an idea that that offers the reproductive justice
community an opportunity to evolve.

Shackling is a "very important issue for the reproductive
rights community, though it hasn’t quite been claimed yet," Saada Saar said.
"Now is an opportunity to re-claim it and shed light on mothers’ rights."

Reynolds said she agreed that shackling, as well as the
impact of incarceration more broadly, remains "sorely missing in reproductive
justice circles."

The Center for Reproductive Rights is "primarily an abortion
access organization, but (working on the anti-shackling campaign) broadens us
as a reproductive justice group," said Sussman. "The reproductive justice
community believes strongly in the full spectrum of health care, including
abortion access and childbirth services."

Sussman noted that reproductive justice groups that focus on
particular community and regions have been among the strongest advocates in the
anti-shackling campaign, recognizing, for example, how the criminal justice
system impacts communities of color.

In fact, birthing rights advocates can be credited for
overturning the practice of shackling in the city of Philadelphia (a policy
that hasn’t extended to the state of Pennsylvania).

"Doulas and midwives worked with mothers in prisons, and
they’re work and intervention changed that policy in Philadelphia," said Saada

It is, after all, a simple idea.

"Women should be given the opportunity to recover and heal
in a treatment facility with their child," said Reynolds. "People deserve the
dignity to have a child in a healthy way, free of restraints, without feeling
more oppressed."

"Everybody is captivated by the story of how they were
born," Reynolds added. "Why shouldn’t mothers be able to tell a joyful story to
their child, without worrying about leaving out details of shackles and poor
care? That story they share should be pure and beautiful."

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.

Commentary Sexual Health

Of Ducks and Women: For Us, Sex Should Not Hurt

Martha Kempner

The Internet has been abuzz with discussions of painful sex among our animal friends after astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson mistakenly suggested that any species for whom sex hurt would already be extinct. Unfortunately, many women know all too well that on this subject, deGrasse Tyson was way off the mark.

The Internet has been abuzz with discussions of painful sex among our animal friends after astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson mistakenly suggested in a tweet, “If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct a long time ago.” Twitter users and journalists leapt at the chance to tell one of the world’s leading astrophysicists that he was wrong about biology, and that there are a lot of members of the animal kingdom for whom the act of mating doesn’t appear to be all that pleasant.

Take the duck. Apparently, a female duck’s vagina corkscrews in the opposite direction from the corkscrew on the male’s penis, which may help her ward off unwanted advances but seems as if it could make desired sex uncomfortable for both of them. And ducks aren’t the only ones for whom copulation may be painful—to name just a few other examples, a male cat has barbs on his penis which can scrape his partner’s vagina, a male bed bug inseminates his female partner by piercing a hole in her abdomen, and female praying mantises eat their male partners when the deed is done.

It seems that humans are among the lucky ones for whom sex can feel so good that we do it more often for recreation than we do for procreation. But humans, women in particular, can feel pain during penetrative sex too. In fact, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists notes that nearly three out of four women have felt pain during intercourse at some point during their lives. Unfortunately, sex education classes in schools often spend very little time talking about pleasure, and women especially—who frequently grow up around whispers of how much the “first time” hurts—may think they just have to put up with a little unwanted pain or discomfort during sexual experiences. (While some people can experience penile pain, often as the result of an infection, it generally is not related to sexual behavior in the same way.)

Sex should not hurt. If it does, look at that as your body’s way of sending you a signal that something is not quite right.

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Before we get into specifics, however, it’s important to acknowledge some caveats.

First, it is important to note that we are talking about issues that lead to pain during consensual sexual activity. The issues involved during and after sexual assault or any kind of nonconsensual sex are very different, and we’re not going to attempt to address them here. If you suspect those circumstances might apply to you, you may want to consult your health-care provider, a mental health expert, or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates phone and online hotlines.

Also, this is not meant as professional medical advice. This article can give you ideas from my perspective as a sexuality educator, but it can’t give you a diagnosis. Again, only your health-care provider can do that.

With that in mind, there are many possible reasons that sex could be less than fun.

It Could Be Desire

Sex is a physical activity, to be sure, but there is a big mental component as well. Your state of mind matters. If you feel guilty, embarrassed, afraid, or even just distracted by what’s going on in the rest of your life, you might not be able to relax and become aroused. Stress and exhaustion can also get in the way of arousal, as can relationship issues, including an unequal interest in sex.

Painful sex can result from any one of these emotional factors, or a combination thereof. Take a minute to try and figure out if anything was bothering you before or during sex, and what you might be able to change so that this doesn’t happen again. It’s always good to start by talking to your partner and seeing if you can figure it out together. If the issue is ongoing, you might consider talking to a mental health expert or a sex therapist.

It Could Be Technique

No one wants to be told that they’re “doing it wrong,” and, of course, there is no right or wrong way to “do it.” That said, vulvas and vaginas are sensitive, and it is possible for them to be touched in a way that feels, well, not great. Every person is different: A technique that may make one partner feel fantastic may just be irritating to another. The same goes for sexual positions—what one person likes may make another one uncomfortable.

Here, communication is important. Give your partner some ideas and advice. Subtle clues like moaning when they get it right are great, but you may have to be more directive. It’s okay to ask someone to speed up, slow down, or move a little to the left. Be gentle and funny if you think that will help, but don’t be afraid to say what you like.

Of course, in order to do this, you have to know what you like. If your partner is game, this can be a fun team project, but spending some quality time figuring it out on your own (i.e., masturbating) can also be very useful.

It Could Be Lubrication (Or a Lack Thereof)

Blood rushes to the vagina upon arousal in a process called vasocongestion, which in turn causes the vagina to produce lubrication. This wetness helps protect against chafing and irritation when the vulva is touched or the vagina is penetrated. Without sufficient lubrication, sexual activity can be uncomfortable.

It can be helpful to figure out why there isn’t enough lubrication. Sometimes it’s because you haven’t gotten turned on enough, and spending just a little more time on foreplay could be all that’s necessary. It could also be the result of hormone changes—dryness is common in women who are going through or have gone through menopause, for instance—or certain medications. Or it could just be the natural state of your body; some people just produce less lubrication than others.

Regardless of the cause, dryness issues can be fixed by using lubricants. The truth is almost everyone can benefit from a little extra lube. A quick trip to the pharmacy will show just how many options there are when it comes to lube—from the tingly to the flavored to the vegan. Try one or try them all.

Just a few quick notes: If you’re using condoms for birth control or the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), avoid oil-based lubes because oil breaks down latex—intead, use water-based or silicone-based lubes. Also, if you’re using sex toys, you may also want stick to water-based lubes, because silicone can cause some of them to deteriorate. Read the label of whatever lube you choose; it should let you know what is and isn’t compatible.

It Could Be Medical

There are also a number of medical explanations for what might be behind the discomfort. The catch-all phrase for things that cause inflammation of the vagina—and the itching, burning, and pain during sex that goes with it—is vaginitis. STIs cause vaginitis, but so do other things like yeast infections. The truth is that the vagina has a pretty delicate system of naturally occurring bacterial and fungi that are usually kept in balance. When this equilibrium is disrupted—which can happen when a woman is taking an antibiotic, uses a fancy new soap, or has even just has sex—things can get uncomfortable.

Pain upon penetration can also be caused by certain gynecological problems, such as endometriosis (an inflammation of the lining of the uterus), pelvic inflammatory disease, or cysts on the ovaries. Many of these medical problems that cause pain are easily treated once diagnosed.

For some individuals, however, vulvar and vaginal pain can become chronic and may not be limited to during sex. These people are often diagnosed with vulvodynia—a term that basically means painful vulva. There are different theories about what causes this condition, and there isn’t one method that seems to work for everyone who has it. But there are treatments: Some individuals respond to certain medications that are thought to interrupt the pain signals the body is sending, and others do well with physical therapy and biofeedback.

The purpose here is not to give an exhaustive list of conditions that lead to painful sex, but to say that pain during intercourse is often a sign of an underlying medical problem. If it persists, you should get checked out.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Close Your Eyes and Think of England

In previous generations, women were taught not to expect sexual pleasure—sex was something for men to enjoy and women to endure. Thankfully, we now know enough to consider this absurd (not to mention sexist and infuriating). And yet, some vestiges of these views seem to have hung around and left some women with the impression that a little bit of pain during sex is just to be expected.

It’s not.

The basic rule is pretty simple. If your vulva or vagina itches, burns, or hurts—get it looked at by a health-care professional. If you have a bump or a sore—get it looked at by a health-care professional. If it hurts when someone touches it or if penetration is painful—go see a health-care professional. If you’ve ruled out physical ailments—consider talking to a therapist about what else might be going on. And if the pain becomes chronic—go back and tell that professional it is still hurting.

Don’t just grin and bear it.

We are not ducks, we are not bed bugs, and we are not antechinuses (a marsupial whose males have so much sex they start to bleed internally and go blind). We are human beings, and we deserve sex that is not just pain-free, but feels really good.


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