Read more about the shackling of pregnant women here.
On Feb. 4, the Virginia General Assembly’s House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee defeated a bill that would have limited the use of restraints on pregnant inmates. HB 1488, introduced by Delegate Patrick A. Hope, specifically sought to limit the restraint of pregnant inmates during labor, transport to a medical facility, delivery, or postpartum recovery in the commonwealth’s correctional facilities.
While the Committee killed the bill, the concern raised by debate on the issue prompted the Committee Chairwoman, Delegate Beverly Sherwood, to send a letter to the Department of Corrections (DOC), suggesting that the DOC review current policies and regulations concerning the restraint of pregnant inmates. A mere suggestion to review current policies does not provide adequate protection for the women in Virginia’s correctional facilities. House Bill 1488 would have afforded real protection for some of Virginia’s most vulnerable women from a practice that not only violates a woman’s dignity, but can detrimentally affect her health and the health of her pregnancy.
State corrections officials report that restraints are rarely used on women in labor – a positive step. However, the Virginia Department of Corrections has not made available their written policy on the use of restraints or data on the number of pregnant prisoners who have been restrained. It has been informally reported that only front end restraints are used on pregnant inmates, but without the ability to review a stated policy, there is little accountability for this claim.
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Further, the officer in charge retains discretion over whether to use restraints. Allowing officers to decide when to shackle pregnant women is highly problematic: officers do not have medical training and are not qualified to judge whether restraints will jeopardize the health of the woman and/or her child. When so little is known about when and what type of restraints are used on pregnant inmates, legislation can provide much needed accountability and put a stop to the practice of shackling.
Preventing shackling of pregnant women is sound public health policy.Restraining a woman who is pregnant can pose unique health risks to the woman and her pregnancy. Prisoners and detainees who are restrained face an increased potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall, which can be harmful to the health of the woman and her pregnancy.
Unrestrained movement is especially critical during labor, delivery, and the postpartum recovery. Women often need to move around during labor and recovery, including moving their legs as part of the birthing process, and restraining a pregnant woman can interfere with the medical staff’s ability to appropriately assist in childbirth.
Further, major national correctional and medical associations oppose the shackling of pregnant women. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshal Service, the American Correctional Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have all recognized that shackling women during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery is unnecessary and dangerous to a woman’s health and well being.
Preventing shackling is a sound legal policy for Virginia.It is cruel and unusual punishment—in violation of the Virginia and federal constitutions—to shackle a pregnant woman during labor and delivery. Applying such restraints demonstrates a deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs, and runs counter to long-established Supreme Court precedent protecting prisoners’ 8th Amendments rights.
Restricting the use of restraints on pregnant women prisoners will not jeopardize the safety of correctional or medical staff. The vast majority of female prisoners in Virginia are non-violent offenders who pose a low security risk, particularly during labor and postpartum recovery. There are no documented instances of women in labor or during delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security guards or medical staff.
Until legislative change is made in an effort to protect the health and dignity of the incarcerated mother and her fetus, pregnant prisoners will face the possibility of unnecessary and dangerous health risks, degrading treatment, and little accountability will be placed on the Department of Corrections.
According to the new law, the jail should have been prohibited from using any type of restraint on Gamble during labor, and using of leg and waist restraints on her during and immediately after her pregnancy. It also guaranteed her minimum standards of pregnancy care and required—as with everyone incarcerated while in their second or third trimesters—that she be transported in the jail’s vehicles with seat belts whenever she was taken to court, medical appointments, or anywhere outside the jail.
But that wasn’t the case for Gamble. Instead, she says, when it came time for her to give birth, she was left to labor in a cell for eight hours before finally being handcuffed, placed in the back of a police cruiser without a seatbelt, and driven to a hospital, where she was shackled to the bed with a leg iron after delivering.
In addition to analyzing policies, they spoke with women who were pregnant while in custody and learned that women continue to be handcuffed during labor, restrained to the bed postpartum, and placed in full restraints—including leg irons and waist chains—after giving birth.
“The promise to respect the human rights of pregnant women in prison and jail has been broken,” the report’s authors concluded.
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“The Massachusetts law is part of a national trend and is one of the most comprehensive in protecting pregnant and postpartum women from the risks of restraints,” said Roth in an interview with Rewire. “However, like most other states, the Massachusetts law doesn’t have any oversight built in. This report clearly shows the need for staff training and enforcement so that women who are incarcerated will be treated the way the legislature intended.”
Gamble learned all of this firsthand. In the month before her arrest, Gamble had undergone a cervical cerclage, in which a doctor temporarily stitches up the cervix to prevent premature labor. She had weekly visits to a gynecologist to monitor the development of her fetus. The cerclage was scheduled to be removed at 37 weeks. But then she was arrested and sent to jail.
Gamble told jail medical staff that hers was a high-risk pregnancy, that she had had a cerclage, and that her first child had been born six weeks prematurely. Still, she says she waited two months before seeing an obstetrician.
As her due date drew closer, the doctor, concerned about the lack of amniotic fluid, scheduled Gamble for an induction on Feb. 19, 2015. But, she says, jail staff cancelled her induction without telling her why.
That same evening, around 5 p.m., Gamble went into labor. Jail staff took her to the medical unit. There, according to Gamble, the jail’s nurses took her blood pressure and did a quick exam, but did not send her to the hospital. “They [the nurses] thought I was ‘acting up’ because my induction was canceled,” she told Rewire.
She was placed in a see-through cell where, as the hours progressed, her labor pains grew worse. “I kept calling to get the [correctional officers] to get the nurse,” Gamble recalled. By the time a nurse came, Gamble was bleeding. “The nurse made me pull down my pants to show her the blood—in front of a male [correctional officer]!” Gamble stated. Still, she says, no one called for an ambulance or made arrangements to drive her to the hospital.
At 1:45 in the morning, over eight hours after she first went into labor, the jail’s captain learned that Gamble was in labor. “[He] must have heard all the commotion, and he called to find out what was going on,” she said. He ordered his staff to call an ambulance and bring her to the hospital.
But instead of calling an ambulance, Gamble says jail staff handcuffed her, placed her in the back of a police cruiser without a seatbelt—in violation of the law—and drove her to Charlton Memorial Hospital. “My body was already starting to push the baby out,” she said. She recalled that the officers driving the car worried that they would have to pull over and she would give birth by the side of the road.
Gamble made it to the hospital, but just barely. Nine minutes after arriving, she gave birth: “I didn’t even make it to Labor and Delivery,” she remembered.
But her ordeal wasn’t over. Gamble’s mother, who had contacted Prisoners’ Legal Services and Prison Birth Project weeks earlier, knew that the law prohibited postpartum restraints. So did Gamble, who had received a packet in jail outlining the law and her rights from Prisoners’ Legal Services. When an officer approached her bed with a leg iron and chain, she told him that, by law, she should not be restrained and asked him to call the jail to confirm. He called, then told her that she was indeed supposed to be shackled. Gamble says she spent the night with her left leg shackled to the bed.
When the female officer working the morning shift arrived, she was outraged. “Why is she shackled to the bed?” Gamble recalled the officer demanding. “Every day in roll call they go over the fact that a pregnant woman is not to be shackled to anything after having a baby.” The officer removed the restraint, allowing Gamble to move around.
According to advocates, it’s not unusual for staff at the same jail to have different understandings of the law. For Gamble, that meant that when the shift changed, so did her ability to move. When the morning shift was over, she says, the next officer once again shackled Gamble’s leg to the bed. “I was so tired, I just went along with it,” Gamble recounted.
Two days after she had given birth, it was time for Gamble to return to the jail. Despite Massachusetts’ prohibition on leg and waist restraints for women postpartum, Gamble says she was fully shackled. That meant handcuffs around her wrists, leg irons around her ankles, a chain around her waist,g and a black box that pulled her handcuffs tightly to the waist chain. That was how she endured the 20-minute drive back to the jail.
Gamble’s jail records do not discuss restraints. According to Petit, who reviewed the records, that’s not unusual. “Because correctional officers don’t see it as out of the ordinary to [shackle], they do not record it,” she explained. “It’s not so much a misapplication of the extraordinary circumstances requirement as failure to apply it at all, whether because they don’t know or they intentionally ignore it.”
While Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Women’s Center’s policies ban shackling during labor, they currently do not prohibit restraints during postpartum recovery in the hospital or on the drive back to the jail. They also do not ban leg and waist restraints during pregnancy. Jonathan Darling, the public information officer for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, told Rewire that the jail is currently reviewing and updating policies to reflect the 2014 law. Meanwhile, administrators provide updates and new information about policy and law changes at its daily roll call. For staff not present during roll call, the jail makes these updates, including hospital details, available on its east post. (Roll call announcements are not available to the public.)
“Part of the problem is the difference in interpretation between us and the jurisdictions, particularly in postpartum coverage,” explained Petit to Rewire. Massachusetts has 14 county jails, but only four (and the state prison at Framingham) hold women awaiting trial. As Breaking Promises noted: “Whether or not counties incarcerate women in their jails, every county sheriff is, at minimum, responsible for driving women who were arrested in their county to court and medical appointments. Because of this responsibility, they are all required to have a written policy that spells out how employees should comply with the 2014 law’s restrictions on the use of restraints.”
Four jurisdictions, including the state Department of Correction, have policies that expressly prohibit leg and waist restraints during the postpartum period, but limit that postpartum period to the time before a woman is taken from the hospital back to the jail or prison, rather than the medical standard of six weeks following birth. Jails in 11 other counties, however, have written policies that violate the prohibition on leg and waist shackles during pregnancy, and the postpartum prohibition on restraints when being driven back to the jail or prison.
Even institutions with policies that correctly reflected the law in this regard sometimes failed to follow them: Advocates found that in some counties, women reported being restrained to the bed after giving birth in conflict with the jail’s own policies.
“When the nurse left, the officer stood up and said that since I was not confirmed to be in ‘active labor,’ she would need to restrain me and that she was sorry, but those were the rules,” one woman reported, even though the law prohibits restraining women in any stage of labor.
But shackling pregnant women during and after labor is only one part of the law that falls short. The law requires that pregnant women be provided with regular prenatal and postpartum medical care, including periodic monitoring and evaluation; a diet with the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy pregnancy; written information about prenatal nutrition; appropriate clothing; and a postpartum screening for depression. Long waits before transporting women in labor to the hospital are another recurring complaint. So are routinely being given meals without fruits and vegetables, not receiving a postpartum obstetrician visit, and waiting long stretches for postpartum care.
That was also the case with Gamble. It was the middle of the night one week after her son’s birth when Gamble felt as if a rock was coming through her brain. That was all she remembered. One hour later, she woke to find herself back at the hospital, this time in the Critical Care Unit, where staff told her she had suffered a seizure. She later learned that her cellmate, a certified nursing assistant, immediately got help when Gamble’s seizure began. (The cell doors at the jail are not locked.)
Hospital staff told her that she had preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure. Postpartum preeclampsia is rare, but can occur when a woman has high blood pressure and excess protein in her urine soon after childbirth. She was prescribed medications for preeclampsia; she never had another seizure, but continued to suffer multiple headaches each day.
Dr. Carolyn Sufrin is an assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine. She has also provided pregnancy-related care for women at the San Francisco County Jail. “Preeclampsia is a leading cause of maternal mortality,” she told Rewire. Delayed preeclampsia, or postpartum preeclampsia, which develops within one to two weeks after labor and delivery, is a very rare condition. The patient suffering seizures as a result of the postpartum preeclampsia is even more rare.
Postpartum preeclampsia not only needs to be treated immediately, Sufrin said, but follow-up care within a week at most is urgent. If no follow-up is provided, the patient risks having uncontrolled high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure. Another risk, though much rarer, is the development of abnormal kidney functions.
While Sufrin has never had to treat postpartum preeclampsia in a jail setting, she stated that “the protocol if someone needs obstetrical follow-up, is to give them that follow-up. Follow through. Have continuity with the hospital. Follow their instructions.”
But that didn’t happen for Gamble, who was scheduled for a two-week follow-up visit. She says she was not brought to that appointment. It was only two months later that she finally saw a doctor, shortly before she was paroled.
As they gathered stories like Gamble’s and information for their report, advocates with the Prison Birth Project and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts met with Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), to bring her attention to the lack of compliance by both county jails and the state prison system. In June 2015, Khan introduced An Act to Ensure Compliance With the Anti-Shackling Law for Pregnant Incarcerated Women (Bill H 3679) to address the concerns raised by both organizations.
The act defines the postpartum period in which a woman cannot be restrained as six weeks. It also requires annual staff trainings about the law and that, if restraints are used, that the jail or prison administration report it to the Secretary of Public Safety and Security within 48 hours. To monitor compliance, the act also includes the requirement that an annual report about all use of restraints be made to the legislature; the report will be public record. Like other statutes and bills across the country, the act does not have specific penalties for noncompliance.
In December 2015, Gamble’s son was 9 months old and Gamble had been out of jail for several months. Nonetheless, both Gamble and her mother drove to Boston to testify at a Public Safety Committee hearing, urging them to pass the bill. “I am angered, appalled, and saddened that they shackled her,” Gamble’s mother told legislators. “What my daughter faced is cruel and unusual punishment. It endangered my daughter’s life, as well as her baby.”
Though she has left the jail behind, Gamble wants to ensure that the law is followed. “Because of the pain I went through, I don’t ever want anyone to go through what I did,” she explained to Rewire. “Even though you’re in jail and you’re being punished, you still have rights. You’re a human being.”
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.
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 Timesarticle 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.