Jacob Rusher was first sent to solitary confinement at the Douglas County Youth Facility in Omaha, Nebraska “for his own good,” because he had a broken ankle.
Rusher was in and out of the juvenile detention center three times between the ages of 15 and 17, and each time, he was subject to solitary confinement, where he was locked away from teachers, peers, and regular visits from mental health counselors for weeks at a time.
“It was 23 hours a day alone, no TV or radio,” he told the ACLU of Nebraska. “You were in there with one book, a blanket, a mat and a toothbrush. No art materials, no hobby items—everything was considered contraband.”
He developed a pacing habit, walking from one wall to another, imagining he was a character in a book.
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Rusher’s story is included in a new report from the ACLU of Nebraska, “Growing Up Locked Down,” that examines solitary confinement in the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Based on a nearly yearlong investigation of written policies and internal detention log books obtained through public records requests, the report concludes that Nebraska juveniles are routinely placed in isolation for days and weeks at a time, defying best practices developed by mental health experts.
Some facilities that confined juveniles had no written policies regulating solitary confinement and collected no data on the practice.
Researchers found that at some county detention facilities, young people were placed in solitary confinement for up to six hours for a range of trivial offenses, including having “too many books in room again,” “talking in hallway,” and “putting the string of his sock in his mouth.”
“The results are shocking and heartbreaking,” Danielle Conrad, the executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, told Rewire. “We have some real work to do even on basic issues: reporting, and establishing basic policies.”
Nebraska had more than 400 kids living in juvenile detention in 2013, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Data Center. Though the number might seem small, the rate of imprisonment is high compared to other states: Roughly 204 Nebraska kids per 100,000 were confined in 2013. Fifty-five percent of juveniles in detention are children of color, as the report notes, though the state is 80 percent white.
The authors of the report define solitary confinement as “any physical and social isolation of children in juvenile detention facilities,” not including a short “time-out.” Sometimes called “room restriction” or simply “isolation,” the practice is considered particularly devastating to children because they aren’t fully developed mentally or physically.
Prolonged solitary confinement is linked to depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the person is in solitary confinement, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which opposes the practice.
The United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty prohibits the solitary confinement of young people, calling it “cruel” and “inhuman.”
A number of Nebraska’s neighboring states, including South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Arkansas, have policies that limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles to five days or fewer.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which operates two of the nine juvenile detention facilities in Nebraska, told Rewire in a statement that “DHHS supports the research about the detriments of placing youth in isolation,” and has worked to address the issue for several years.
“The average length of stay in isolation has dropped about 50 percent at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers from 2012 to 2014,” Russell Reno, a DHHS spokesperson, said in an email.
Reno said the department uses solitary confinement as a last resort, provides youth with due process and an appeals process, and administers mental health exams for young people placed in isolation for more than a few hours. He added that staff must obtain permission from senior management to extend isolation beyond four hours, and are trained in alternatives to the practice.
The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS), which operates two of the state’s juvenile detention facilities, told KETV News that it is working with the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative to develop rules and regulations around solitary confinement at their facilities.
“NDCS uses restrictive housing as necessary for youthful offenders adjudicated as adults and sentenced to its custody. There are processes in place to ensure a review by the facility warden as well as to provide the individual with a voice to appeal the decision,” the NDCS said in a statement.
Conrad said the ACLU hopes to work with policymakers in Nebraska to mandate basic reporting and oversight of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, with the ultimate goal of banning the practice altogether.
“While we see differences from facility to facility, the bottom line is nobody is really adhering to best practices,” Conrad said. “We can and must do better.”
Erika Rocha's was the first suicide of the year at Corona's California Institution for Women (CIW), which is currently at 130 percent capacity. CIW's suicide rate, however, is more than eight times the national rate for women behind bars.
On April 14, 2016, one day before her parole hearing, Erika Rocha committed suicide. The 35-year-old had spent 21 years behind bars. But what should have been a day of hope for Rocha, her family, and her friends instead became a day of mourning.
Rocha’s was the first suicide of the year to rock Corona’s California Institution for Women (CIW), which is currently at 130 percent capacity. CIW’s suicide rate, however, is more than eight times the national rate for women behind bars. The prison had four suicides and 16 attempts in 2014. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. And in the first two months of 2016, CIW had four additional suicide attempts.
These numbers, advocates say, display the consequences of the lack of mental health resources for women in prison, some of whom have been behind bars for decades.
The need for comprehensive mental health care has long plagued California prisons. In 1990, advocates filed Coleman vs. Wilson, a class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging unconstitutional medical care by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). In 1995, a U.S. District Court ruled in Colemanthat mental health-care access in the state prisons violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment; the following year, it appointed a special master to review California’s prisons and to monitor mental health care. That special master is still monitoring CDCR’s mental health care.
In 2013, Lindsay Hayes, a suicide prevention expert, audited all of the state’s prisons for their suicide prevention plans. In 2015, he re-audited 18 of those prisons. In the report he released in January 2016, he noted that, while some prisons had made progress on the issue, “CIW continued to be a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention.” These poor practices, Hayes wrote, included low completion of suicide risk evaluations, inadequate treatment planning, low compliance rates for annual suicide prevention training, and multiple suicides during the calendar year.
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No one will ever know what pushed Rocha over the edge. But others at CIW say that those who need mental health treatment there, both before and after their suicides, face a lack of preventive treatment, including counseling, and almost no follow-up.
Amber, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, noted that the prison lacks available mental health programming. She had already spent 14 years at another prison when she was transferred to CIW. There, she found that nearly every self-help and support group had a long waiting list.
In addition, mental health treatment was sparse. “I would only see mental health [staff] every 90 days, and that was only about five minutes,” she recalled in an interview with Rewire. “As time went on and I became more and more frustrated by the lack of anything to take my mind off my emptiness, I got more lonely and hopeless.” She stopped talking to her friends, stopped eating, lost interest in her appearance, and began losing weight. No one noticed these red flags. She told mental health staff that she wanted to stop taking medication. No one, she said, questioned her decision.
In July 2014, Amber and her friend Mindy (also a pseudonym) decided to end their lives together. Once they made their decision, Amber remembered feeling a sense of relief: “I was happy. I knew my misery and pain were ending. … This seemed to be the only way.” The two slit their throats, losing consciousness. But someone found them, alerted staff and they were transported to the hospital. How they were treated next, they said, didn’t make them feel any more hopeful about life.
After being released from the hospital, both women were placed in a mental health crisis bed, commonly referred to as “suicide watch” among people in prison. Amber described suicide watch as a place “where they strip you naked and put a hard gown on you, basically a life jacket. They give you a blanket made of the same material and have a bright light on with a nurse watching and recording [on paper] your every move. … You are not allowed anything for the first week. Then you can ‘earn’ a book. And maybe a muumuu gown if you are calm and cooperative. You aren’t even allowed a roll of toilet paper. When you need to use the toilet [in your cell], they hand you a tiny bit and watch you use it.”
Mindy spent 11 days in suicide watch; Amber was there for two weeks. Both were then placed in the prison’s specialty care unit, where they were able to have human interactions and access to group programming, which Amber described as 14 hours a week of coloring, watching movies, singing karaoke, and walking.
However, suicide watch is frequently full. In those cases, people are placed in an “overflow unit” in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), an isolation unit where people are locked in their cells for 23 to 24 hours each day. This kind of isolation can cause myriad mental health issues, including anxiety, panic, depression, agoraphobia, paranoia, aggression, and even neurological damage.
Krista Stone-Manista is an attorney with San Francisco-based Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, which co-litigated the Coleman case. She is also part of the team now monitoring compliance. She notes that, when a person reports feeling suicidal, she is supposed to be moved to a mental health crisis bed. But, because there aren’t enough mental health crisis beds, California prisons utilize what’s known as “alternative housing,” which might include isolation until a bed opens up. “What we’re seeing is that people are repudiating their suicidal ideation to get out of alternative housing,” she told Rewire. That means that they don’t receive counseling or any other type of mental health treatment.
But even when they are placed on suicide watch, the special master, in his 2015 review of CIW, found that “patients were discharged from the mental health crisis bed as soon as they reported they were no longer suicidal, with little effort to determine the underlying causes of their initial reports of suicidality.”
People incarcerated at CIW report that its environment has not improved in the two years since Amber and Mindy attempted to take their lives. In March 2015, Stephanie Feliz hung herself. Mindy, who was in the mental health unit at the time, said that Feliz walked in and requested services for a mental health crisis. Despite having a history of suicide attempts and self-mutilation, Mindy said staff told her that she had already been seen the day before. According to Mindy, Felix returned to her cell, where she was found dead two hours later. This treatment is not unusual, Mindy noted, writing to Rewire in a letter that she too has requested mental health services only to encounter delays and, at times, outright dismissal.
But no matter what changes the institution makes, Stone-Manista pointed out, “There’s only so much CIW can do for someone who is chronically suicidal. They’re not a hospital.”
CDCR did not respond to queries about the numbers of suicides and suicide attempts at CIW or about its suicide prevention practices.
Rocha’s Years in Prison
When Rocha was 14 years old, she and several older teens were arrested for an accidental shooting. Rocha was charged as an adult and, without a parent or guardian present, questioned by police and, according to advocates, pressured to plead guilty by the prosecutor. She did and was sentenced to 19 years to life. Rocha was initially sent to a juvenile prison, where she spent two years. At age 16, she was transferred to the adult Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. There, prison officials placed her in solitary, ostensibly for her own protection due to her age. She stayed in isolation for one year.
Windy Click is now program coordinator for the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). She was imprisoned at Valley State when Rocha arrived and met the girl shortly after she had turned 19. Rocha was looking for something positive to do and asked how to get to the prison library. While Click, then in her 30s, and Rocha never became close friends, each time Rocha was released from solitary, she sought the older woman out.
“She was a funny girl,” Click recalled in an interview with Rewire. “She liked to joke and be light-hearted.” One of the topics that Rocha frequently joked about was growing old in prison. “She’d say she would be an old lady in prison.”
Other times, however, the girl had a hard time coping with prison. “She would be very shaky, trembling almost,” Click recalled. “‘I can’t do this no more,’ she’d tell me.” During those times, Click said, Rocha would tell prison staff that she was afraid for her life and request to be placed in administrative segregation, a form of isolation commonly known as ad-seg, where she would be locked in a cell for 23 to 24 hours each day. Prison staff obliged and Rocha would be placed in isolation. When she returned to general population, Click remembered that the girl would seem better but “after a day or so, she’d be back to that shakiness.”
Click recalled one conversation in which she told Rocha, “This place isn’t the last place you’ll ever be.” But, she remembered, the younger woman couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It didn’t help that Rocha spent more than a decade without seeing her family, who lived nearly 300 miles in the Los Angeles area. Lacking a car, they could not make the trek to Central Valley. It was not until Rocha was moved to CIW, 15 minutes from their home, that they could visit. By then, Rocha’s father had died; her stepmother Linda Reza brought her three daughters as soon as Rocha was allowed to receive visits.
“She was still the same little kid that left us,” Reza remembered of that first visit in an interview with Rewire.
That was how Geraldine, Rocha’s half-sister, saw it as well: “She’s nine years older than me. But it was like I was the big sister.”
Rocha got along best with her teenage sister Freida, who was born after her incarceration and whom she met for the first time in the CIW visiting room. When the family visited, Reza remembered that Rocha and Freida would head to the visiting room’s play area and play on the swings. Reza recalled that, when Rocha received news of her upcoming hearing, she and Freida made plans to share a room at Reza’s house, clipping magazine pictures and envisioning how to decorate the room.
Colby Lenz, a volunteer legal advocate with CCWP, saw a different, more vulnerable side, one that Rocha did her best to keep from her family. “She was the most fragile and traumatized person I had ever met in prison,” Lenz recalled about their first meeting less than two years ago. It was only partway through the legal visit that Rocha began to open up. “She went back to [age] 14 or 15 and talked about her early years—how much time she had done in solitary, how they treated her.”
Under California’s SB 260, which passed in 2013 and went into effect in January 2014, Rocha became eligible for a youth parole hearing for youth sentenced as adults to long prison sentences. As part of the hearing process, she was given a psychiatric evaluation. But, said Lenz, no one explained to her why she was undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. The process brought her back to the police interrogations she had gone through at age 14 without a parent or guardian present. Frightened and retraumatized, Rocha not only waived her hearing, but also attempted to take her own life.
In 2015, Rocha learned she was scheduled for another youth parole hearing on April 15, 2016. In the weeks before, Reza recalled that Rocha was excited. The last time she called, Reza wasn’t able to answer her phone. The message Rocha left was hopeful. “Tell my sisters I know they’re going to kick my ass when I get home,” she said. “But that’s okay, I’ll take it.”
“In a Hopeless Place, Most Don’t Make It”
Since Rocha’s death, CCWP has reported that at least 22 people in CIW have been placed on suicide watch for attempting suicide or stating that they felt suicidal.
Mariposa, who asked to go by her stage name, is one of those 22 placed on suicide watch. She is the co-author of the one-woman play Mariposa and the Saint about her own time in solitary. She was also Rocha’s cellmate and fiancée. After Rocha was found hanging in their shared cell, Mariposa was immediately placed in suicide watch, where she was not allowed regular visits, phone calls, or mail. She was, however, allowed a legal visit with CCWP, but, advocates told Rewire, kept in a treatment cage the entire time.
Those inside the prison report that the lack of programs and activities contributes to the feeling of hopelessness. “People have way too much time to think and be in their heads,” wrote another woman at CIW to Rewire one month before Rocha’s death. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it.”
Krista Stone-Manista noted that CDCR is working on new policies and procedures to move people who need more care or longer-term care to inpatient care rather than keeping them inside the prisons, which are often inadequately staffed with mental health professionals. She also pointed to CDCR’s reduction of the use of solitary confinement, noting that studies have shown the damage to mental health and that suicides and suicide attempts often occur in segregation. In addition, she says, CDCR is working on how to respond to reports of suicidal thoughts before they become attempts or actual suicides.
All of these efforts are too late for Rocha. “When I get out, I want you to take me to the park,” Reza remembered her stepdaughter telling her and her sisters during one visit. “I want to play on the swings and the slide and run in the grass.”
Reza plans to honor that wish. “After her cremation, we’re going to have a reception in the park,” she said. “We’re going to put her on the swings.”
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.