Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A heart-wrenching tale of one of the thousands of innocent prisoners

What it’s Like (pts 1 & 2)

By Tarek Mehanna
. . . I usually awaken at the sound of the guard’s clanking keys as he does his rounds through the unit. Ever since an inmate committed suicide down here a few weeks ago, rounds have become more frequent to ensure nobody else follows suit. Isolation can be quite difficult to cope with, and some simply cannot.
After two weeks, I finally became accustomed to waking up in a prison cell. At first, my surroundings – the metal sink/ toilet, the steel bed frame, the cold temperature, the constant clanking of keys and shackle chains coming from the hallway – served as reality checks as to where I was after I expected to see the familiar sights of my bedroom. This is no longer the case. I rub my eyes; looking around, my cell is pitch black except for the pale orange flow of the floodlights that dot the perimeter of the prison, faintly creeping in through the narrow window that looks out towards the razor-wired fence that customarily surrounds most prisons around the world.

My first order of business is to find out the time, since watches, clocks, calendars, etc. are all forbidden down here. I rush out of bed to catch the guard before he leaves the unit, calling out to him from behind my cell door: “Hey, C. O. (correctional officer)! Time?” “Four.” Perfect, as it leaves me a good hour and a half to pray before Fajr time comes in. After being used to depending on an alarm clock to wake up. I’ve managed to wake up early nearly every morning and been able to take advantage of the well-known pre-dawn blessings, thanks to Allah, without one here.
After performing wudu’, I begin to pray. I don’t stop until I hear the guard make three more rounds – my signal that the hour and a half until Fajr time has passed (each round is 30 min).
Thus begins my days as a prisoner here at the Plymouth Correctional Facility. An essential part of staying strong in prison was to first establish a personalized and stimulating schedule for my days and nights to do away with the routine and bland pattern of life in here. In his memoir, Nelson Mandela says: “Prison life is about routine: each day like the one before; each week like the one before it, so that the months and years blend into each other… Losing a sense of time is an easy way to lose one’s grip and even one’s sanity.” So, this helps in distinguishing one hour from the other, one day from the other, maintaining a sense of connection to reality. The second aspect of having your own personal schedule is to maintain your own humanity and individuality. Again, Mandela says: ” Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality – all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are… Ultimately, we had to create our own lives in prison.” And this is exactly what I am experiencing here. Prison, I’ve found, is like a vacuum. It sucks away whatever life, relations, pleasures, tasks, concerns, etc. you had on the outside and replaces it with nothing – nothing except what you decide to replace it with. I’ve found that the main struggle in prison is to avoid being sucked into that void, which is the very nature and essence of the place! A writer to me summed it up quite well, saying: “… the whole point of the constrictions that the prison puts on people is to erase part of – if not all – their identities to consume them as part of an institutionary machine which rotates on exact hours in exact locations. Forcing out choices mean forcing out of personalities and ideas. Thus, within the prison system, that makes sense, because this is the goal…”
The challenge is to counter this within the confines of the narrow limitations that my conditions here force upon me. I realized early on that since I had very little in here, I would have to learn to make the best of it. I would have to learn to extract every last ounce of benefit, pleasure, and strength from whatever was available. As they say, I would have to take (sour) lemons and make lemonade. This is a maximum security prison, which means it’s not like in the movies where I can go outside to an open yard to lift weights, play baseball, or work in a metal shop. Rather, every minute aspect of life here is incredibly supervised and regulated. Strip searches are constant. Shake downs are random. I am restricted to limitations in my daily affairs that are often devoid of logic, to the extent that a plastic bag used to collect trash in our cells is considered to be contraband and is forbidden. Nothing comes in or goes out except regular mail. From the moment I was booked to the moment I will be released ( O Allah, hasten it), I will never set foot out in the open without a barrier between me and the sky. Even when I leave the prison for a court hearing, I am loaded into the van in the prison garage and am unloaded in the court garage, fully shackled the entire time
This all applies to general population prisoners, but these population units are quite relaxed compared to Unit G. Unit G (the isolation unit) is a prison within the prison, and this is where I’ve been since first arriving. I am on lockdown 23 hrs. each day, which means I’m let out for an hour a day (population gets eight hrs.); I’m in solitary
(population inmates have cellmates); my hour outside my cell is spent alone as well. So, it is an existence devoid of substantial human contact (population inmates have
150 other inmates in their respective units to socialize with for the duration of those eight hours). “Recreation time” consists of the freedom to take a shower, make a collect call to preapproved numbers, or walk around the unit. This is the way it is ever day, 365 days a year. ????? ???
What does a person have to do to merit being kept down here? Some are down here for temporary discipline time for assaulting staff of fellow inmates, possession of homemade weapons, or generally exhibiting violent behavior such that they are a danger to others. Some are here to be protected from others because they fall into one of the three categories most hated & despised by even the worst criminals: rapists, child molesters, and informants. Inmates who fall into one of these three categories are universally hated across the prison, and are more often than not physically attacked, and I have seen the scars & injuries to prove it. These inmates are under what we call ‘Protective Custody,’ and one such inmate was just brought in last week. He is accused of raping a five year-old girl, being arrested for it, released on bail, and then raping a three year old girl. Needless to say, he is not very well-liked, especially with those who themselves have young children. Even though these guys are brought down for their safety, the other inmates here have come up with some rather creative ways of making life miserable for them. More on that later, in sha’ Allah. Then you have guys like me who are here with the vague excuse that my being in isolation will “contribute to the safe and effective functionality of the facility,” even though I’ve never been violent or involved in violence of any kind throughout my life. Admitted murderers, arsonists, home invaders, and armed robbers walk around in population; about two years ago, there was a guy brought in who’d killed a homeless man, cut off his hands, took them to a local bar, and proudly displayed them to all around him. He was not considered too dangerous to remain in population…
So, it is through these lenses that my experiences here are to be perceived. This is an environment where your senses and perceptions cannot help but to be altered and sensitized.
… I lay awake after praying, waiting for breakfast to arrive. The guards wake everyone up by slamming open the beanholes (small slits in our cell doors) through which they slide in all of our meals. I eat every meal alone, in my cell. After breakfast, I pray Fajr, and then proceed to the window to await one of the few true pleasures I have come to enjoy in here: watching the Sunrise. See, I spent the first 63 days here in cell #103. Cell #103 had the misfortune of having its window blocked by the gray wall of the adjacent wing of the unit. This meant that there was almost no access to sunlight. Furthermore, the cell was directly underneath the unit’s air vent, which for some odd reason was blasting cold air 24/7 despite us being in the midst of a series of snow storms! Needless to say, it was an unpleasant experience to be locked in a cell, three paces by four, for 23 hrs. a day with no sunlight (there is no light switch, and cell lights don’t come on until late afternoon), in near arctic temperatures! I had my eye on cell #108, which was in the far corner of the unit and that I could always see immersed in sunlight. For months, I put in written request after request to be moved into it, since it was usually empty. I came to realize that the prison functions like the military: very hierarchical in structure where little gets done unless you speak directly to those on top. So I was able to get my request to the unit captain, who is actually a decent individual who has a reputation for being true to his word. Later that day, i was buzzed in 103: “Mehanna, pack up your ?#@*. You’re going to 108.”
When I entered the cell, I was so overjoyed that I immediately performed a prostration of gratitude (sajdat shukr) to Allah. Remember what I said: in here, your senses and perceptions are altered. Your balance of what brings your mood up/ down changes. At that moment, I couldn’t believe that I was finally in a cell with sunshine, where I didn’t have to wear four layers of clothes to keep warm, and where, best of all, I had a perfect view of the sky & surrounding trees. I’ve always loved to be outdoors and enjoy nature, so at that moment, I felt like the most fortunate man on Earth. no more gray cement wall in my face 24 hrs. a day…
So, as I have done every morning since, I stand at the window and just stare. I stare at the trees, I stare at the dark blue horizon turning pink as the Sun slowly crawls up. I stare and wait patiently, anticipating one of the few times for me to lay eyes on the Sun in over two months ( I had seen it twice before when I was allowed into the cage). Finally, there it was. In this world of concrete, metal, and glass; this cesspool of vulgarity and filth devoid of any warmth, freedom, or beauty; in this bastion of captivity that suffocates the dignity of man, I was witnessing a blessing and relief. I cannot justly describe what I felt as the vivid colors of this scene – Sun, sky, clouds, trees – painted themselves before my eyes. This was a sweet reminder of life – it was something in common with life back home, and that made it all the sweeter. As I mentioned at the beginning: “I would have to learn to extract every last ounce of benefit, pleasure, and strength from whatever was available.” It is at this time every day that I feel much khusu’, and thus take the chance to engage in dhikr and du’a’. From the first day in that cell that I witnessed this simple, credible, daily occurrence that I now saw as anything but simple, I gained a new perspective on the verse of Surat Ibrahim, v. 32: {“And He has made the Sun and the Moon, both following their orbits, to be of service to you.”}
I also take this daily event as a glad tiding and reminder that after every period of darkness, there must come a light so bright and overwhelming that darkness and its forces are nowhere to be found.
As the Sun fully appears, I turn my sight to the trees and land beyond the razor-wired fence. They have their own story to tell. I bring my mind back 400 years in the past, and I try to imagine the original inhabitants of this land as they traversed the very forests i am gazing at all those long centuries ago. See, the Mayflower landed here. Plymouth Rock is just a stone’s throw from here. Plymouth Plantation, the earliest colony established in this region originally owned and inhabited by these Indian natives, is also very close by.
Whenever I look out at those forests that now lay silent, I try to imagine what those natives thought to themselves – if they had any idea at all what was about to befall them – upon first sighting these strange, foreign guests. I also think to myself that it was the descendants of these very guests who built the prison from which I now sit and pen these words.
The forests behind the razor-wired fence tell a story. It is a story that I’m not completely unfamiliar with.
. . . It is 6 P. M. when I arrive. I am booked, shackled up, and led all the way to the other end of the prison with two guards escorting me on either side. I was arrested this morning right as the night-long calls from court that enforce my curfew had stopped. So, I haven’t properly slept in over 24 hrs. and I am not in the best of moods. I am even less so when I see that I’m taken straight into isolation, but the main thing on my mind is just to get some sleep. Pray ‘Isha’ and sleep.
I am led into a dimly lit double-tiered hall, with roughly ten cells lining each floor. There is an odd, complete silence that contrasts greatly with the noise I just left behind. My first cell in this place is #110, a cute little suite left urine-stenched courtesy of its former tenant who decided he was too good to use the toilet. The guards shrug as they unshackle my arms & legs and tell me I’ll probably be moved to a different cell shortly once he’s back from his psychiatric evaluation. I ask which way east is, make wudu’, pray, and lay down for the first uninterrupted sleep I’ve had in nearly a year.
As I fall asleep, I wonder how the guys I met last year in population are doing . . .
. . . I first was held here in November 2008. Before I continue, let me explain the brief history: I graduated from college in May of ‘08, and subsequently obtained my dream job – I was hired as a clinical pharmacist to establish the first diabetes clinic at the King Fahd Medical City Hospital in Saudi Arabia. The FBI took note and decided this to be the appropriate time to give me an ultimatum: ‘work for us or we’ll arrest you.’ I decided to continue with my original plans, and was about to board my Nov. flight to Riyadh when i was arrested. That is when I first came here, where I spent 42 days awaiting a federal judge to decide on my release. I was released to the custody of my parents (this is why I was at home for the past year), was placed under a court-ordered curfew enforced through automated phone calls that went on until 6 A. M. nightly, my passport was confiscated, I was confined to the state, and was unable to find work in my field due to the federal charge now on my record – all in addition to the $1.2 million ransom (bail) demanded by the government which included my family’s home and life savings. This went on for nearly a year until the government decided to rearrest me and pile on more charges, with the eight-year sentence I was facing under Bush now bumped up to one of life-plus-sixty under Obama. Apparently, this was the “change we can believe in” that was being referred to!
So, that first time I was here in November ‘08, I was brought in to a dormitory – style unit that resemble a summer camp. It was an open space where inmates walk freely between the rows of bunk beds, as opposed to being hunkered down in cells. This is called ‘orientation,’ and population inmates spend three days here before being classified to their respective units. I’d never been to prison before, and had no idea what to expect walking into this unit. But, my instinct told me that i had to put up my flag, now or never. The one thing I did know about prison was that even as a new comer, I wasn’t going to act like one. So, rather than conceal myself and retreat to the shadows, I decided to pretend that I owned the place. I walked to the center of the unit where there was a bit of open space, laid out my bed sheet, put up a sutrah, and prayed Maghrib with about a hundred inmates looking on. Thus, I was able to break the intimidation factor of prison environment from my first hour inside.
This is a method that can be applied at work, school, etc. for Muslims who might be nervous or intimidated into hiding their beliefs or practices. Rather than let the environment control you, be strong and proud and establish your presence from day one. This is the only way your co-workers, classmates, boss, etc. will respect you, and it is the only way other inmates will respect you in prison. People will respect us when they see that we respect ourselves.
A group of tatooed Latinos noticed me praying and walked over once I was done and introduced themselves. They offered to obtain me a Mushaf, they pointed out what food i should avoid, and they even offered to keep the shower area clear of other inmates while i was in there in light of the Islamic rules of modesty they were well aware of. I would come to discover that Muslims are the most respected group in the prison system. Muslims in prison have a reputation for being disciplined, clean, distanced from homosexuality & drugs that are rampant in there, generally minding their own business, and it didn’t hurt that Malcolm X was a Muslim.
So, in here, first impression is everything . . .
. . . That was back in 2008. In my current location it’s a bit harder to interact in such a manner, but there are still ways.
There are three modes of communication down here. One is the use of written notes passed through the unit runner. This is generally reserved for inmates requesting items to borrow or use from other inmates. For example, I’m the only one down here who orders honey from the prison commissary. I always have a bottle of it in my cell. One day, the cell above me sent a note down asking to use some to make his instant coffee. I only had a small amount left, I sent it up to him with the runner. A few hours later, he sent the bottle back along with a coffee pouch filled with some of the coffee he’d made. Allah provides!
Some cells have air ducts connecting them , and prisoners in these cells will sometimes shout through the vents to those next to them or above them. It’s very difficult for them to hear each other due to the distance and the constant whirring of the ventilation system competing with their voices. So, they often have to shout very loudly, and I am sometimes able to make out their words. Here is a sample of a conversation I overheard a few weeks ago:
“… Yo! What Color is Winnie the Pooh?”
“He’s yellow.”
“Nah, he looks gold.”
“He’s yellowish-gold, I think.”
“That nigga is definitely yellow!”
“Yeah, but what about his shirt?”
Hopefully, this gives you an idea of the topics occupying people’s minds down here. Not very intellectually stimulating.
The third way to get a whiff of social activity is through the small slit at the bottom of our cell doors. Basically, you lay down next to the door and speak into it, and whoever is on the other side can hear you, and they respond in kind. The best time to catch someone and pull them into a conversation is when they are waiting to leave the unit for a court date or such, or when they are first coming in. You just yell out to them as they walk by, and that is the chance to have a five minute conversation. I am always curious about people’s histories and backgrounds, so I take every chance I can get to converse. One of the first guys I spoke to down here was a general in the Croatian military, wanted by the International War Crimes Tribunal. Another one, Vee Cee, is accused of shooting someone in the head to steal his gold necklace (he answers every question by rapping). I also came across a fellow who calls himself D. O. G.:
“They call me D. O. G.”
“No. It’s D-O-G.”
“Dog …”
“No! D-O-G.”
“That spells ‘dog’, my friend.”
The way I see it, prison is much like Hajj. No matter how rich or poor, everyone is in the same place, wearing the same simple clothing, eating the same food, enduring the same hardships, and awaiting the same outcome (freedom). Nothing on the outside matters – this is their world now. Their fancy cars, guns, girls, cash, drugs, and flashy clothes are all gone. All of the material possessions through which they elevated themselves above others on the street are now out of sight and irrelevant. They all find themselves facing an unpleasant reality; are desperate to escape it, and are humble towards whatever they feel can alleviate its harshness. And not surprisingly, many of them turn to religion. This is one of the best – if not the best – places to tell others about Islam. The one who is serving a 20 year sentence for a crime committed in a moment of intoxication – how do you think he will respond when you tell him that because you are a Muslim, alcohol has never touched your tongue? The one who feels he has wasted his life and ruined it – how do you think he will react internally when you tell him about the Hereafter, Paradise, Hell, etc. and teach him that even if he screwed up this life, he has an eternal life that he still has a chance to set right? The one who has lost all hope in those around him – what would he want to hear more than that he has an All-Hearing, Knowing, Seeing, and Responding Lord who is just a supplication away? Along with hospitals, prisons are one of the few institutions in this society that have designated chaplains & chapels. Why? Because these are the settings where man discovers the truth of his state; these are the settings where we realize our weaknesses & limitations & helplessness, and realize the value of hope in our Creator.
So in a sense, prison sets our heart free from the illusions of everyday life …
… I’m laying in bed sometime before Fajr when I hear something slide under my door. I get up to see what it is, and find a book ( ‘Looking for a Way Out’ by Michael Norwood). I look out to see who it was, and I see Knipps on his way to court. Knipps is one of the few guys in here that I was able to have some intelligent conversations with. We; d been exchanging books through the runner, and he truly enjoyed reading ‘Enemy Combatant’ when I’d lent it to him a while back, and I likewise benefited from what he had let me borrow. I am therefore not surprised to to see that he had given me this book. I shout out through the slit in the door that I’d get it back to him when I complete it. I open up the book and find a handwritten note inside:
He’s left his mother’s address for me to contact him through at whichever prison he’s being transferred to (it is illegal for prisoners to communicate directly with each other through the mail). I step back and think about the oddity of it all: this man who did what he did referring to me as a friend, and I am about to write him with sympathy and sadness in my heart for what I’ve just read. What a waste.
I am often asked by family and friends about the worst aspect of being here. My reply is that among all of the other factors of life that prison upsets, the most apparent and deeply affecting is that of one’s social circle. We are used to seeing the people we love, those who we can relate to, those we are familiar with and can trust and trust us; those we reach out to and who reach out to us for companionship define who we are, and constitute an inseparable component of our lives. To have that component torn off and replaced without a choice in the matter is probably the most consistent reminder of imprisonment, as the desire to call a friend, or invite someone for coffee, or seek advice from a wise man – all are met with the return to reality of where I am and who I am surrounded by. It is an inevitable consequence that when one is removed from a particular environment, that environment adapts to the change. Likewise, when he is placed in a new environment, he is shaped by and adapts to that change. My daily task of compensating for this change is fulfilled through two main routes, both of which I will write about in the future (in Sha’ Allah): books and letters, which are my sources of good in here.
I close by saying this: despite these conditions, despite these surroundings, & despite this solitude, I consider myself in the company of the most noble, honorable people on the face of the Earth. They are white, black, brown; they speak dozens of languages, hail from all corners of the Earth, and are likewise unjustly imprisoned by the tawaghit of their locales in all corners of the Earth for their Tawhid. These dear brothers (and sisters, unfortunately) occupy a position in my heart that can be filled by no one else. They are experiencing my ordeal along with me, and I am experiencing their ordeal alongside them, and nobody can change that despite the hundreds and thousands of miles that separate us, and whoever of them happens to read this should know very well that I love them for Allah’s sake and supplicate for them by named in the last third of everynight, and by location for those whose names are unknown to me …
… As the night ends, I grab the Mushaf and sit next to my cell door. I lean toward the open slit at the bottom, and I decide tot take advantage of the unit’s good acoustics. I recite Qur’an for a while to the unwitting audience of whoever happens to be walking by & whoever can hear me from their cells across the unit.
When I’m done, there is complete tranquility, ? ????? ???.
(To be continued, in Sha’ Allah)
???? ????
Tariq Mehanna
6th of Safar 1431/ 22nd of January 2010
Plymouth Correctional Facility
Isolation Unit – Cell #108


Anonymous said...


Danny said...


I am a journalist for the French Network ARTE. We are working on a story about the Boyds and the other defendants in the trial, and we are looking for people willing to speak out on the side of the defendants and tell their side of the story.

ARTE is a popular European news channel that reaches about 30 million people. It is like PBS combined with HBO.

If you are interested, please email me at gold.dannyg@gmail.com. We are planning a trip to Carolina soon.