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My Brother Is In Solitary Confinement As Are 80,000 People in American Prisons


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Oped By Mariam Abu-Ali
Today, my brother Ahmed turns 35.
He could have graduated from college. He could have started a career. He could have met a woman and fallen in love. He could have started a family.
Instead, he has spent the last 13 years behind bars, completely alone.
More than 1600 miles from home, incarcerated in the Supermax in Colorado, my family can only afford to make the trip out to visit him once or twice a year. My parents receive two 15 minute phone calls a month, either on a Tuesday or a Thursday.
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? How do you  comfort him knowing he was denied any chance to even say goodbye? Every phone call and every visit is a traumatic event, a constant reminder that our government will go out of its way to break the prisoner, his family and loved ones.

Breaking the prisoner has been a consistent theme in the US criminal justice system

Last month I had the opportunity to visit the infamous Alcatraz.  Upon reaching the solitary confinement unit,  I overheard a young man telling his friend “can you imagine people had to live in this space day in and day out?” I don’t have to imagine. This is Ahmed’s reality day in and day out. It is the reality of thousands upon thousands of prisoners in US prisons, including adolescents in juvenile detention.

I stepped inside one of the dark solitary confinement cells during the tour and realized Ahmed is housed in a cell not very different from the ones at Alcatraz. Even in Alcatraz, solitary confinement was used for a maximum of a few weeks. Ahmed has been in solitary confinement in the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” for the past 11 years. Rather than progressing towards a more just and fair society, our government’s use of solitary confinement has been expanding and becoming routine. I walked out of the prison into the courtyard, sick to my stomach. The bright California sunlight nearly blinded me. I felt broken and defeated. I prayed and cried.

But prayer is not enough. Justice must be demanded by us. We must hold our government responsible.
I spoke to the wife of a prisoner recently. He spent eight years in solitary confinement. Three months ago, he was finally transferred out. After eight years, he was finally able to have contact with his family. With no  more Plexiglass window separating them, he was finally able to hug his daughters. Solitary confinement and general population are the difference between “heaven and hell,” as another former inmate told me. But after eight years in isolation and deprivation of human contact, he is having a hard time acclimating. He has anxiety attacks. He has difficulty coping with the social stimuli. This is what our government does to more than 80,000 human beings; it deprives them of all sensory stimuli and human contact until they become anxious, depressed, and suicidal. They strip them of their humanity. They break them down, and in the process tear apart their families.
How can we allow such injustice to happen around us? How can we allow any human being to suffer the monstrosity of isolation for years and decades?  Humans are social beings. To strip them of this right is not only cruel and criminal; it is inhumane. It is a human rights violation. It is without a doubt a form of torture, and we must put an end to it.
We visit Alcatraz, now a designated historic landmark, as if it were a relic of the past. But I lay in bed every night and my heart feels heavy with an unspeakable grief, knowing that my brother still languishes unjustly in prison and in isolation. And every time I write about what my brother and family has had to endure, I feel vulnerable. I open my heart and allow the world to see my pain, and I am met with deafening silence.
I try to imagine my brother in his cell. Can you imagine spending all the years of your youth in a room the size of a closet? Can you imagine receiving your food through a slot in the door? Can you imagine being strip-searched and shackled at the hands, waist and legs when you leave your cell to go to the recreational area or the visitation room? Can you imagine being stripped of even an iota of dignity? My world caves in and I can’t breathe.
And then I begin to pray, as I have every single night for the past 13 years, even on the days when my faith was shaken to its core, unsure and wavering. But today it is more firm and resolute than ever. I need it to be. I pray and plead to the Most High, the Most Just. I force myself to feel a sense of renewed conviction. I am still here. I can still write. I can still fight. I will continue to channel my pain until my brother is a free, victorious man.
I think about this quote by the author Yasmina Khadra with respect to what the government has done to Ahmed:
“They can take everything you own – your property, your best years, all your joys, all your good works, everything down to your last shirt-but you’ll always have your dreams, so you can reinvent your stolen world.”  
I will keep dreaming of a world where Ahmed is free and where my family and I can help reinvent his stolen years, life, and world. I will also continue to dream of a world in which every human being is afforded their human dignity. I’m fighting an uphill battle, but I constantly remind myself of the words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish,
“We have on this earth what makes life worth living,” and for me, the fight for justice is, still, always, worth living for.”

Mariam Abu-Ali was born and raised in Northern VA. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in Government and a minor in Arabic. After graduating, she worked as a Communications Manager at ICNA Council for Social Justice, where she helped manage projects countering Islamophobia. She is currently the Director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. Mariam’s involvement in civil and human rights is very personal. She has been advocating on behalf of her brother Ahmed Abu-Ali, a victim of torture and extraordinary rendition and a US political prisoner for over a decade.

Read Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement

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  1. Maha

    March 20, 2016 at 11:13 AM

    This is truly a sad truth and I have prayed everyday since I heard of his story for his release my brother is friends with Ahmed and has nothing but good things to say about him no one believes what they say. Rabina yifok asru ya rab! Wa yonsuru wa yisabbarkum.

  2. Raya

    March 20, 2016 at 10:30 PM

    One of the biggest problems is that people forget the beauty and freedom of forgiveness. When someone commits a crime, most people will damn them for good, believing there will never be any good in them. But why can’t they think about themselves? What about when they do something wrong or commit a sin. They regret it and repent (if they’re religious) or at least they try to make amends. They rush to be forgiven, both by God and by those they wronged. So why can’t we extend that forgiveness and remember that we are on Ar-Rahman’s earth as brothers and sisters in humanity. Instead of keeping someone down, we need to try and build them up because that is how people can thrive and try to better themselves. Yes, Allah is there for them, but we also need to be because they are human beings. And they deserve mercy when they try to better themselves. Most prison inmates deeply regret their past, so why can’t we accept forgiveness and help them to rehabilitate and grow again? Well, perhaps it’s because we like keeping others down..
    And we need to keep in mind that if we were brought up in their living situation (most come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, where from a young age they saw parents use drugs, have experienced abuse of various kinds, etc), we really don’t know where we would be right now. Think about that..

    As far as the families of the victims, then forgiveness for them is understandably very difficult. I’m not going to say anything that they should do. What I wrote is in regards to the rest of the population, who are not directly involved. With that said, may Allah open the families’ hearts to forgiveness as a means for their own healing as well.

    And another thing we need to keep in mind: their are MANY innocent people incarcerated. Even more of a reason for us to show acceptance and empathy.

    • Raya

      March 20, 2016 at 10:41 PM

      And may Allah keep your brother strong and close to Him. I can’t imagine what he is going through, or how you or your family feels. May Allah grant you all the serenity you need until the Day you will meet Him and may He give you all peace in the akhira and peace in your hearts in this life. Salam from a sister who cares.

  3. Tariq

    March 21, 2016 at 1:14 AM

    Allahumm-ajjurkum fee museebatikum wakhlufkum khayram-minhaa. Rabb-ighfir lanaa walkum.

  4. Nameless

    March 21, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raj’ioon. I feel your pain since my husband is in the same prison as your brother serving close to a life sentence. May Allah hasten their release and all our imprisoned. Allah is able to change their conditions. There is khayr in what is happening and soon victory shall come. There is hikma in our trials and I have hope that Allah will aid our brothers and sisters all over the world. Keep making dua and istighfar surely Allah is with the believers. May Allah grant you sabr and ease your brother’s affairs.

  5. Arian Baig

    March 21, 2016 at 4:41 PM

    Inaalilahi wailayhi raajiyuun. Inshaallah Ahmed will be released. The american government does not have any right to take sociality and the connection of family away from them, it’s against the rights of a human. I will indeed pray for him.

  6. Bob Elmendorf

    March 22, 2016 at 7:35 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this article about your brother which must have been very difficult for you.
    There is no reason for solitary confinement. It is torture, pure and simple, robbing the prisoner and the administration of their humanity. I will keep you, your brother and your family in my prayers.

    • Bob Elmendorf

      March 22, 2016 at 8:33 PM

      I want to add to my comment. I am a Quaker who has advocated for imprisoned Muslims. Ahmed’s imprisonment and what the so called justice system has dealt him constitute a horrendous, illegal and immoral crime against him. Some remarks and some conduct of Gordon Kromberg, Ahmed’s federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia have been inexplicably barbaric, and I can only hope and pray that he has come to the good senses he started his career with. Ahmed never should gone to prison in the first place and should be released immediately with a full apology and indemnities to his family and reparations to his community.

  7. Sheeza

    March 23, 2016 at 3:44 PM

    Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raj’ioon

    *Name has been changed to comply to our Comments Policy*
    [Please refrain from using a ‘Name’ that is considered advertising]

  8. JF

    March 26, 2016 at 12:47 PM

    I don’t believe in solitary confinement. I think it is a form of torture. I also don’t believe that this man should be released from prison or allowed to live in anything but a very controlled environment in which he cannot influence others.

    In the past, the consequences for his actions would have resulted in execution, and we would not have to worry about how to humanely imprison him for the rest of his life.

    It is very sad that his parents chose to educate him at the Saudi Islamic Academy in Alexandra, VA, which has been a cause for concern for many years and taught a very violent and hateful religious curriculum. He then prayed at Dar al-Hijrah mosque, which has produced three other terrorists. Finally, he chose to study in Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of Wahhabism and a country known to torture prisoners. When he was imprisoned there, Abu Ali’s family demanded that he be extradited here. Now that he is here, they are still unhappy with his treatment.

    His parents failed him by bringing up a radical. The heart of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia, failed him by teaching him violence and hatred. Very sad.

    • Alex Baxter

      March 28, 2016 at 2:35 AM

      Dear JF

      I know nothing of this case so I can not speak for or against…. but just had some questions from your comment:

      > Saudi Islamic Academy in Alexandra, VA, … taught a very violent and hateful religious curriculum.
      Have you looked at their curriculum or is this based on hearsay?

      > Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of Wahhabism
      How do you define ‘Wahhabism’?

      > His parents failed him by bringing up a radical.
      Interesting that they brought up a radical son but their daughter (who wrote this) apparently seems a very unradicalized person.

      >The heart of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia, failed him by teaching him violence and hatred.
      How do you know it was Saudi Arabia that taught him this and not say some other local influence in his childhood?

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