The move came at a particularly fraught moment for the CMUs. When President Obama came into office in 2009, many hoped the units would be shut down. The Bureau of Prisons wouldn’t say if the new administration had reviewed the units, but they remained open, and their expansion soon inspired a fierce legal battle. In the summer of 2009, the ACLU’s National Prison project filed a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate that disputed the legality of the creation of the units, among other things. Soon after, the ACLU of Indiana filed another lawsuit, about the restrictions on Muslim prayer.
In the meantime, “balancers,” as CMU guards call them, were reportedly blended into the population—environmental activists, sexual predators, bank robbers, people who, prison officials claimed, “recruit and radicalize”—in order to address the criticism that CMUs were housing only Muslims. The Bureau of Prisons says it doesn’t use race or religion to decide placement, and it rejects claims of adding balancers, though Muslim inmates continue to be in the majority.
In April 2010, CCR, with Aref, filed its suit, challenging the constitutionality of the place: the harsh restrictions on phone calls and visits, the ban on physical contact, the alleged absence of due process, and cited growing evidence suggesting that prisoners were being targeted for their religious and political beliefs.
To CCR, Aref’s case was especially poignant. “Aref came to the United States as a refugee and was then subject to a dubious conviction,” says Agathocleous. “Despite the fact that he engaged in no violence, that the prosecution acknowledged at trial that it was not seeking to prove he was a terrorist, and that his conduct in prison was spotless, he has been subject to these incredibly restrictive conditions at the CMU … It just doesn’t make any sense.”
In Marion, Aref’s single cell was just as small as the former one, and his family was just as far away. But something had changed. He began to dread the phone calls with his family. “For many prisoners, the phone call is a big relief, and they get strength from it,” he said. “But each time I call and hear my wife crying and I learn what my children are going through, it stresses my mind.”
“I am not spending my time, time is spending me.”
After a motion for a new trial was dismissed and the appeal to his original case was rejected, a part of him became resigned to the situation, friends say.
Then on April 13, I received a surprise e-mail from Aref. “How are you doing?” he asked. And then he told me the news. “For real, I am no longer in CMU!”
“My father is a very religious man,” Aref’s 15-year old daughter, Alaa, says one recent summer night. “He has a beard and wears Arab clothes and has an accent. But when you talk to him”—she pauses as if conjuring her father—“you know he’s not a terrorist.” She has trouble saying this word. Terrorist. It doesn’t sound right in her mouth. And she tries it another way. “Baba didn’t hate anyone.”
On this June night, Aref’s four kids sit barefooted on the carpet of a classroom on the second floor of the Central Avenue mosque in Albany, where their father was once the imam. Some of the doors are still broken from the FBI raid almost eight years ago.
The two boys, Salah, 14, and Azzam, 11, sit on either side of Alaa. Dilnia, who is now 5, sits off to the side, reading a book with a family friend. Zuhur stayed home. “She sometimes is depressed and doesn’t go out,” Alaa says.
Friends of the family say that Zuhur still talks about returning to Iraq, though she doesn’t have the money for a plane ticket or travel documents. Her crying hasn’t abated. When she does leave the house, she occasionally visits Aref’s lawyers and asks, “What did Yassin do wrong?” or “When is he coming home?”
Since being placed in a general-population prison, Aref remains cautious. Without much explanation, he was moved out of the CMU, where he had been separated from the world for four years, and he could just as easily be moved back, like officials had done recently to an environmental activist named Daniel McGowan. Aref’s lawyer speculates that my requests to visit Aref in a CMU and the CCR lawsuit had placed pressure on prison officials, which might have had something to do with his sudden transfer out. (It’s a tactic that’s worked for CMUs in the past. With one of the ACLU lawsuits, a plaintiff was moved from a unit to a general-population prison and the case was dismissed.)
Last April, four years after the first CMU opened and days following CCR’s suit, the Bureau of Prisons began a public discussion of the units, a move, advocacy groups say, the prison system was legally obligated to make before the CMUs ever opened. Many of the comments that flooded in focused on the lack of meaningful appeal—that inmates are stuck in the units—and in particular, how the units were ruining the men and their families.