Carl Strock THE VIEW FROM HERE Schenectedy, New York, 10/30/07

I hear from Yassin Aref from time to time about how things are going for him.
He is one of the two Albany Muslims who were convicted of supporting terrorism after being set up by the FBI, you may remember. He is now in the federal prison at Terre Haute, Ind., and specifically in the Communications Management Unit thereof, which is a tightly controlled subdivision, where he is serving a 15-year sentence.
He is separated from his wife and four children, who remain in Albany and he makes clear that that’s by far the worst of his situation. Not just being separated from them, but on the one occasion when the two older boys were brought to visit him by a helpful lawyer, he couldn’t even touch them but had to conduct the visit by telephone, through a thick pane of glass.
Otherwise, he emphasizes the irony of supposedly dangerous men, originating from warring sects in their home countries, living together peacefully.
“The government put one Iraqi Shiite with one Sunni and one Kurd [me],” he wrote. “They hope we get mad and fight each other. But we are very close friends and we joke together.”
“Even according to the guards here, this unit is the most peaceful they have ever seen in any prison, and they ask to be allowed to work here,” he wrote.
“How is it that the quietest unit, according to all the guards, supposedly contains dangerous wild terrorists?” [The spelling and punctuation of these quotes have been improved for the sake of readability.]
He does not complain about the food, having been raised in the north of Iraq where his father taught him to be grateful for anything “softer than a rock” to eat, but he does say that other prisoners object to being given packaged food a couple of years beyond its expiration date, and I guess some of them had reservations about cans of peaches so fermented that they actually exploded.
“If you don’t want it, don’t eat it,” is what the guards tell them if they complain, and somehow I can just hear it.
I can also just hear the guard at Ray Brook, near Lake Placid, which is the first prison he was in, telling him where to shove a complaint he wanted to write about conditions there. Give some type of guard responsibility for a bearded Muslim who has been convicted of supporting terrorism, and you can imagine.
He was in what they called “the Hole” at Ray Brook: “I was alone by myself,” he wrote to me later. “My cell was so small and has a concrete bed in the middle of it where there is no room to walk and a small window of frosted glass. One cannot see outside … a nasty and filthy place. I was shocked to see that … such place exist in the United States!? … I was sad and thinking, how am I going to spend the next 15 years!? … After three days … they allowed me one hour rec which was in a very small iron cage … It was like a bad dream I am having! … The correctional officer was my worst nightmare,” and so on.
This was when he admits he broke down in tears, which apparently in his culture is a great disgrace for a man.
The heat was tough for him this past summer, at Terre Haute, with temperatures in the 90s. “It was like we were living in an oven,” he wrote, but when he mentioned it to other prisoners, they said, just wait until winter. “When the snow comes we can’t go out to spend time in those small cages or play handball or basketball.” And then the roof leaks, “and in many cells you spend most of the day bailing the water out so it doesn’t fill up,” and so on, which I pass along so we have an idea of some of the things that go on behind the facade of our mostly wonderful country.

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Carl Strock can be reached at 395-3085 or by e-mail at