Prof. Al-Arian prison conditions
- Amnesty group blasts Al-Arian prison conditions
BY PAUL LOMARTIRE
Palm Beach Post - August 4, 2003
TAMPA - In a high-security federal prison north of Tampa, Sami Al-
Arian spends 23 hours of every day locked in a 7-by-13-foot cell. No
watch. No clock. No window through which to see daylight.
One hour a day, five days a week, he and his cellmate get to walk
around in a steel cage. That is his only recreation.
He cannot leave his cell without being shackled and chained. When his
family visits, he cannot touch them. They sit on opposite sides of a
plastic window and talk over a phone. When his lawyer visits, the
shackled Al-Arian walks bent-over, his hands chained behind him, and
balances his legal documents on his back. The guards won't carry them.
After four months in such conditions, including a hunger strike and a
month in solitary confinement, he has lost 45 pounds.
He has never been convicted of a crime. But he is charged with a very
big one. The former University of South Florida economics professor
is accused of being the American boss for Islamic Jihad, a
Palestinian terrorist group believed responsible for numerous suicide
bombings and the deaths of more than 100 people in Israel and the
adjacent occupied territories.
In the post-Sept. 11 climate, that charge isn't likely to win him
much sympathy in security-conscious America. But now Al-Arian has
found a champion -- at least for improving his prison living
In a July 17 letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Amnesty
International, the respected international human rights monitor,
denounced Al-Arian's detention as ``gratuitously punitive.''
In a three-page letter to Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the bureau director,
Amnesty International cited the 23-hour lockdown, strip searches, use
of chains and shackles, severely limited recreation, lack of access
to any religious service and denial of a watch or clock in a
windowless cell where the artificial light is never turned off. Al-
Arian shares the small cell with co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh.
Concludes Amnesty: ``The prolonged cellular confinement, lack of
exercise, frequent shackling and other deprivations imposed on Dr. Al-
Arian are inconsistent with international standards and treaties
which require that all persons deprived of their liberty must be
treated humanely with respect for their inherent human dignity.''
Amnesty International is better known for drawing attention to
torture, rat-hole prison conditions and human rights abuses in Third
World countries. But in this case, ''We're particularly concerned
because he's a pretrial detainee,'' says Angela Wright, an Amnesty
researcher in London.
''Certainly if he remains in those conditions, we will continue to
raise concerns,'' Wright says.
The Bureau of Prisons denies any mistreatment. ''We treat all inmates
in a fair and consistent manner,'' says Traci Billingsley, public
information officer for the bureau in Washington. For specifics, she
suggested, ``you'd have to go to the Justice Department.''
A Justice Department official who has read the Amnesty letter agreed
to comment only if allowed to remain unnamed: ``Like all people
detained by the U.S. Marshal's Service or the Bureau of Prisons, Mr.
Al-Arian is provided with all the protections and services required
by law and regulation.''
Complaints from defense lawyers and Tampa-area residents and friends
of Al-Arian led U.S. Magistrate Thomas B. McCoun III to travel the 70
miles north from Tampa to inspect the U.S. Prison at Coleman.
He denied almost all defense motions challenging Al-Arian's treatment
but did order guards to cut back on strip searches. He found ''no
real justification'' for such searches before and after all ''non-
The magistrate found Al-Arian's little cell far from intolerable:
``While in their cells, defendants are permitted radios as well as
reading material, including discovery material. The cells include
bunk beds, a sink, toilet, shower, and small metal desk.''
Amnesty International contends that placing two men 23 hours a day in
a 70-square-foot cell does not meet American Correctional Association
guidelines of ''at least 80 square feet of total floor space per
occupant'' when confinement exceeds 10 hours a day.
But McCoun's May ruling concluded that the cell, ``while not
spacious, is more than adequate to meet constitutional minimums.''
The judge was impressed with the prison's cleanliness but not the
recreation available to Al-Arian and Hammoudeh. He noted that they
are allowed to exercise ``in a cage adjacent to the cellblock five
times a week. . . the exercise cages are enclosed by a high wall and
covered by an opaque weather deflector. While there is open air space
above the walls, for all practical purposes the defendants remain
indoors. No equipment is provided and the circumstances of their
recreation inside these fairly small cages when compared to that
available to convicted inmates on the nearby open-air recreation
yards stands in stark contrast.''
TRIAL IN 2005
Even so, the judge declined to order a change in the recreation
regimen. Unless Al-Arian finds a friendlier judge, his best hope of
better living conditions may be when he comes to trial. But that's a
long wait. His trial is scheduled sometime in 2005. Al-Arian has
tried to portray himself as an innocent victim of anti-Arab, anti-
Muslim hysteria in the wake of Sept. 11. After a July 25 hearing, he
was allowed to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers and represent
himself. But his family and the National Liberty Foundation, a Muslim
civil rights group in Virginia, are trying to raise enough money to
hire a Washington attorney. Until then, Tampa's Linda Moreno, who is
appealing his denial of bail, is the only attorney visiting him at
When they meet, he arrives shackled and chained, bent over with his
papers loaded on his back ''like a mule,'' she says. ``It's
He is unshackled and allowed to sit at a table across from Moreno,
who cannot bring a briefcase, laptop or tape recorder to the meeting.
She is restricted to a legal pad, pen and documents that can't exceed
a half-inch in height, she says. ``That makes it quite difficult to
confer with Dr. Al-Arian since the indictment itself is 2.5 inches.''
Moreno, who worked for several years as a criminal public defender,
often representing murderers and thugs, says, ``In 23 years of
practicing, I've never seen anything like it.''
''We're not asking much, just human rights,'' says Al-Arian's wife,
Nahla. On Tuesday, she and her eldest son, Abdullah, 23, and
daughter, Laila, 21, gathered at an Ybor City coffee shop with Moreno.
The family is allowed to visit the prison for two to three hours, on
Monday, Friday and every other weekend. Nahla is not allowed to carry
anything into the prison other than her car keys and change for the
vending machines. The usual wait for clearance to go in and meet her
husband is two hours. During a recent visit, she says, she was taking
notes for a to-do list from her husband when guards ``swooped down on
me. They were watching on a camera.''
The guards took her pen and pad and says she isn't allowed to write
during visits. Ignore the rule, she was warned, and her husband would
lose family visits for a year.
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