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Secret Experimental Prisons Subject Inmates to Drastic Isolation

Inmates at secret prisons inside the U.S. are prohibited from having virtually any contact with the outside world.

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This past November, before driving the 650 miles from Dallas to see her husband, Ghassan Elashi, at the Marion CMU, Majida Salem cut and colored her hair. “Why bother?” one of her daughters asked, alluding to the fact that since Majida’s visit would not be private, her head would be covered by her hijab.

“Because I’m going to be sitting with Baba,” she answered, referring to the man she had married 26 years before in Jordan, choosing him after turning away many others. She had felt that his devotion to God mirrored her own.

To the government, however, Ghassan—co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest US Muslim charity—was a material supporter of terrorism. Ghassan has never been accused of engaging in violence, but because the HLF sponsored schools and social welfare programs in the Occupied Territories alleged by Washington to be controlled by Hamas, he was charged with materially supporting terrorism. He was convicted in November 2008, following a 2007 mistrial in which the government failed to convince jurors of its case.

Majida hadn’t seen Ghassan since the previous Thanksgiving, when he was still at the low-security prison in Seagoville, Texas, not far from their home. He was moved to Marion in April 2010. The distance ended their weekly visits and essentially left Majida to raise a family of six children, the youngest of whom had Down syndrome, by herself.

They tried to maintain contact nonetheless. Majida shared her weekly15 -minute call with her children and in-laws, co-parenting with Ghassan in these morsels and through e-mails, which arrived days after they were written and only after a detour through Washington. Other CMU families had given up on visits or stopped bringing the children, who were often traumatized by the inability to touch their fathers or speak to them in a native language. But the Elashis were determined to make it work, so on Thanksgiving morning, with three of her children and her mother-in-law, Majida set out for Marion.

Once inside the prison, they were led toward the CMU, passing through a series of sliding barred doors. In the periphery, they could see the general population visitation room, spying a few families, UNO cards and a play area for kids. They were ushered into a 5-by-7 room with a Plexiglas wall at its center. Behind the Plexiglas, in a room that mirrored theirs, Ghassan waited to greet them.

The five of them crowded around three receivers, which would record their conversation and transmit it to BOP officials in Washington. When they gushed at how healthy Ghassan looked, he lifted his sleeve and flexed his bicep. “Pilates,” he told them. When he told them he now had a six-pack, his teenage sons begged him to show them, but he demurred. Soon they realized they could hear through the glass, so they hung up the receivers and spoke naturally. Quickly a guard reprimanded them: all communication had to be through the receivers.

Majida and Ghassan spoke about the boys, how they were doing in school and how the second-to-youngest was acting up. Ghassan turned to him, doing his best to advise him from behind the barrier. His son burst out, “I need you! I need you!”

Toward the end of the visit, to keep things light, Ghassan began demonstrating Pilates exercises. Having put the receiver down, he flashed with his fingers the amount of seconds he held each pose. Guards rushed in on both sides, demanding to know what Ghassan was doing. “Teaching them Pilates,” he answered.

They stayed until they were kicked out, the kids signing off with pantomimed high-fives and Majida blowing him a kiss while touching the glass. She wanted to be alone with him, without the barrier, and there was so much more she wanted to express. But that would have felt like stealing from the children.