When a long sentence becomes a death sentence

More than 200 US prisoners who have not committed a violent crime are disqualified from home confinement transfers.

A Federal Bureau of Federal Prisons
Hundreds of inmates inside the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas where have tested positive for COVID-19 and several have died as of May 16, 2020 [File: AP/LM Otero] [Daylife]

Along with cruise ships and nursing homes, prisons are very dangerous places to be during a global pandemic. COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus, necessitates social distancing in public spaces, but this is impossible to do in prison. Basic sanitation methods such as frequent hand-washing can be difficult or impossible to implement while in a prison cell.

To make matters worse, the prison staff is coming in from the outside every day and exposing inmates to diseases they bring in with them. Prisoners have told me that, at least in some prisons, the guards do not have masks – or they are wearing them incorrectly – and so they can be spreading the coronavirus. Other inmates have told me that after a delay of weeks, they were finally issued a mask.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), as of June 15, there were 1,220 federal inmates and 168 BOP staff who had tested positive for COVID-19; 4,918 inmates and 498 staff who had recovered, and 85 inmates and one staff member who had died. Due to a lack of testing, these numbers probably do not reflect the true extent of the spread of the contagion within the US prison system.

Attorney General Bill Barr recognised the danger of outbreaks in prisons and so, on March 26, he sent a memo to the BOP suggesting they transfer inmates to home confinement to reduce their chances of contracting COVID-19.

On April 3, Barr sent a second, more forceful, memo instructing the prisons to immediately move vulnerable inmates out of prisons and into home confinement, beginning with prisons already showing significant levels of COVID-19. Over the following weeks, 4,217 inmates were transferred to home confinement.

However, prisoners who have committed violent crimes or sex offences have been excluded, including those with terrorism convictions.

Among them are more than 200 mostly Muslim prisoners for whom our organisation, the Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF), advocates. They have all been pre-emptively prosecuted on terrorism-related charges. They had not committed a violent act, but their sentences were rather based on the government’s belief that they showed a propensity for committing a violent act in the future due to their beliefs, ideology, or religious affiliations.

The rationale behind this exemption of violent criminals is public safety. However, the inmates we advocate for do not pose a danger to the public. None of them has been convicted of a violent act. No damage was done, no one was killed, and no one was even injured. These are not dangerous people, and to the contrary, many of them were important assets to their community before their convictions. 

For example, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) was the largest Islamic charity in the US, helping people all over the world. In 2007, five men connected with this charity were accused of sending humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip through Zakat committees that controlled social welfare programmes in the West Bank – the same Zakat committees with which the US government itself had long worked.

The government provided no evidence of a direct link between HLF and a terrorist group, but the men were convicted of providing material support to terrorism for supplying food, shelter, hospital equipment, and healthcare to the needy. Because of the terrorism enhancement, they received sentences ranging from 15 to 65 years.

There are a number of similar cases among the inmates for whom we advocate, and there are others who were entrapped by the FBI. Usually young and vulnerable, some were befriended by highly-paid FBI informants whose task it was to locate people they could recruit as potential terrorists and help the FBI entrap these people. The informant would befriend them and create a terrorist plot with them – a plot that is easily foiled by the FBI since it is their own.

One example is the case of Mohamed Alessa who came under surveillance by the FBI in 2006 when he was just 16 years old. He was befriended by an older man, known as Bassem, who was actually an undercover officer from the New York Police Department. His new “friend” talked to him about killing nonbelievers overseas and secretly recorded their conversations. After four years of friendship with undercover agents directing and recording the conversations about terror activities, Alessa was arrested at the airport as he attempted to fly to Egypt where, according to his mother, he was going to study Arabic.

His friend, Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who was part of the same case, was arrested at the same time. The two were charged with conspiring to kill persons outside the US by trying to join al-Shabab. Although they had no contact with al-Shabab, the two admitted to saving money, getting in shape by lifting weights, running and playing paintball, and buying equipment and plane tickets to Egypt with the intent to then travel to Somalia.

Faced with the prospect of life in prison, like many others before them, they pleaded guilty at the advice of their attorneys in exchange for a maximum of 15 to 30 years. After an FBI entrapment effort which lasted four years and in which no one was hurt and no act of violence occurred, Alessa was sentenced to 22 years, and Almonte was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Sadly, there are many similar stories to the above, which are examined in our report, Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution. This study examined all the cases between March 18, 2010, and December 31, 2015, listed as terrorism convictions by the Department of Justice to determine which actually posed a terrorist threat. It found that over 90 percent of the cases posed no such threat.

The vast majority of arrests in the war on terror have been related to: “The FBI foiling its own entrapment plots, often after having targeted mentally ill defendants; or the government charging people with material support for terrorism that effectively criminalises innocent conduct, such as charitable giving and management, free speech, free association, peace-making, and social hospitality; or inflation of minor or technical incidents into terrorism events, such as immigration application inaccuracies, old weapons charges, or inaccurate statements to governmental officials.”

The more than 200 prisoners for whom CCF advocates were all prosecuted pre-emptively, and no actual crime took place. Some of these inmates have already served many years, and others have many years left to serve.

One inmate who contracted COVID-19 had to be put on a ventilator but managed to survive. These inmates could safely be released to home confinement. They committed no act of violence. No one was killed. No one was hurt. They are not dangerous.

Retaining these men in prison amid the pandemic could transform a lengthy sentence into a death sentence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.