At ‘Guantánamo North’
It is March 2005. I am nine years old and my father has just been arrested for a crime he did not commit. He had volunteered at various charities that provided relief for civilians in war-torn Bosnia and Chechnya. He collected, sorted and sent food, medicine and clothing. The government says he sent those supplies to aid the enemy. He is charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.
My father, Kifah Jayyousi, has a PhD, was a professor at Wayne State University and a chief facilities director for schools in both DC and Detroit. He is a US Navy veteran. None of this matters because he is also a Muslim American.
My two sisters, our mother and I move from Detroit to Miami, where my father is held in solitary confinement as the trial unfolds. For years, the government tried to recruit him to work with them against the Muslim community but he refused. They try again after arresting him. He continues to say no.
I turn 10 that November and I am in court watching as my father is made into ‘the enemy’.
2006 and I’m 10. I’m familiar with the smell of a courthouse. My father is held in solitary confinement in a tall building in downtown Miami. My sisters, our mother and I draw pictures in chalk on the sidewalk for him. We don’t know which, if any, of the dozens of windows is his, but spend hours in the sun with chalk-covered hands, trying to tell him we love him.
2007. I’m almost 11. The jury finds my father guilty. My mother comes home carrying his suitcase. Everyone’s eyes are red for a week. The judge sentenced him to almost 13 years, recommending low-security prison.
2008. I’m 11. We move back to Detroit after my father is secretly moved to a new high security facility called the Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Terre Haute, Indiana. Most of the inmates are Muslim. The prison is nicknamed ‘Guantánamo north’.
At the CMU, we only get four hours of visiting a month. We combine the end of one month and the beginning of the next to get eight hours' visiting over a three-day period. We drive there. It’s expensive.
The visiting room is small and only seems to get smaller. Down the middle of the room is a Plexiglas window that separates us from him. He grips the phone on his side, not allowed to put it down during the long visits, and places his other hand against the glass. We place our hands over his on our side. I pretend I feel the glass get warmer. A large steel door is locked behind us. We cannot hug my dad. We cannot touch him. We cannot smell him. He is there for three years.
2010. I am 14 and starting to have trouble sleeping at night. They say they’ve moved my father. We think it’s closer to Detroit but it is further away, to another CMU in Marion, Illinois. The rules are the same but the visiting is a lot worse. We are led into the building with other families, other children. But then we are separated. We pass inmates with swastika tattoos; we pass men with their families sitting in chairs right next to them, holding their hands, sitting in their laps. We are led into a room with a Plexiglas window. It is dirty with smudges. We clean the glass with wet tissues. We leave our handprints on the glass at the end of the visit.
The steel door is left open but the noise of the dozens of visitors outside makes it difficult to hear anything, even with the sticky black telephone pressed to one ear and a hand over the other. We can’t breathe if we close the door. We can’t breathe anyway. My father spends another three years there.
I am 11, 12, 13, 14. I am 15, 16, 17 and I am not allowed to breathe the same air in the same room as him without Plexiglas between us. We ask them on holidays for just a quick hug with our father and they say it’s a security issue.
2014. I am 18. My father is moved to general population where we finally get to have contact visits. I hug him for the first time in six years and can’t stop shaking. We are still surrounded by cameras and keys and guards and metal bars. My father is still innocent.
My little sister looks like she might cry so I buy a box of raisins and stick them in my teeth. She laughs, even some guards laugh. Everyone laughs but I just want to scream.
2017 and I’m 21. My father is released into a halfway house and then sent home after serving almost 13 years for a crime he did not commit. He is given 20 years' probation and not allowed to leave the Eastern District of Michigan. He spends months looking for work. Most places won’t hire a convict. Everything is upside down and we all say sorry too much.
But the State of Michigan Board of Professional Engineers unanimously votes to renew my father’s engineering licence, rejecting his conviction. He is now working for a prominent Michigan construction company.
2018. I am 22. I still hear the guard’s keys, still smell the metal. I still feel the Plexiglas against the palms of my hands. None of us ever left prison but they will never break us.