Yassin's Letters

One Day and Every Day

Since I came to prison many of my friends and supporters have asked me to tell them what my life is like in prison.  They want to have an exact picture for one day which in effect is for every day;  like they say about prisons, “same thing – different day”.  I hesitated for a long time to answer these requests because I was worried about what I should say.  What would they learn from it?  Why should I waste their time? 

The way I was brought up by my illiterate father was that I must keep all negative things in my life for myself and tell only positive thing to the people – things which will make them feel good and happy and help them to think positively.  This is especially so in this time where there is a lot of negative news every day, and people really need to hear some good news to keep their mind positive and make them smile.  So I did not want to write to them about my life in prison.  I was sure that it would not sound like fun and would not make them laugh or feel happy.  And it is not in my interest to tell them a sad story.

Yassin Aref, August, 2007
Yassin Aref, August, 2007

But when Dada Lynne (Jackson) told me that concerns about my daily life were making people sadder than any possible story I could share with them, I rethought my Dad’s theory to tell only positive thoughts;  maybe his theory does not apply to this time and country.  It was good for his time and the mountains in which he lived.  But this is one of the biggest problems when people stick with what their parents told them, without understanding the difference of time, place, and circumstance, and without even knowing what their parents did that was right or wrong given the reality on the ground.

I am fortunate that from an early age, I learned from my teacher never to copy someone else, and to do nothing until I knew why and how I should do it.  I was taught to love to search for the truth, and that finding the truth was honor, and much better than sticking with the false.  Because of this, I never had any difficulty to change my habits and customs when I found the truth was different.  As grateful as I am to my family, and as much as I love my culture, they cannot prevent me from finding the truth.  My family and my culture are not reasons for me to refuse to talk about my life in prison.  My reason was…what should I say…is there a life in prison??  How do I talk about it?  Do the people in prison have life?

To get the correct answer for this we must know what life is.  What is the perfect definition of it and what is the reason behind it.  If “life” means just breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, watching TV, playing cards etc. then the answer is YES – we are even more fortunate here than many people in the free world for all these things.  But if “life” means to exist for a purpose – having a role to play, benefiting others, rejecting bad things, serving people, helping the needy, producing something good, having a family, building up the earth, etc. then the answer is NO – we are not alive. 

My problem is that I grew up differently.  Since I was 10, I never put food and drink and other “necessities” as my priority.  I learned to sing, “I am the one who dies for life – I am not living for death”.  One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was “Don’t live to eat, but eat to live”.  That is why I cannot find any benefit out of the life that I live now, and I think I am wasting the food and air I use,  I am not even able to benefit my own children. Because I owe much to all of you and I do not want to ever reject anything you ask, let me give you a picture of my daily routine and after that I will explain my inside feelings – a picture of what  I actually do each day, and then what I feel, so I can show you my heart too.

My Daily Routine

Our day here starts at 6:00 AM when they unlock our cell doors and call for breakfast.  After that we are free until 9:15 PM when they lock our cell’s down again.  We are essentially out of our cells from 6 AM until 9 PM.  Lunch is at 11 AM; Lock down for a cell count at 4 PM and diner at 4:30 PM.  Beside this we have nothing mandatory to do.  Each person spends his time in his own way, and we are able and allowed to do any and all of the following things:  Stay in the cell to read, write, sleep, sit, talk; go to the TV room and watch TV; play cards, or ping pong; exercise in the small rooms; go to the cages (out doors); make tea, coffee; or cook with the microwave in the dining room.  No one bothers us for doing any of the above activities.  We can sit with two or three persons in each other cells and talk, or meet anywhere we want in the building, but we are not allowed to pray together every day.  They allow us only Friday for special prayers.  Most people here spend their time in front of the TV or play cards or cook and the best of all – exercise.  Some like reading.  This is about all we do all day.  We are locked down in the unit inside the building but we have complete freedom to spend our time the way we want.

Does this sound bad?  Of course not!  What do we need?  Our cell is warm: we have hot and cold water: our food is not bad: we can watch TV: we can play cards; we exercise; we can take showers at any time, and we can have as many showers as we want.  We can send and receive mail; we do not have to worry about bail or rent, and we do not have to cook.  We are just like kings where everything is ready for us.  Millions outside are homeless and poor.  They are looking for shelter and begging for food.  For many people this is all they are looking for and there is no reason for life after that.  But I am not one of them.  For me life means to produce something, to give, to build and to really exist - feeling for others, and serving them.  That is why I don’t see much benefit from this life; that is why my prior letter about life in prison was called “Dead Life” which is the way I see it, (and if I wanted to be more specific I would say “Half Life”)

Jail for Me (My Feelings)

I am tired of the routine.  It is part of human nature that whenever you do something over and over you become tired of it, even if that something is good and you love it.  The beauty of life is in change and in new things.  The first time you see something and test it is different than the second or tenth time, until eventually it becomes meaningless and without interest.  Now imagine living in a building having no exit outside and not be allowed to see anyone except the inhabitants and staff every day and for years to do the same thing with the same people in the same place.  How can someone endure this?

When my children asked me at what time I have breakfast, and I told them at 6 AM, they were surprised and refused to believe it.  Why should someone wake up 2 ½ hours before sunrise to get a little cereal?  Yes, in Indiana in the winter, sunrise is at 8:30 AM.  Many of us cannot make it to breakfast.  Some times I feel sorry when I go to breakfast, to see the sleep in the eyes of most of the prisoners.  When I say “good mourning”, I do not know whether they will open their eyes to answer or not.  And when we see what is served for breakfast we are disappointed again.  It is really not worth waking up for breakfast.  The time for diner is also amazing – 4:30 PM.  In winter this is an excellent time – about one hour before sunset – and it is healthier to have an early diner.  But what about summer when sunset is about 9:30 PM?.  This means that diner is 5 hours before sunset.  How can that meal last for someone until 6 AM the next morning (or 11 AM if you skip breakfast).  In Arabic they say if you do not start an activity strongly you will not end fine.  So I am sure no inmates start his day strongly at 6 AM.  It is very hard to find someone to smile at you during breakfast.  It is for you to imagine how the rest of the day will follow and what the end of it is going to be.

I like my cell.  The good thing about this unit is that everyone has his own cell with a concrete bed, plastic chair, sink with hot and cold water and a toilet.  I learned from many life stories I read, and from my own experience, that the best way to avoid problems and headaches is to provide a separation between people and to avoid talking, joking, and mixing with them except when necessary.  Instead I focus on myself.  I read, write, think, and pray.  A long time ago, many religious people used to go to caves in the mountains to free themselves for God and avoid society.  I do not believe in that.  I believe humans should live together and learn to deal with each other by sharing their stories, learning from each other, exchanging ideas, love and feelings.  This makes life beautiful and easy.  But it is very hard to find people you like that much, especially in prison. Many prisoners need to be checked by a mental health doctor or sent to a mental hospital.  A prison life style is not one everybody can endure.    When a human being is alone, he can rest.  If he wants to see other human beings to talk or have contact they can be together.  They can live in peace.  In Kurdish we say, “I really love you, but the best way to keep our love and relationship is to keep a separation between us”.  The same is true in the West.  Even wife and husbands will preserve their love and relationship by keeping a separation between them.

I am glad that I can do this by sitting in my room, and it is not hard for me to sit alone.  I grew up in an isolated area of Kurdistan where we were separated from the universe.  Also I was isolated in protective custody for 18 months in the Rensselaer County jail.  I love poems.  I even try to write poems some times.  For a poet it is necessary to be alone.  I do not care what my friend told his mom about his cell – that it is just a toilet and his toilet back home is bigger than this cell.  This is for him, but for me it is my castle because it protects me from headaches; it is my mosque for worshipping God; it is my meeting room to be with all those I love when I think about them; it is my cave to inspire poems; its my school to learn about American justice and Democracy; it is my park where my soul meets with my beloved wife and children; it is my theater where I can see the real drama about freedom; it is my country – all of Kurdistan’s mountains.  Forty million stateless Kurds are living with me in this cell.  I speak to them and share with them their pain every single hour.  It is me in my cell but with all the concerns of the poor, the sick, the pain burdened, the peace makers, the slogans, the yelling and shouting – for justice, freedom and peace – waiting for the door of my cell to open.

In Arabia they say, “For the one who has no Honor, humiliation means nothing”.  People have different views about life, why we live, and what should be our goal in life.  People must choose the best way to live, and spend their time. There are many people whose feelings have died.  Beside their physical existence they do not care about anything else.  They don’t see or hear.  They feel joy in the time of corruption.  As long as they get food, and drink, and see movies, and play cards they are like Kings.  I have heard and I know there are people who enjoy being in prison.  They love it!  They don’t have to worry about rent, or care about bail, or think about what to cook.  Everything is free and ready.  But that is not for me.  I cannot be like that.  I see and feel what ever they do not.  Everything here is stress and pressure.  It is abuse and humiliation.  Perhaps they do not mean it this way, but that is the way that I understand it and see it.  Just to help you understand what I am talking about, and how normal things change to torture and punishment in my eyes, I will mention some daily routines for you.

The place I live used to be called “Death Row”.  Every day I imagine how many people before me were locked in my cell, sleeping on the same bed, until they finally received the death penalty.  Everywhere the building is telling me about those who died.  I cannot forget it.  I read in the news that in Germany someone killed his wife and still after 2 years the landlord cannot find anyone willing to rent the house because someone was killed there.  I am sure that many people were living in my cell, sleeping on the same bed I used, and waited here for death until it finally came for them.

All of us in the unit are foreigners and most of us are Muslim.  We are separated from other people and brought to this lock down unit.  We are denied many privileges other prisoners in other units have, just because our eyes are not blue, and our skin is not white, and we are not originally American, and above all we are Muslims.  It makes me mad.  All my life I suffered because I am a stateless Kurd.  Wherever I lived I was a second and third class citizen.  I came to this country to get back my dignity, freedom and humanity.  But I saw worse here than what happened to me in the third world.  There is no justification for this.  It is just discrimination and racism and nothing else.  It makes me sad, and causes me great stress when I cannot find the answer to my question, why?

When I try to go out of the unit to get a little fresh air, the only places we have to go are some cages.  When I go there to enjoy the weather, I start to think:  How did I become an animal?  Why am I a danger?  Why must I be in this cage?  And then I go back inside because I do not want to lose my mind.

Every half hour a CO, (corrections officer) comes to check on what I am doing in my cell.  It is just his job and he does not say anything.  All he wants is to make sure that I am not killing myself, or not planning to flee, or somehow bring destruction down on this unit.  It takes me more than half an hour to forget this and then he is back again.  It is his job, and he must do it, but for me it only means that he comes to say to me, “We got you.  You are dangerous.  We know you are wild, so we must watch you”.  And each time I do not know why I am wild and why I am a danger.

Every 10-15 feet on this unit they put a video camera.  There is even one exactly in front of my cell door.  None of them were there when the unit was a death row.  This means, simply put, that we are more dangerous that those inmates who got the death penalty.

In the kitchen where we eat there used to be a small window – 5 cm by 25 cm.  Now they have closed that too.  From it you could see only the prison parking lot and the sky, but it was threatening for Homeland Security if we would see even that.  We had to be in complete isolation from outside.  Of course they know what they are doing and it is not my business to ask why.  But I say to myself each time I go to the kitchen, “Why”?  Why are we not allowed to see the sky?  What made us to be so dangerous?

Count time is just another routine.  But my dad used to count his sheep once a week, not twice a day, and they were not in a lock down unit.  I just hate to be a sheep.

No contact visits, phone calls only once a week, letter’s slow progress, all these things cause stress and I do not know when our minds will explode.

I am sorry if this stresses you, but I wanted to tell you not only about the insides of this building but also about the inside of my heart and mind too.  I wish I could just get used to all of this routine and not think about it as many people do, but I can’t, especially when I believe I did nothing wrong and I am here just because I am Muslim, and it is not fair.

Please tell everyone Hi on my behalf and take care of yourself.

                                                Salaam, sincerely,

                                                YASSIN AREF

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February 24, 2008

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