One From the History Books
Sometimes you read a story (casually, not knowing what to expect), only to have that story haunt you. There’s something at the heart of it that won’t let you go. The story of Henry Brown was one of those for me.
It was in 1849, in Louisa County Virginia, that Brown did a series of incredible things.
First, he used sulfuric acid to burn his hand, because it was the only way he could get some time off of work (he used too much, and burned all the way down to the bone).
He then climbed into a small box – three feet by two feet, by two and a half feet high – and had his shoemaker friend nail the top shut. And with only three small holes in the box for air, he sent Brown away by mail. Brown travelled 350 miles in that box, for 27 hours. When he finally reached the address in Philadelphia, a group of waiting friends pried the lid open, and Brown could finally escape, a free man.
You won’t be surprised to hear it, but this was a horrible way to travel. Even though Brown had clearly labeled the box, “this side up with care,” handlers tossed his box around, and he spent hours of his journey traveling on his head. At one point, the pressure had built up so much that Brown felt like the blood vessels in his head would burst, and his eyes would literally pop out of their sockets. He waited silently for the blood to gush out and flow over him.
But as difficult and dangerous as all of this sounds, it was nothing compared to the agony Brown had endured as a slave.
Compared to most slaves, Brown himself acknowledged that he had it “good” – a very relative term, of course. In his 33 years as a slave, he had been whipped just once. He had enough food to eat, enough clothes to cover him decently, and the work he was given was never too extreme. But nothing of his was really his own, not even his own person. As a young boy, his mother would take him on her knee, and with trembling voice and tears rolling down her cheeks, she would point at the forest trees and say, “my son, as yonder leaves are stripped from off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants.”
And when his first master died, Brown and his parents and siblings were divided as property between this master’s heirs. They were torn in separate directions, never to see each other again.
Later, when Brown was a young man, he found solace in a fellow slave named Nancy. Brown fell in love with Nancy, and married her, and had three children with her. He did everything in his power to keep her nearby. But Nancy, like Brown, was not her own person. And one day without warning, Nancy and the kids were all sold off by their owner, and Brown could do nothing except watch as his loved ones were taken from him a second time.
And it was this agony – to have his wife and children stripped mercilessly away from him – that Brown could not endure. This was the agony that made him burn his hand, and climb into a wooden mailing box, and suffer in mute silence as he travelled, tumbling on his head, so he could be free.
Threads of Injustice
I hesitate to draw parallels between this story of Henry “Box” Brown and the story I am about to tell of my own life. The history of slavery in the US is so dark, and so grim, I can think of few things that compare to that horror. I guess by those accounts, you could say we’ve had it good. “Good” is a relative term, of course.
But as I picture my husband sitting – trapped – in an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colorado, 1,200 miles away from where I am with our kids, I can’t help but wonder why our country seems so hell-bent on perpetuating those same threads of injustice, so that some form of slavery, some flavor of oppression, will always endure.
My husband, Ibrahim Mohammad, is a political prisoner. The US government will happily label him a terrorist, an accusation he is entirely innocent of. But by all accounts (whether you believe him to be innocent, or guilty of the “crime” on official records) he is meant to be a free man.
I’ve written about my husband before, at some length, in a story that is in a story that is now a decade long.
After a fruitless FBI raid on our home in 2011 which turned up no evidence, after my husband then cooperated with the FBI in answering any and all questions on two occasions, after four years of radio silence from them – my husband was suddenly arrested in 2015.
Ibrahim was kept behind bars for almost two and half years after that, simply awaiting a trial that the prosecution kept pushing back.
Then in 2018, Ibrahim took a plea deal.
It was an excruciating decision for him to make. He had spent countless hours preparing for his own case, sifting through pages and pages of discovery. Ibrahim was ready to go to trial and defend his innocence, when the prosecution (who had shown up in court before unprepared and unable to make a coherent argument) presented him with an offer that was almost impossible to turn down.
The prosecution’s offer was for a 5 year sentence for reduced charges – half of which he had already served – followed by deportation from the country. To go to trial, on the other hand, was to face a necessarily biased jury, and risk a potential life sentence. It was a no brainer. Ibrahim’s lawyer for the case called this deal, “The closest thing to surrender by the Government. The Government did not indict him on life sentence terrorism offenses to have him serve 21 months [after taking the deal].”
And so my husband took the deal. He admitted to guilt on paper so he could one day walk the earth free again, reunited with the wife and children he was so mercilessly stripped away from.
On February 7th of this year, 2020, Ibrahim completed the remaining days of his sentence.
He was released into ICE custody as the transitional ground between the Colorado prison he was in, and the country he would be deported to (likely India, since my husband is an Indian national). His departure was needlessly delayed, and now, because of COVID-19 and the world crisis we all find ourselves in, he is trapped. Flights out of the country are cancelled or delayed, and India has closed its borders.
“I never should have taken that plea deal,” my husband said recently, and I try, as I have many times before, to console him.
It’s a resurfacing of an internal struggle Ibrahim has had since the moment he took the deal, trying to reconcile his soul to the decision. He has spent long days worried that by “admitting” even to the lesser charges in the deal, he betrayed himself and his beliefs. He goes back in time often to reject that deal, trusting that God would clear his name. Trusting that the research he put in, and the dedicated lawyer he had, could have easily (easily) stood up to the weak evidence and mumbling prosecution. Maybe, he thinks, he should have risked everything to stand up for the truth, rather than make the slightest concession to tyranny.
But the reality is, Ibrahim never stood a chance at a fair trial, despite his glaring innocence. Terrorism cases of the past have taught us that. A racist President and a country that elected him gave us no reason to hope that this time would be different.
If you still think it’s strange that my husband would admit to something he didn’t do, that he’d be willing to take on the implication of “terrorist” when he took his plea deal, I want to remind you again of Henry Brown. How he burnt his hand with sulfuric acid and travelled in a nailed wooden shipping crate, risking his life. A good and innocent man, when stripped of his family and freedom, will do desperate things to get them back.
“If you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was,” wrote Brown, “You cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”
A Looming Disaster
In the wake of COVID-19, my husband is now serving an indefinite sentence. Everything about his situation is uncertain.
And while his prolonged stay in the ICE detention center may seem like just another inconvenience brought on suddenly by this pandemic – aren’t all of our lives on hold in so many ways? – my husband is in a dangerous situation. He sits in a box, with other men, while the whole world has been flipped on its head. While the rest of us are told to stay home, to stay safe, to keep a distance – my husband and other detainees are in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible, where disinfectants and cleaners are inadequate, and where all it takes is for one inmate to get sick before the rest of them follow suit.
I shudder to think what could happen to Ibrahim and these other men. I shudder to think how an already overwhelmed medical system – short-staffed and lacking necessary gear and equipment – could even begin to handle this.
Already, in early April, a staff member at my husband’s detention center tested positive for COVID-19, and shortly afterwards, a fever and illness spread among the inmates. There’s no way to know what it was, and the detention center says they did their best to isolate the infected staff member. What if it wasn’t COVID-19? And what if COVID-19 is on its way to them? All it takes is for one person – one delivery driver, one staff member, one detainee– to be infected, and the rest of the center is the perfect breeding ground for this virus.
For Cook County Jail in Chicago, all of this is no longer a “what if.” At the time of writing this, more than 500 detainees and staff at that jail have been infected. Prisoners have started rioting, and more recently going on hunger strike. All across the nation, what has already happened in Cook County Jail will happen at other prisons, because our government is failing to act. The data paints a horrifying picture, and some activists expect that “tens of thousands of prisoners will needlessly die” in the wake of COVID-19. They have labelled this a time “when mass incarceration becomes mass murder.”
And all of us are culpable if we fail to act
Friends on Either Side
In late March, activists on the ground worked to release a number of prisoners from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility where my husband is being held. A wave of men was released, like a breath of air, to alleviate a humanitarian crisis on the verge of happening.
Ibrahim was not one of those men.
The ICE detention center claims they “probably” cannot release him on house arrest based on his conviction, even though they have complete jurisdiction to do so.
Despite being a non-violent prisoner, despite having no prior contact with the law before the trumped up charges were brought against him, despite having served his agreed upon sentence, my husband (like other Muslims caught in the crossfire of the US “War on Terror”) wears a scarlet letter in the shape of a “T,” branded onto him as if with a hot iron – without pity and without escape.
When Henry Brown made his historic escape from slavery, he was aided on either side by friends and supporters. In Virginia, there was his shoemaker friend and another man who was himself a freed slave. And in Philadelphia, it was a group of abolitionists who knew the evils of slavery, and the imperative of helping out a fellow man in need. They took up his cause and fought for him before they ever met him.
For my husband, he is awaited on the other side of his captivity by a loving, longing family. We have waited for him every day since his release date in February, and long before that in every moment since the moment of his traumatic arrest.
Ibrahim is also aided by loving friends and activists fighting to get him out as we speak. A few weeks ago we filed for an Emergency Humanitarian Parole Request, asking that my husband be released on house arrest until India opens up its borders and he can fulfill the second half of an unjust plea deal, in a case that was always a travesty of justice.
It was denied. ICE gave no reason, but merely wrote a few lines as if to offer some sort of appeasement.
We now have to put up a fight in the higher courts and file what’s called a habeas corpus in the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Colorado. A habeas corpus, simply put, challenges the court to show reason as to why an individual must remain in custody. In Ibrahim’s case, having served his time, further imprisonment or detention now warrants further review. It’s still a long shot, but worth it for the chance at freedom it gives my husband, and for the sake of not staying silent in the face of injustice.
We do need your help.
We ask that people who have never met Ibrahim take up his cause and fight for him, because the US government’s misplaced “war on terror” and systems of “mass incarceration” are evils that need to be eradicated. Help Ibrahim (and other prisoners) out of a situation that could needlessly turn into one of mass murder. Help release Ibrahim from the indefinite sentence he is now serving after having completed the unfair sentence he was given.
Please sign the petition to free my husband, and spread the word: https://bit.ly/FreeIbrahimNow
As we see so many people stepping up during this crisis, as we witness the earth heal and restore aspects of its physical form, it’s time for a moral transformation as well.
Help set a free man free.
Brown, Henry. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Kindle ed., Dover Publications, 2015.