The Backstory: Aviva Stahl

Investigative journalist Aviva Stahl talks about her new investigation into force-feeding in America's prisons.

For several years investigative journalist Aviva Stahl has tracked the so-called War on Terror, surveillance, and conditions in America’s prisons. Her latest 18-month-long investigation, published today by Type Investigations in partnership with The Nation magazine, estimates thousands of incidents of force-feeding against inmates in federal prison, in violation of medical ethics and, in some cases, international law. One prisoner convicted of terrorism charges, Mohammad Salameh, was held nearly incommunicado for 11 years and force fed nearly 200 times. The investigation leaves little doubt that human rights abuses perpetrated against hunger strikers at Guantanamo have also occurred on American soil.

Type Investigations sat down with Stahl to talk about the reporting process, and what it was like to work with Salameh.

Richard Salame: Hi Aviva. Thanks so much for joining us.

Aviva Stahl: Thanks so much for having me.

Salame: So the first question I wanted to ask, because the article deals with some people in some of the most restrictive conditions in the prison system, is how did you first establish contact with the prisoners?

Stahl: Well, I’ve been writing about the conditions faced by terrorism suspects for a couple of years. And I think it works for me the way it works for a lot of reporters and prison reporters in different contexts, which is that I sent a letter to the contacts I did have on the inside telling them that I wanted to write a story about the hunger strikes in H Unit and had they participated or did they know other people who participated? And the men I contacted passed the letter around and eventually it reached [Mohammad] Salameh who wrote me and told me that he would love to tell me his story.

I think that a lot of times once you gain the trust of one prisoner and they’re willing to vouch for you it really goes a long way to getting others to tell you their story. Especially when it comes to reporting that relates to the war on terror. Given the quality of reporting that’s done by a lot of reporters, which is basically regurgitating the government’s position on a crime or a character, I think it really helps when you’ve shown yourself to do due diligence, what I consider due diligence, in reporting. So that’s how Salameh and I started communicating and he very graciously was willing to tell me what he’d experienced.

Salame: And how do you develop those relationships once you’ve made contact? Are there any obstacles you face in developing relationships [with prisoners]?

Stahl: I think the biggest obstacle when it came to developing my relationship with Salameh was the 15 minute obstacle, which is that in the Bureau of Prisons [prisoners’] phone calls can only last for 15 minutes and after that the phone call automatically ends and they can only call back after 30 minutes. And because we were trying to cover this enormous amount of time, 11 years, by the time we started speaking everything had ended one or two years prior, if that makes sense. We were trying to cover an immense amount of space and so the phone call ends and sometimes we’d pick back up in a place we hadn’t left off and it just took me a while to figure out how to take notes on calls and guide them so I felt like I was covering all the territory I needed to because I kept getting cut off if that makes sense.

Salame: Yeah totally. A key part of your article that readers will notice are the special administrative measures. What are those and did they impact the process of reporting this story versus when you work on stories where SAMs have not been imposed on sources?

Stahl: So special administrative measures are communication restrictions that are placed on federal prisoners at the jurisdiction of the attorney general. And so the attorney general can place prisoners on SAMs without any judicial oversight. And they are placed on people who the A.G. alleges could pose a threat to the public or members of the public if they were able to communicate freely with people on the outside. The restrictions are prisoner specific but they generally follow specific kinds of regulations.

So when Salameh was first put under the restrictions in 2005 he wasn’t allowed to communicate with anybody except his immediate family members—so his parents and his siblings and his attorney. He also could only have newspapers that were 30 days old. All books and newspapers had to be pre-approved. He couldn’t even contact prospective attorneys by himself. He couldn’t write to the president. And in addition to all those restrictions which basically make it impossible for Salameh to contact the outside world it makes it almost impossible for the outside world to know what’s happening on the inside. So the people who are able to be in contact with him, his attorney and his immediate family members, also have to follow the SAMs so they can’t repeat anything that the person on SAMs has told them. So that can be really insignificant things like what the person had for breakfast or really substantive things like the fact that someone’s on a hunger strike. And that’s why it would have been impossible for me to have ever written a story on the hunger strikes on H Unit when it was actually happening because people would have been risking criminal prosecution, like the family members or the attorneys, to tell me that there were people on hunger strike right now. So there might be people on hunger strike right now at H Unit but we wouldn’t know.

I think another big issue is that there’s some uncertainty among attorneys about whether SAMs apply retroactively. A lot of attorneys operate on the assumption that whatever they’ve learned when someone is on SAMs, they’re still prohibited to repeat it even if the person has since been taken off SAMs. Which means that, you know, say, Bob’s client was on SAMs for 10 years and Bob learned all kinds of things about what happened on H Unit and then his client was taken off SAMs. He still wouldn’t even corroborate anything that had happened to his client even if his client has since been taken off SAMs. And basically what that means is that all of the people you would normally go to ask for comment or to ask for corroboration just aren’t willing to speak to you. And it poses a lot of a lot of challenges in reporting.

Salame: Did your sources take risks in speaking to you? I mean, what sorts of risks did they take and how to did you and they navigate those?

Stahl: I think I’d want to start by saying that all prisoners who speak to reporters while they’re incarcerated are taking a risk. Prisons are sort of set up to be black boxes where the public doesn’t find out what’s happening on the inside. So a lot of times when I’ve interviewed other prisoners who aren’t terrorism suspects, sometimes you start speaking to a prisoner and their letters start getting lost or they get disciplinary tickets for things they may have or haven’t done or a guard just starts kind of being a little rougher with them. All things that you can’t necessarily prove as retaliation but that prisoners believe might be retaliation. I think what’s different with the guys who I interviewed for this story is that because most of them were pretty high-level terrorism suspects. I assume that their communications are subject to more regular surveillance than the average prisoner in the federal system. And so they’re almost certain that if they speak to me, someone in the system will notice. Whereas for other prisoners, if you are in other prisons, they might think that it might go under the radar. I think also for the guys I interviewed a lot of them when they got off SAMs or even when they got transferred out of Florence ADX into another facility, they didn’t really understand why.

Another thing with SAMs is that there’s not really a clear avenue for getting on them or off them. I think for Salameh he got off after 11 years, it seems, after his lawyer pushed hard to get him off. So if you get on and off restriction seemingly without order or explanation, it makes people really fearful that anything they do could trigger them being placed on SAMs again.
I think after you’ve been on SAMs, or been in that kind of extreme isolation for a long period of time, for a lot of people [talking to reporters is] just not worth the risk. And so I think for kind of any ethical journalism when you’re dealing with prisoners it’s just to make sure both of you are on the same page about what risk the person is facing in speaking to you and also explaining exactly what kind of support you can or you can’t provide if they do seem to experience retaliation.
I think last fall Salameh ended up being placed on communication restrictions for a few weeks where he wasn’t allowed to send any emails or make any phone calls and it seems like even his letters weren’t being sent out. And when he told me that he thought he was facing retaliation for us being in touch I called his counselor at the prison to just express my concern, ask what was happening. Those sorts of basic moves just to show that you’re present and you’re concerned that they might be facing retaliation. But I think the bottom line is that nobody knows better than the person on the inside what risk they’re taking and whether it’s worthwhile to them and I think especially for people who are incarcerated it’s important to respect their agency when they decide it is worthwhile for them.

Salame: What sorts of documents did you need to write this story and what was the process like for getting them?

Stahl: Coming back to the SAMs thing, because all of this happened so long ago — between 2005 and 2016 — I had to think creatively about how I was going to corroborate everything that Salameh was telling me, especially since I wasn’t able to speak to his attorney and he didn’t want me to speak to any of his family members. And so one way I went about that was requesting his full medical file and also all of his administrative remedies which are kind of the official complaints you submit when you’re a Bureau of Prisons prisoner. And learning how to do those was a journey and basically you have to get releases from the prisoner. But the prisoner has to get the release signed by a guard which is sort of funny because you could see why people would be nervous about that. And then you submit a Freedom of Information request. And even though these files presumably can be pulled all at once, or at least I would imagine so, it took me a little over a year to get his full medical record and the administrative remedies. So a really long time. And I couldn’t really corroborate that he’d been force-fed at all until I had the records in hand.

I’m still waiting for a lot of other FOIA requests including all the emails and internal communications sent between people in the BOP about forced feedings. And I’m also just starting to challenge a FOIA denial I got: I requested copies of all the videos of his force feeding since all of the forced feedings have to be videotaped and the BOP denied them to me. So I’m hoping that if I challenge them in court I can get them.

Salame: So obviously Mohammed Salameh was convicted of a terrorist attack that killed six people and injured about a thousand. Did the severity of that conviction change the way that you wrote the article?

Stahl: I think as a human being, as a living, breathing person, of course the fact that he had been involved in this crime that had affected and killed a lot of people — of course I thought about that. Just as when I’ve written about sex offenders or people who are convicted of killing their spouses I’ve thought about their victims and what it means to write about the person who committed the crime, and how that might make the victim feel. Of course that comes to mind. But there’s this trend in criminal justice reporting to focus on I think what’s commonly referred to as the lowest hanging fruit. So that’s like the most sympathetic figures, the least hate-able characters. If you think about a tree, the lowest hanging fruit would be kids or nonviolent drug offenders. And I think a lot of times editors are reluctant to take stories that go outside of the bounds of the lowest hanging fruit.

So, for example, I recently pitched a story related to the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall that looked at a young black sex worker who’d been convicted of committing some minor violent crimes against johns and the editor came back to me and said “Well we’re interested in this angle but this guy looks guilty. He seems like he’s guilty. Can you find someone who’s innocent?”… And I think that sort of mentality… sometimes it’s well-meaning.

I think that sometimes people or editors believe that if we can focus on the most appealing or… The prisoners who we can humanize the most easily it will be a kind of “rising tides will rise all boats” phenomenon where we’ll create more humane conditions that will improve the lives of all prisoners not just the nonviolent drug offenders who are minors or whatever. But as someone who’s been writing about incarceration for a couple of years and who’s also studied the history of prisons I just don’t think that’s true. I think that when we operate on the lowest hanging fruit mentality we reinforce the notion that some people are deserving of humanity or deserving of our sympathy and some people aren’t. I think if we look especially at the history of the War on Terror we see something like what happened at Abu Ghraib or what happened at the black sites, that’s the logical extreme of what happens when we allow a certain category of people to be seen as like undeserving of human rights or undeserving of our sympathy. And I think that if we look at what’s happening on H Unit, what’s happening to the men like Salameh. I think that’s a parallel: it’s mostly happening to Muslim men and it’s mostly happening to men convicted of terrorism offenses. So I think the bottom line is that what Salameh experienced when he was on H Unit appears to be A violation of international law. I mean, according to experts he experienced torture. And if we are really to abide by the notion that nobody deserves to be tortured no matter what crime they have committed then I think we really have to hold steadfast to that.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

About the reporter

Aviva Stahl

Aviva Stahl

Aviva Stahl is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work focuses on how politics and power shape healthcare access behind bars.