Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

Privacy? What’s That?

Mar 18, 2023

By Shukri Baker

Editor’s note: Shukri is a Palestinian-American incarcerated in the wake of the 9/11 paranoia about Muslims. Read his story.

Warning: This essay contains offensive images. Cringing is advised. 

I’m aggravated. My privacy is constantly violated. I am not referring to the strip searches, in which I face a male officer and follow his orders, undressing myself one clothing article at a time until clothing is divorced from skin. It’s a moment of truth. Nothing to hide. We’re all grown men. No time for reflexive embarrassment. There is plenty of time, however, for the dazzled monkey dancing act:

– Raise your hands. (Thank God there’s no Amazon jungle in my armpits)

– Open your mouth. Say aaah. (I have a big mouth; I’d rather say nothing)

– Show me your ears. (Say what?)

– Lift your sack. (What?  Sack of what? Are you NUTS?)

– Turn around. (My behind is your frontal view now.)

– Bend over. (I’m getting a little nervous)

– Spread your cheeks. (What the $#@*&%??)

– Lift your left foot. (Flamingo style?)

– Lift your right foot. (But first, did I lift my left foot right?)

– Bend over. Cough. Cough harder. (What are you hoping might drop?)

Don’t let the nastiness get under your skin. Just cringe once or twice, then shake it off your psyche. 

Neither do I mean the phone monitoring.  Listening to inmates’ calls enables staff to catch all sorts of illicit activities, such as the introduction of drugs and cellphones into the prison complex. Some inmates do take the risk to get their hands on such items, especially during in-person visits. They use whatever body cavities they have at their disposal (hint: I can only think of one) to smuggle the stuff in. Then it is capitalism at work: big money. Their mostly female visitors walk into the visitation room with the “goodies” on (or in) their bodies. Regarding the actual “anatomy” of how this works, I’ll leave it up to a gynecologist to explain. 

I don’t traffic in contraband of any sort, but like everyone else, I’m monitored. Truthfully, I don’t mind. I believe the government has the duty to learn more about me and my family: what makes us laugh, cry, sweat, swear, sing and scream, and who we root for: the little Palestinian boys or the bullets that pronounce them dead. It’s all such a wealth of personal data that could perhaps be of to our country’s cooperation with its primary ally in the Middle East. And, as a patriot, I accept that what is good for the United States is good for me and my family. This reminds me of what a wise poet once wrote: “Ask not what your country has done to you (at the behest of another country); ask what you have done to yourself (I’ve tried to supersize my humanity). [The wise poet was me.]

So, the privacy violation that is so vexing right now isn’t the strip searches or the phone snooping. Rather, it’s me who is constantly violating my own privacy_ and I’m ticked off by it. My problem is that I ask and answer too many questions—so much so that I’m no longer able to keep anything from myself (it’s like an inner-self strip search). I don’t know how to stop. I want to stop asking myself questions like, “Why do I always wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” But I know well that so long as I’m in prison, I’ll always be in the wrong bed, at the wrong time. Everything is wrong. Besides, the other side of my bunk is a solid concrete wall. (What am I supposed to do? Ask the Israeli military to come over and demolish it? They only do that to Palestinian homes.)

I also must stop asking myself crazy things such as why I don’t feel as bad anymore when I see a body (dead or dying) being carried away. In this stabbing-obsessed underworld, it is improper to exhibit any true human emotions; thus, like everyone else, I must look steel-tough (gangster-like).

I must stop asking why every time I hear my wife whimper in in pain*, I lose my knees. I feel less like a loving husband and more like a stranger forced into exile. 

And I must stop asking myself whether I have forgiven my tormentors. Have they asked for forgiveness? After having my entire life chopped into pieces, am I supposed to use what working fingers I have left to wipe clean my butcher’s ax? Relax. Relax. I’m not grinding an ax. I’m not another Arab angry at the civilized world. I’m angry only at myself because I ask too many questions and give too many answers. I can’t stop being inquisitive.

I also can’t stop being imprisoned. I can’t stop being vulnerable. I can’t stop being myself.

May I have a private moment to myself? I want to bury my head in my arms and either cry or laugh. Am I emotionally imbalanced, biased or disturbed? 

Any questions? Any answers?

*My wife long has had chronic pain, but it worse when she fell and broke both hands. She had casts for six weeks, but when they were removed, it was discovered the bones were set in the wrong position. She didn’t have insurance or financial means to do a repeat. But my incarceration has also caused a psychological pain. If I had committed a crime, she says, she would feel so devastated because I would have caused it to myself. Since, however, my crime was fictional and only in the eyes of my tormentor, it is hard for her to see me in this situation year after year, as our family branches out with grandchildren and so many other events in between, including the death of our daughter Sanabel at age 26. One thing our beloved government has forgotten in the process of tormenting all of us: We are humans.

email icon
Don’t miss our latest articles, advocacy news and more.
podcast icon
Hear directly from our experts on our podcast.