Suffolk jail houses Somali pirates

Published 8:36 pm Saturday, February 12, 2011

The exterior of the Western Tidewater Regional Jail, where 10 accused Somali pirates have been held for about 10 months. Five already are convicted of an attack.

In a cell block at Western Tidewater Regional Jail on Friday, most of the inmates were watching television.

Some of them played cards while standing, throwing each card they played onto the table in dramatic fashion.

But in the background, a group of four seems to ignore all the activity as they throw their eyes and hands heavenward, then kneel in their blue jumpsuits and bury their faces in the cement floor. They repeat the process a couple of times, then shift from their prostrate positions, sit on the floor and talk.

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In a separate cell block, one inmate sits on a stair railing — which he’s not supposed to do — and watches television. Another inmate limps in a circle around a group of tables, speaking to his rail-sitting friend in a foreign language every time he passes by. Then, like his friends in the other cell block, he lies on the ground — although this time, it’s to perform a series of rapid push-ups.

The 10 Somalis have been housed at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail since last April. Five already have been convicted of piracy after their April 1, 2010, attack on the USS Nicholas off the coast of eastern Africa. The five — Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Abdullahi Ali, Abdi Wali Dire, Abdi Gurewardher and Abdi Mohammed Umar — will be sentenced next month, according to news reports.

The other five are accused of a pirate attack 10 days later on the USS Ashland. They are Maxamad Cali Saciid, Abdirasaq Abshire, Mohammed Abdi Jamah, Abdicasiis Cabaase and Mohammed Hassan. Their case is being handled by the Norfolk division of U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of Virginia.

The Western Tidewater Regional Jail, which holds inmates for Suffolk, Franklin and Isle of Wight County, also houses federal prisoners on a space-available basis. The accused pirates arrived on April 23 last year.

It was a learning process for the new inmates and the jail staff, public information officer Lt. Tanya Scott said.

“Some of the living conditions were different,” Scott said. “They weren’t used to the beds. They weren’t used to the toilets. They didn’t speak any English.”

The Somalis were in poor physical condition when they arrived in Suffolk, said jail health services administrator Robert DeMatteo.

“They were severely malnourished,” he said. “Some of them had burns. Some were more significant than others.”

The language barrier presented a “big problem” for DeMatteo and his staff, he said. However, the jail utilizes the Language Line service to communicate with non-English speakers.

“It was a challenge,” he said. “And they were scared. These guys probably never had any formal medical care in their lives.”

The accused pirates initially had some unusual dietary requests.

“They asked for goat and camel,” Scott said. Despite not getting their wish, the prisoners have had no objection to any of the jail kitchen’s offerings and have developed an affinity for cake and cookies, she said.

They also requested and received copies of the Quran in their native language. Scott said it is standard procedure to provide requested religious documents.

In their 10-month stay, the accused pirates have picked up many English words and are now mixing more with the general population, Scott said. They have gained weight and mostly recovered from their injuries, even after a couple required extensive surgery.

“They have come a long way from the first time they came here,” she said.