The Bureau of Prisons Tries Some New Tricks


The Nation has an interesting feature on a new kind of prison with special restrictions on outside communication, and the sort of behavior or status that gets you stuck there. The highlights:

the Bush administration had quietly opened the CMUs [Communication Management Units] in Terre Haute and Marion in December 2006 and March 2008, respectively, circumventing the usual process federal agencies normally follow that subjects them to public scrutiny and transparency….

….This secret unit came to light when supporters of an Iraqi-born American physician, Rafil Dhafir, made public a letter he had written describing his harrowing transfer to a new prison unit in Terre Haute. He called it "a nationwide operation to put Muslims/Arabs in one place so that we can be closely monitored regarding our communications."

(In 2005 Dhafir had been sentenced to twenty-two years in prison for violating sanctions against Iraq by sending money to a charity he had founded there, as well as for fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and a variety of other nonviolent crimes. He had no terrorism convictions or charges.)

In his letter Dhafir reported that at the time there were sixteen men in the CMU, fourteen of whom were Muslims and all but one of those were Arab. They had been told by prison officials that the unit was an experiment. Written material they received informed them that they would be entitled to one fifteen-minute call a week, that their communications had to be in English only and that their visits would all be noncontact; it made no mention of "terrorism." According to Dhafir, the inmates were particularly devastated at the prospect of not being able to hug or kiss their families and of having so little time to talk with them. For those who didn't speak English, there was particular panic…..

But let's not make this an ethnic thing, shall we, Bureau of Prisons?

in March 2008, the BOP established by memo a second CMU, at Marion. Two months later, Daniel McGowan [a convicted eco-arsonist], who is neither Muslim nor Arab, was moved there. In June 2008, Andy Stepanian, another non-Arab, non-Muslim low-security inmate, was sent to Marion for the last six months of his three-year sentence for conspiring to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992. The only notice he received after his transfer said that he "has known connections to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups considered to be domestic terrorist organizations." "Enhanced review and control of inmate communications," it claimed, "is required to assure the safe functioning of the correctional facility, surrounding community and American public."

According to Stepanian, prison staff referred to non-Arab and non-Muslim inmates as "balancers." One white guard comforted Stepanian, who had received biweekly visits from his fiancée at his previous prison, saying, "You're nothing like these Muslims. You're just here for balance. You're going to go home soon."….

The BOP, however, told The Nation, "Race, religion and ethnicity are not a basis for designation decisions." Nonetheless, as of this writing, the BOP reports that eighteen of thirty-three prisoners at Terre Haute (55 percent) and twenty-three of thirty-six at Marion (64 percent) are Muslim. Muslims make up just 6 percent of the federal prison population.

The BOP declined to disclose the CMU inmates' names or convictions….

As the populations of the CMUs grew, civil rights groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights [CCR] began to receive letters from inmates. Eventually, CCR attorneys Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol communicated with a majority of the inmates. They quickly noticed that in many cases there was nothing in inmates' disciplinary records—many of which were clean—or security-level designations that would suggest they warranted such drastic isolation. Indeed, convicted terrorists like Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and shoe bomber Richard Reid are housed not in a CMU but in high and maximum security prisons in Colorado….

Ah, let's not make it a "terrorism" thing either:

CCR attorneys also noticed the presence of CMU inmates who had neither links to terrorism nor communications infractions. They fell into three general groups, with occasional overlaps. The first had made complaints against the BOP either through internal procedures or formal litigation, and their placement appeared retaliatory. The second held unpopular political views, both left- and right-leaning, from animal rights and environmental activists to neo-Nazis and extreme antiabortion activists. The third seemed to be Muslims, including African-American Muslims, whose convictions had nothing to do with terrorism and ranged from robbery to credit card fraud.

And if you liked Bush, you should love Obama!

On March 30, 2010, CCR filed a lawsuit against the government on behalf of several CMU inmates and their families….

Eight days after CCR filed suit, the BOP suddenly gave notice of a proposed rule titled "Communication Management Units." In it the Obama administration kept the Bush-era communication restrictions while broadening their scope. While the 2006 proposed rule was limited to people with "an identifiable link to terrorist-related activity," the Obama-era rule can be applied to "any inmate," including "persons held as witnesses, detainees or otherwise."

The full story contains much personal details about prisoners and families stuck in the CMU system.