By Maral Ali
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have come to symbolize the face of the “War on Terror” and the many abuses that took place in that era, yet even with the end of the Bush Administration, a silent legacy remains in the form of secret illegal prisons in the United States designed to hold terrorists. The Communication Management Units (CMUs) are medium-security terrorism units located within the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana and in the US Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois; prisons within a prison. Described by its inmates as a “Little Guantanamo,” these units have been kept secret from the public, created outside of legal procedures, and according to Jennifer Van Bergen in a report in The Raw Story, house an almost completely Muslim and/or Arab prison population. In fact, a search on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website will only reveal one mention of the CMU, and the BOP has yet to give out a list of who exactly is being held in these units.
The first major concern raised about the CMU is its illegal establishment. Opened in December 2006, the Terre Haute CMU did not follow legal steps, according to an article published in The Raw Story by Jennifer Van Bergen. Federal law stipulates “the public be notified of any new changes to prison programs and be given the opportunity to voice objections. Instead, the program appears to have been ordered and implemented by a senior official at the Department of Justice” during the Bush administration. On June 18th, 2009, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder and two high Bureau of Prisons officials, challenging the CMUs’ legality. Evidence reveals that officials sidestepped the Administrative Procedures Act after unsuccessfully attempting to create another facility named the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), which was stopped by Congress in 2005.
How inmates are chosen to be sent to the CMU is also extremely problematic, according to Dan Eggen of the Washington Post. Since being sent to the CMU is not a punitive measure, officials are not obligated to conduct hearings or take other steps that are required when punishments are given, said Carmen Hernandez, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In other words, there are no rules that lead a person to be sent to the CMU. Instead it is left to the BOP to arbitrarily decide who it chooses to send. Though the BOP claims that “race and religion play no factor in an offender’s designation to this unit,” the fact that an overwhelming majority of inmates are Arab and/or Muslim seems to implicate the CMU as guilty of racial profiling. In addition, most of the inmates have not been convicted of terrorism-related charges, casting even greater doubt on the neutrality and legality of CMU prisoner selection.
Another great concern is the extreme restrictions placed on prisoner communication. According to a June 2009 Democracy Now! interview with Andrew Stepanian, who was just released from the Marion CMU, restrictions at the CMU are “more or as restrictive” as super-max prisons such as the one in Florence, Colorado. Instead of the standard 300 minutes per month, prisoners are only allowed one 15 minute call per week, which is again restricted to weekdays between the hours of 8am-3pm. For families that work during these hours, communication becomes almost impossible. The warden has the power to reduce this to just 3 minutes per month. According to the CMU Institution Supplement, all communication must be in English. Unless “previously scheduled and conducted through simultaneous translation monitoring,” any call where non-English is spoken is immediately terminated. The Institution Supplement also lists that “in the event of terminated calls, inmates may be subject to disciplinary action, and the person may be removed from the inmate’s approved telephone list.”
Visits are also limited to two two-hour visits or one four-hour visit per month. All visits at the CMU are non-contact (partitioned room and telephone voice contact), with live monitoring by staff, and also conducted entirely in English. A Washington Report on Middle East Affairs shows that many agree that “the severe restrictions placed on inmates’ communication inhibit their ability to mount an appeal.” The fact that many inmates do not speak English makes these restrictions even more harmful and unjust. Such harsh guidelines are used for the most violent inmates with the worst offenses, yet most CMU inmates are either low or medium level security.
One family impacted by this extreme system is that of Seyed Mousavi of Southern California, who was sent to the CMU despite never being charged with terrorist activities back in January 2009. Like many of his fellow inmates, he suddenly and inexplicably found himself being taken to an out-of-state prison even though his judge had recommended that he be housed with the general population in a Southern California prison camp. Now his family in Los Angeles must deal with the hardships that this prison imposes. Because the prison is located in Indiana, visiting Seyed Mousavi has become extremely difficult and costly for his family, and when they are able to visit, limited to only four hours. And since visits are not allowed on weekends or holidays, seeing their father becomes that much harder. “It just aches. It hurts to not even have the basic right to seeing our dad freely, of being so restricted and having absolutely no choice about it,” said Zeinab Mousavi, Seyed Mousavi’s eldest daughter.
In the Democracy Now! interview, Will Potter, a freelance reporter focusing on the War on Terror’s effect on civil liberties, expanded on the CMU’s demographics, communication restrictions, and their implications. By observing those that have been sent to the CMUs and the nature of what they were accused of, he said that most are issues that the US government has a great vested interest in and does not want media coverage on. One example is Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who was accused of breaking the US embargo on Iraq by collecting and delivering medical aid to those affected by the sanctions. Extreme communication guidelines ensure that prisoners are not only blocked from talking to the media but from communicating with their groups and communities.
Potter identified an unsettling post-‘War on Terror’ campaign against activists where they are labeled as terrorists. Following a common pattern, these individuals are “guilty until proven innocent,” as they are called terrorists even before trial in press conferences, labeled again during their trials, and when sentenced, the government pushes for terrorist enhancement penalties, said Potter. The CMUs are the final step in the government’s use of the word ‘terrorism’ to push a political agenda and to really dominate and … attempt to control … social movements, said Potter. People are sent to the CMUs not because of their crimes, but because of the politics of their crimes, said Potter.
Though inmates and their families had hoped that the new administration would begin to right many of Bush’s wrongs, for the time-being, they can do nothing but wait. President Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons worldwide, yet as of now, he has said and done nothing about the CMUs. According to Zeinab Mousavi, prison conditions remain much the same for her father since President Obama took office, with no hope of anything changing in the near future.