Must read piece on “Communications Management Units” in US federal prisons

Alia Malek writes in The Nation about the introduction of Communications Management Units (CMUs) for certain federal inmates by the Bush administration and their continued use by the Obama administration. Inmates assigned to CMUs are restricted in their contact with the outside world. They are typically allowed only “one six-page letter per week, one fifteen-minute call per month and one one-hour visit per month, limited to immediate family members.” The article contrasts these conditions with typical federal prison procedure of allowing 300 minutes of calls each month and little restriction on visits (indeed, “even at the only federal Supermax, inmates are allowed thirty-five hours of visits a month”).

It is a sorrowful read for multiple reasons, among them is the the Bush administration establishment of the system without going through the proper regulatory channels:

There was, in fact, little to be found; the Bush administration had quietly opened the CMUs 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. The first whisper of what the government was planning reached public ears in April 2006, when the BOP [Bureau of Prisons]—in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)—published its proposed rule for “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates.” Under the APA, federal agencies like the BOP must publish notice of any new regulations and solicit public comments in order to operate legally. After a period of review, the agency publishes the finalized rule.
Then in February 2007 came a stunning revelation: the BOP had not only abandoned the rule-making process; it had apparently bypassed it altogether by opening a prison unit in December 2006 in which all the inmates were subject to communications restrictions almost exactly like those described in the proposed rule. 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.”

(The text of Dr. Dhafir’s letter can be found here.)

More information about CMUs can be found in a fact sheet by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has previously filed a lawsuit over the system.

The proportion of inmates in CMUs is overwhelming Muslim. The total population in CMU confinement is 60 to 70 inmates with two-thirds of them being Muslim. By contrast, the general federal prison population is 6% Muslim. Even more alarming is the arbitrary process by which inmates are selected for the program. Malek tells of Andy Stepanian, a man who was convicted of “conspiring to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992” and was moved to a CMU for his “connections to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups considered to be domestic terrorist organizations.”

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 CCR lawsuit, filed on behalf of a half dozen CMU inmates, asserts that “not a single Plaintiff has received discipline for any communications related infraction within the last decade, nor any major disciplinary offense. Two Plaintiffs’ disciplinary histories are completely clean” (par. 5). Also notable is the fact that many of the inmates are in prison for material support and white collar crimes. As a CCR attorney told Malek that “the vast majority of these folks are there due to entrapment or material support convictions. In other words, terrorism-related convictions that do not involve any violence or injury.” Particularly instructive is the case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir. An Iraqi-American doctor who ran a charity that provided medical aid to Iraqis besieged by UN sanctions, Dhafir is believed to be the only person ever criminally convicted of violating sanctions against Iraq.

According to United Nations (UN) statistics, every month throughout the 1990s almost 6,000 children under the age of five in Iraq were dying from lack of food and access to simple medicines. Three senior UN officials resigned because of what they considered a “genocidal” policy against Iraq.
Dr. Dhafir is a pillar of the Muslim community in Central New York. He was a founding member of the local mosque, and he served as the imam at Syracuse University until they hired a full time imam. He paid a substantial amount of the running costs of the mosque and provided free medical consultation to those at the mosque without health insurance. His medical practice was in Rome, New York, an underserved area in which he was the sole oncologist. In his practice he provided free health care to people without insurance, and he paid for their expensive chemotherapy medicine out of his own pocket.

For thirteen years Dhafir worked tirelessly to help publicize the plight of the Iraqi people and to raise funds to help them. According to the government, Dhafir donated 1.25 million dollars of his own money over the years. As an oncologist, he was also concerned about the effects of depleted uranium on the Iraqi population that experienced skyrocketing cancer rates. For the crime of breaking the U.S.- and U.K.-sponsored UN sanctions on Iraq and sending humanitarian aid to sick and starving civilians, Dhafir was held without bail for thirty-one months and then sentenced to twenty-two years in prison (Katherine Hughes, “Criminalizing Compassion in the War on Terror,” MR Zine, 18 Nov 2006).

Also outrageous was the confinement of Sabri Benkahla. After being acquitted of material support counts, he was charged and convicted of grand jury perjury. At his sentencing, the US District Judge declared unequivocally that ‘Benkahla is not a terrorist’ and noted having received more letters on Benkahla’s behalf than any other defendant in twenty-five years, including one from Congressman James Moran, who described Benkahla as “an upstanding and productive member of society.” Despite the lack of any terror-related conviction, he was transferred to a CMU. The BOP moved him back to the general population after the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2009.

A restriction considered especially cruel is the categorical ban on physical contact with family members during visits. The CCR legal complaint claims that (emphasis theirs):

The prolonged and indefinite ban on physical contact is extremely deleterious to Plaintiffs’ emotional and mental health and rehabilitation, and to maintenance of family integrity. […] Psychological research shows a consistent correlation between quantity and quality of touch and relationship integrity. Physical contact is a basic human need essential to one’s mental health, and the maintenance of close family relationships, especially those between husbands and wives, and parents and children. With respect to young children, it is the only means of effective association. Physical contact in the context of prison visitation is of central importance—as non-contact visitation leads to emotional stress and interferes with the positive role visitation can play in maintaining family integrity (par. 45).

The experiences of the wife and children of one material support convict, Kifah Jayyousi, is described in some detail.

In May 2007, Ms. Jayyousi heard from her husband that he had been transferred to the CMU at Terre Haute. She and her five children visited him a month later, and have visited him there six or seven times since then. Ms. Jayyousi describes their visits as torturous for her children. The family is separated by a glass window and must take turns communicating over a telephone. The visiting room is tiny, cramped and poorly ventilated, and there are no vending machines available. If one of the children has to use the bathroom during a visit, Ms. Jayyousi is forced to urge them to hold off so the visit is not shortened.

More than anything, the lack of physical contact is devastating to the younger children. At the end of their first visit, Ms. Jayyousi’s youngest daughter, then ten years old, screamed that she wanted to hug her father, and began to cry uncontrollably. Ms. Jayyousi tried to calm her daughter down, hugging her and saying that it was the same as her father doing so. Her daughter pushed her away and screamed for her father, who began crying as well as he was forced to watch his family’s pain and was unable to comfort them (pars. 226-227).

The CMU system is similar to the Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) used by the BOP in cases where it is “determined necessary to prevent the dissemination of either classified information that could endanger the national security, or of other information that could lead to acts of violence and/or terrorism.” SAMs gained notoriety for their extensive utilization in the pretrial detention of Syed Fahad Hashmi. He spent almost three years in solitary confinement, deprived of all contact with other prisoners and most outside visitors. Only his attorneys and, on limited occasions, his immediate family members were given access to him. He was also isolated from the outside world by being denied most media source including television and radio. The few sections of newspaper content that were approved were only accessible to him thirty days after their initial publication. In addition, he had zero access to natural air or sunlight. The crime he stood accused of and eventually plead guilty to? Agreeing to let an al-Qaeda terrorist store raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (“military gear”) in his apartment and allow him to use his cell phone for plotting attacks. The key piece of evidence against him was the testimony of the same purported al-Qaeda member, Junaid Babar, who has received sentence reductions for testifying against many others in Britain, Canada and the US.

With the recent controversy over the horrid military treatment of WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning, it is important to remember that the civilian justice system has also been using isolation and solitary confinement as a national security measure for a while now.


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