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“Little Guantanamo”–Secretive ”CMU” Prisons Designed to Restrict Communication of Jailed Muslims and Activists with Outside World

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With little public scrutiny, the Bush administration opened two secretive prisons in Indiana and Illinois known as Communication Management Units, or CMUs, that are designed to severely restrict prisoner communication with family members, the media and the outside world. Dozens of Muslim men are still being held at the CMUs, as well as other prisoners, including environmental and animal rights activists. We speak with attorneys for two men being held there, as well as a reporter covering the story. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJun 25, 2009EXCLUSIVE: Animal Rights Activist Jailed at Secretive Prison Gives First Account of Life Inside a ”CMU
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to an issue of prisons here at home. While President Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo and the secret overseas CIA prisons, calls are increasing for him to reexamine the treatment of prisoners detained as part of the so-called war on terror being held inside the United States.

With little public scrutiny, the Bush administration opened two secretive prisons in Indiana and Illinois, known as Communication Management Units, or CMUs, that are designed to severely restrict prisoner communication with family members, the media and the outside world. Dozens of Muslim men are still being held at the CMUs, as well as other prisoners, including environmental and animal rights activists.

The government has provided little information about the special prison units. A search on the Bureau of Prisons website yields just one document even mentioning the program. Only a handful of news articles have covered what’s been described as a Little Guantanamo by some of the prisoners.

The first CMU was opened in 2006 in a special, isolated wing of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. A second CMU was opened last year in Marion, Illinois.

Prisoners held inside the special unit include Dr. Rafil Dhafir, the Iraqi-born doctor from upstate New York who is serving a twenty-two-year sentence for violating the Iraqi sanctions by sending aid to Iraq through his charity Help the Needy; Yassin Aref, the Kurdish-born imam from Albany, New York, who was convicted in a controversial FBI sting operation; and also the environmental activist Daniel McGowan. He’s serving a seven-year sentence for his role in two acts of arson.

Some critics have suggested McGowan and other non-Muslim prisoners are being held in the CMU, because the federal government wants to avoid accusations that the CMUs are designed to only hold Muslim men.

The Bureau of Prisons declined our invitation to join us today. But in a written statement, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said, quote, “Race and religion play no factor in an offender’s designation to this unit. It’s solely based on their need for increased monitoring of their communications.”

We’re joined now in Washington, D.C., by Will Potter. He is a freelance reporter, editor of the website Earlier this week, he published an article called “Secretive U.S. Prison Units Used to House Muslim, Animal Rights and Environmental Activists.” We are also joined by two attorneys who represent men being held in these cases.

But, Will Potter, just lay out the story for us.

WILL POTTER: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for having me.

These CMUs are so-called self-contained units in two facilities in the country. There’s one in Terre Haute, Indiana, and another in President Obama’s home state of Illinois at Marion. And according to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons, they’re being used for inmates that need increased communications monitoring. In practice, what we’re seeing is a roundup of inmates from a variety of prisons across the country that are being put in these CMUs and having intense communications monitoring take place that rival some of the most extreme prisons in the country, including ADX, the supermax in Colorado. And as inmates were taken there, they’re given no opportunity to appeal or have a hearing of their designation.

Once they’re there, they have extreme restrictions, including having all phone calls monitored and limited to fifteen minutes a week, where the average is about 300 minutes a month. You have visitation restrictions that include no personal contact and limited to four hours a month, whereas with the ADX supermax, for instance, visitation hours are thirty hours a month. And on top of that, you have a restriction of due process rights. These individuals have no idea why they’re there, and they have no means of challenging it.

AMY GOODMAN: How much is known about these prisons? How much has been written about them?

WILL POTTER: Not very much has been written about it, and very little is known. I have a Freedom of Information Act request of — obtained through attorneys, that requested to know who actually is in these facilities. The government acknowledges that they exist. The government acknowledges that —- you know, through their institutional supplements, what the policies are, or at least the skeleton of those policies. But the government refuses to say who is actually there, why they’re there, and how they can get out, if they want to appeal that designation.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to bring into the conversation two attorneys who represent men being held inside the CMUs, the Communication Management Units. Lauren Regan is the executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. She is part of Daniel McGowan’s defense team. She’s joining us from Eugene, Oregon, by DN! video stream. In New York, we’re joined by Kathy Manley, an attorney for Yassin Aref.

Lauren Regan, let’s begin with you. Describe Daniel McGowan’s situation at the prison. Exactly where is he?

LAUREN REGAN: Well, he is in the CMU in Marion, Illinois. He was literally snatched in the middle of the night from a federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota, and was never given any reason why he was transferred there. He had just completed his six-month prison review, and they gave him complete exemplary reviews. He was a model inmate. And interestingly, Daniel really had no prior convictions at all. Normally, he would have been qualified for a very low— or minimum-security prison. He had no violence or, you know, any problems in the prison system. And he wasn’t convicted of any terrorist crime or being affiliated with a terrorist organization, other than the government’s claim that he was affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in the Eugene Weekly. It says in a letter that Daniel McGowan wrote to you, “the prisoners refer to the unit as ‘Little Guantanamo’ and speculate that when the real Guantanomo closes, some of those prisoners will be sent to Marion.” Lauren?

LAUREN REGAN: Yes, that’s correct. The inmates there do call Marion, Illinois, “Little Guantanamo.” Part of the reason that they call it that is because it is a secret facility. They do feel as if they are being hidden, not only from society at large, but from other inmates in the federal system. As well, you know, as Will mentioned, their lives within the prison are extremely different from even those that are being sanctioned or punished for violent actions while in prison. There is an incredible amount of barbwire. Daniel has actually said that in seeing pictures of Guantanamo, the unit where he’s being housed is actually more fortified than the photos of Guantanamo.

And, you know, just to give you an example, normally prisoners in the federal system have access to recreation yards and all sorts of outdoor activities, but at Little Guantanamo, there are four cages that they are allowed out into for a very short time period each day. The cage has a basketball hoop, and that’s about the extent of their recreation time, also sort of harkening to a Guantanamo-type existence.

And the other similarity, of course, is, like the people in Guantanamo Bay, these individuals have no understanding of what they did to get themselves into the CMU and what they can do to get out of it. Normally when a prisoner is being disciplined for something they did wrong, they are able to earn their way out of that disciplinary unit, even those that are being held in Florence, Colorado, the most violent prison in America, if they conduct themselves for one year with good behavior, they can go back into a general unit. But as far as we know right now, Mr. McGowan will serve the remainder of his sentence in this facility, because we can’t find any mechanism to challenge his designation there, which will be part of a future litigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Daniel McGowan allowed to grant any interviews from prison? Has he done any media interviews?

LAUREN REGAN: Well, we’ve attempted. There have been several requests by media to conduct both print and film interviews, and all of them have been denied. And as far as we know at this time, the warden of that unit is indicating that they will not permit any contact.

And in fact, you know, even his attorney calls to me are greatly restricted. I’m only allowed to speak with him on the phone if we have an imminent upcoming court hearing. Otherwise, I have to write to him. And we’ve already had one letter, attorney-client-privileged letter, opened by the prison and read, and they made comments on legal strategy that I was sending to him. So there’s a bunch of problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Manley, tell us about the case of Yassin Aref, exactly where and how he is being held right now, what communication he is able to have with the outside world.

KATHY MANLEY: OK. Well, first I’d like to say that Yassin really loves this show. He was able to listen to it when he was in solitary confinement in Rensselaer County Jail for over a year, and he said that this show and his Holy Book helped him keep his sanity during that time.

After — he was convicted in a very unfair FBI sting operation. He’s a Kurdish refugee from Iraq. He came here expecting to find freedom, but because he had been outspoken about the war and about Palestinian rights, he was investigated. They couldn’t really find anything, so they were still suspicious of him, and they set him up in this sting operation. And he was convicted. It’s a long story. I won’t go into all of that. But it was terribly unfair. And after he was sentenced to fifteen years, he was taken to the CMU in Terre Haute, and that was in May of 2007.

And he wrote about it, which is on his website He wrote about it, called “Dead Life in a Political Prison.” And he described the life there, which one of the worst parts for him is not being able to have contact visits with his family, with his wife and four young children, which they can’t even hardly get there anyway, because it’s so far away. They’ve only been there once in that two years. And when they did go, I went with them, and there was this tiny little room that they had to be in. I got to have a contact visit as his attorney, but they really needed to be able to hug him. His baby, his other children, his wife had to visit through glass with a phone. And so, that’s probably the hardest part for him and just not being able to support his family, of course.

But the CMUs, when they were first set up, the way prison units are usually set up is they’re regulated in the Code of Federal Regulations. And under the Administrative Procedures Act, they usually request public comment with setting up something new like this. And they actually did that in 2006. They had proposed regulations, codified CFR proposed regulations, and they asked for comment. And the ACLU and other groups showed that these proposed rules would be unconstitutional, discriminatory and restricting communications with the media, restricting the contact visits, a lot of this stuff would be unconstitutional. And then the Bureau of Prisons said, “OK, we won’t do it.” Well, then, at the end of 2006, they did it anyway, but they didn’t codify it. The institution supplement they published, instead of citing to the regulations that they would normally do, they just say “according to national policy” they’re doing this. And I do think it’s illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at Yassin Aref’s piece called “Dead Life,” where he says, “To me it is clear that the Government separated us out and put us here for these reasons:

“Most of the people here are victims of the Government, who targeted them and set them up. Then, during the prosecution, they claimed that these people are dangerous, that they intend to harm Americans and would support terrorists. So now, to keep the charade going, they must open a special unit and claim we are too dangerous to be in the general population.”

KATHY MANLEY: Yeah, that’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Manley?

KATHY MANLEY: That’s something that at first, when we were working on Yassin’s case, we thought he was the only one that was innocent and convicted unfairly, and then we started looking into other cases, and we realized that there’s a lot of other people in his situation who are either completely innocent or way overcharged, where there was some kind of vendetta against them, mostly Muslim men.

And Yassin, he wrote a book about his life, Son of Mountains. He wrote that piece you were talking about.

Also, the reason that they said that they put him in the CMU, the reason they gave is because they said he had communicated with a terrorist group called JEM. And that’s just a complete lie. There was a sting operation. There was no actual communication with JEM. The FBI informant pretended to be in communication with JEM. He wasn’t even in communication with this group. And Yassin said he could never support that group. He didn’t know enough about it. He wouldn’t support it. And then they actually claimed that that was why they put him in the CMU.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. Rafil Dhafir, his situation and who he is?

KATHY MANLEY: Yeah, he’s an oncologist from Syracuse, New York, who was also convicted very unfairly. He was convicted of violating the sanctions against Iraq under Saddam by sending charity — money to charity there to help children, called Save the Needy. And they didn’t even accuse him of anything to do with terrorism. And they just — he was the only person convicted of violating these sanctions. And for some reason, they put him at the CMU, too. Basically it’s anybody that they’re suspicious of their ideas.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Dharif, serving a twenty-two-year sentence. This issue of racial and religious profiling, Kathy Manley?

KATHY MANLEY: Well, yeah, it’s unconstitutional to treat people more restrictively in a prison context because of their race or religion. And they’re clearly doing that. I mean, the CMU in Terre Haute is almost 90 percent Muslim. They just threw in a few non-Muslims. In Marion, I’m not quite sure. Yassin was recently moved to Marion all of a sudden, which is even farther away from his family. I mean, this is just — it’s clearly discriminatory, unconstitutional.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Again, Dr. Rafil Dhafir is serving twenty-two years in prison. Thank you for joining us, Kathy Manley, as well Lauren Regan, joining us by video stream from Eugene, Oregon, to talk about Daniel McGowan, also being held in these CMUs.

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