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EXCLUSIVE: Animal Rights Activist Jailed at Secretive Prison Gives First Account of Life Inside a ”CMU

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In a Democracy Now! exclusive interview, we speak with Andrew Stepanian, an animal rights activist who was jailed at a secretive prison known as a Communication Management Unit, or CMU. Stepanian is believed to be the first prisoner released from a CMU and will talk about his experience there for the first time. He was sentenced to three years along with six other activists for violating a controversial law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of CMUs. We also speak with Stepanian’s lawyer and a reporter covering the story. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 17, 2009“Little Guantanamo”–Secretive ”CMU” Prisons Designed to Restrict Communication of Jailed Muslims and Activists with Outside World
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder and the Federal Bureau of Prisons challenging the legality of two secretive prison units in Indiana and Illinois. The prisons, known as Communication Management Units, are designed to severely restrict prisoner communication with family members, the media and the outside world.

The prisons were opened by the Bush administration with little public scrutiny. 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.

Most of the prisoners held in the CMUs have been Muslim men, but the units have also held several non-Muslim political activists, 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. The ACLU lawsuit marks the first high-profile legal challenge to the prisons.

While President Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo and secret overseas prisons, he has said nothing about these secretive prison units known by some prisoners as “Little Guantanamo.”

Today, in a Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak to Andrew Stepanian, an animal rights activist who was held at the CMU in Marion, Illinois. He is believed to be the first prisoner released from a CMU.

In 2006, Andrew Stepanian was sentenced to three years in prison for violating a controversial law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Stepanian and six others were jailed for their role in a campaign to stop animal testing by the British scientific firm Huntingdon Life Science. They were convicted of using a website to “incite attacks” on those who did business with Huntingdon Life Science. Together, the group became known as the SHAC 7.

Andrew Stepanian joins us here in our firehouse studio, as does his attorney Paul Hetznecker. We’re joined in Washington, DC, by the journalist Will Potter. He runs the website

We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

. Andrew, well, welcome to — if you could call it a free life outside of bars, welcome to life outside of the bars.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: It’s an honor to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: How long were you in prison?

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I was in prison about thirty-one months in total.

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty-one months. How much of that time were you at the CMU in Marion?

ANDREW STEPANIAN: My last five-and-a-half months of incarceration I spent there.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experience there.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I was moved in June of last year, so about a year ago, to the CMU of Marion in Marion, Illinois, and I was brought there unannounced. It was about 5:10 in the morning when my cell door opened, and I guess the prison equivalent to a SWAT team came, and I thought I was being disciplined for something. I didn’t understand what was going on. They told me that everything was going to be OK and that I should just stay calm. And they brought me to the mail room. They locked me in a room in the mail room, and at that point they put handcuffs on me, a black plastic box around the handcuffs, shackles on my feet, an additional waistband, restraints that are kind of abnormal for most prisoners to be put in. And they apologized to me. And they said I got to go someplace, and they can’t tell me where I’m going. And it wasn’t ’til I hit the ground in Illinois that I was able to figure out where I was going.

AMY GOODMAN: And where was that?

ANDREW STEPANIAN: Marion, Illinois, United States Penitentiary, where inside the penitentiary is a prison within the prison, designed as a Communications Management Unit, or CMU.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe what it was like there.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: The Communications Management Unit is a prison within the actual prison. It’s set up in the former hole of the United States Penitentiary, which was the first supermax prison in the federal penal system in the United States.

It’s since been decommissioned as a medium-security federal prison, but all the similar restraints of the maximum are still there. In addition to that, netting and other fences have been put up to prevent people from, say, putting out notes or sending out messagery from the unit itself. The unit doesn’t have normal telephone communication to your family. The unit doesn’t have normal visitation, like you would be able to communicate with your family or embrace them or hug them. These are restraints that are normally put on people that are considered to be the most violent and have the most egregious offenses. And yet, in this case, almost every person that was at the CMU was either a minimum-security case or, at most, a medium-security level, which gives you all the freedoms of being able to walk around a room normally with your family, spend about eight hours in a normal visiting day, say, walking around a patio or sharing snacks from a vending machine. These are the normal visits that a prisoner would be able to experience. These normal visits are denied.

Normal phone calls, usually 300 minutes a month for an average inmate, are denied. Instead, you have to make an appointment to make one phone call a week, and that needs to be done with the oversight of a translator, a live monitor and someone from Washington, DC. So it needs to be done during certain hours. It needs to be done during weekdays. So it could only be done from the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and so that limits the amount of time that you’d be able to get in contact with your family. Say if you have a working-class family, and you’re trying to get in touch with your wife, and your wife doesn’t get off work until 4:00 p.m., well, you’re pretty much out of luck then.

Most of the men that are in these units are Muslim. I, myself, am not Muslim. From what I observed, about 70 percent of the men that were there were Muslim and had questionable cases that were labeled as either extremist or terrorist cases. But when I grew to meet them, I realized that the cases were, in fact, very different, and their personalities affected, you know, my judgment of them to think that they’re better people than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Hetznecker, you’re Andy Stepanian’s attorney. Explain under what charges he was convicted. Explain the law and how it has changed.

PAUL HETZNECKER: Well, first of all, it’s an honor to be here.

I think that this particular statute, in its application, reflects a long tradition of a war on dissent in this country. And unfortunately, in this case, what Andrew was convicted of was a violation of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, a — really conspiracy to commit a violation of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which is now under legal challenge, constitutional challenge, for the overbroad nature of the language within the statute. It really encompasses both what is considered normally, typically, criminal behavior — vandalism, criminal mischief, those kinds of things — and it overlaps into what is First Amendment-protected activity, that has long been traditionally protected by the First Amendment and has been considered part of our tradition of dissent in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what he was convicted of.

PAUL HETZNECKER: He was convicted of the conspiracy to commit a violation of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. And specifically, what they allege was — and their theory of prosecution kind of changed — but what they alleged was that the website upon which information was disseminated about the movement, and particularly this political movement in targeting the Huntingdon Life Science Corporation, that those who essentially passed on communications to others or actually reflected communiques from others that were involved in the movement were involved in inciting others to commit crime.

And it harkens back a real dangerous, dangerous challenge to our First Amendment protections in this new frontier of the internet, where both the political expression and government repression are battling out in this new frontier. And it’s a very dangerous precedent, because the individuals that were convicted under the statute were not individuals that were shown to be involved in direct criminal conduct.

And in particular, Andrew Stepanian’s case, much of the evidence against him was really a reflection of his protected activity at home demonstrations, at various corporate targets where he would demonstrate within the bounds of civil injunctions that limited time, place and manner restrictions. And so, his involvement, essentially, according to the government, was really his association with others that were operating the website. And that’s where it presents a very dangerous, dangerous precedent —-


PAUL HETZNECKER: — for activists in this country — I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: The law that was called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act was changed to include the word “terrorism.”

PAUL HETZNECKER: Yes, and it’s been amended. It was amended in 2006, which encompassed essentially what the SHAC 7 were charged with doing, which was running a political campaign through the website, essentially with other tertiary corporate targets. And as a consequence, the challenge to the statute, both at trial but also on appeal, is that essentially what these individuals were involved in was an agreement, not a criminal agreement, but an agreement to express their political views and act upon their political views against this particular political target.

And I think this particular statute — and I call it a designer statute, because I think it’s really been promoted; it was promoted initially by the pharmaceutical companies — but this particular designer statute, so to speak, really presents a very dangerous precedent to all political activists, because it essentially, as I said before, intermingles protected activity with the crimes of — the uncharged crimes of other people. In this particular case, the prosecution alleged that there was actions of harassment by unidentified people to these tertiary corporate targets, by people that were never charged in this particular indictment. And yet, the conspiracy, the web of the conspiracy, envelops those who were simply passing on communications regarding those activities.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Paul Hetznecker, the Philadelphia-based attorney representing Andrew Stepanian, and Andrew, himself, who has just come out of serving a twenty-six-month federal prison sentence. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Will Potter, who’s written extensively about these CMUs, Communication Management Units, where Andrew Stepanian served at Marion in Illinois. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are today joined by Andrew Stepanian in a Democracy Now! exclusive. He is just out of serving a twenty-six-month federal prison sentence, six months of that time at a CMU, at a Communications Management Unit. Paul Hetznecker is his attorney. Will Potter is a freelance reporter who’s reported extensively focusing on how the war on terrorism affects of civil liberties.

Andrew, how did the CMUs get established?

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I believe in 2005 they made an initial round to set up something like the CMU, and at the time it was called the CTU, counterterrorism unit. This didn’t meet the regular approval process, which has to go through the Administrative Procedures Act and go through the oversight of Congress. Harley Lappin, director of the BOP, then went back and, on his own, sidestepped the Administrative Procedures Act. And in many senses, after he developed this unit, it calls into question the legality of the unit itself. The law states that any federal program such as this has to be done with the oversight of the Administrative Procedures Act, which means that it would have to fall under public scrutiny in Congress. The fact that this didn’t happen is mentioned within the ACLU’s lawsuit.

And I would make an appeal to the Bush administration and obviously the Obama administration to undo some of this legacy that they’ve done and to try and reverse some of the damage that’s been done by sidestepping some of our fundamental rights, and making sure that programs like this don’t get established without public discourse.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, talk more about these CMUs that you have been investigating and especially the people who are brought to these Communication Management Units at Terre Haute, also at Marion, where Andrew Stepanian was.

WILL POTTER: Well, these Communication Management Units are an expansion of a continued war on dissent in this country. And what I’ve seen in my reporting is that, first, these corporations and the politicians who represent them smear activists as terrorists in the press and in briefing documents and in Congress. And then, when people are arrested, people like Andy Stepanian and Daniel McGowan and others you’ve had on this program, they are smeared before they even enter the courtroom and labeled as a terrorist in press conferences. Then, when they go to trial, they’re labeled as a terrorist again. And then, when they’re sentenced, the government pushes for terrorism enhancement penalties. And now these CMUs are really the final step, in my opinion, of this — of using that word “terrorism” to push a political agenda and to really dominate and to control — attempt to control these social movements.

And what they’re doing is selecting people, not because of their crimes, but because of the politics of their crimes. I mean, as Andy Stepanian has said, he and Daniel McGowan and the others in this facility are not there because they harmed anyone. They’re not there because they approach anything that most reasonable people would consider even close to being terrorism. They’re there because, according to the government, in part, they have very strong networks of support. I was there for Daniel McGowan’s sentencing in Oregon, and I was also there for the SHAC trial and the SHAC appeal. And one thing that came upon over and over again was listing how these individuals have support websites, how they have individuals supporting them and donating money, donating books, organizing benefit shows, doing media, going on Democracy Now!. That actually came up in Daniel McGowan’s sentencing. So it’s clear that these people are being targeted because they have a strong network of support that can get information out. And putting them in these facilities is an attempt to neutralize that.

AMY GOODMAN: A few quotes from the Bureau of Prisons. We recently wrote them some questions about the situation at the CMUs. Traci Billingsley, chief public information officer at the Bureau of Prisons, said, “Inmates can have visitors, including children, and all visiting is non contact [and] there are no restrictions forbidding media access. As with all other inmates, media requests are considered on a case by case basis.”

She also said, “I don’t have the specific demographics at this time, however, 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.” Will Potter?

WILL POTTER: Well, it’s more of this doublespeak coming from the Bureau of Prisons and from the US government. I mean, they say that race and religion play no part in this, but according to the transfer papers for both Daniel McGowan and Andy Stepanian, they’re listed as being, quote, “affiliated with a domestic terrorist organization, the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, and having ties to these groups.” So, on the one hand, we have prosecutors saying, “Believe us, this is not political,” saying over and over again, “This is not a political move. These facilities are just like every other facility.” Then, on the other hand, they’re specifically saying this political nature of these cases and why these people need to be in restrictive facilities.

I mean, it’s really important to remember that these Communications Management Units are, in many ways, as restrictive, or even more so, than the most severe facilities in the country, than ADX Florence, the supermax, than the special housing units or the holes, the special administrative measures that the Attorney General can issue. All of these powers already exist. Communications between inmates and to the outside world are already monitored. So these additional restrictions are being pushed simply because of the political nature of these cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew, you have talked about racial profiling at these prisons. Explain who was at your prison and at Terre Haute.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I was advised not to talk about the specific names of the individuals that were there, but — I can’t speak directly about Terre Haute. Anything that I would say would be conjecture based on transfers into Marion. But what I do know is, of the demographic of the people that are there, over 70 percent of the people that were at Marion at the time when I left, and I think it was twenty-four people on the day that I left — over 70 percent of them were Muslim.

And at a glance, what it appears to be is that they don’t want people that are either considered to be fundamentalist in Islam or more devout than your average American in Islam to be circulating amidst the regular prison populace in the Bureau of Prisons. Whatever their objective in doing so, I mean, that would have to come from the Bureau of Prisons. But one can surmise it’s because they don’t want the spread of Islam in the prisons or that they’re trying to silence communications from these individuals, because perhaps their cases are in question themselves, and they don’t want to allow them access to the media.

It’s the antithesis of the statement from the woman from the Bureau of Prisons that you just read, in the sense that, yes, they do have a policy in place that allows someone to be reviewed for a media visit, but what it shows in practice is that they’re going to deny every single media attempt to contact an individual, and they’re going to deny that ability to that individual to reach out to the media. And it’s very easy for them to do so. They control all the mail that goes in and out, and they control all the phone calls.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, Andrew may be advised not to be able to talk about the names of the people at the Marion CMU or Terre Haute, but can you tell us about a few of who these people are? And then I want to ask you about who lobbied for the legislation that’s in place right now. But first, the prisoners.

WILL POTTER: Well, part of that is still hard to come by. I mean, I’ve compiled lists working with attorneys that have been following these cases and that are working with some of the defendants involved in the other cases related to Operation Backfire and the SHAC 7 cases, but the government won’t come forward with a list of who is actually there, which I think really speaks to and contradicts the statement that you read from the Bureau of Prisons. They are trying to hide who these people are.

Despite that, some information has come out. In addition to Andy Stepanian, Daniel McGowan it there right now. He was a environmental — or is an environmental activist. He was rounded up as part of Operation Backfire for property crimes in the name of the environment. He didn’t harm anyone. And he was sentenced using a terrorism enhancement, and he was transferred to the Communication Management Unit. And as I mentioned before, the judge in that case made a point of singling out McGowan and saying he has a vocal and strong network of support, and she chastised him for that.

In addition to that, there’s a physician named Rafil Dhafir. He sent medical supplies to the people of Iraq through a charity. He was convicted of violating the economic sanctions on Iraq, in what is believed to be the first conviction of violating those US-imposed sanctions that were killing thousands of children a year by restricting medical and basic humanitarian supplies from entering the country. He is in that facility, as well. And, of course, Andy Stepanian.

So, what we’re seeing here is a trend, in that not all these issues are the same, and they’re not all part of the same social movements, but these are all cases that the government has a vested interest in not allowing continued media coverage of and not allowing this to get out and to raise more of an uproar than it already has.

PAUL HETZNECKER: Amy, can I just expound upon what Will has said?

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Hetznecker.

PAUL HETZNECKER: In Andrew’s case, it’s a perfect example of what Will has talked about, which is this war on dissent, because in Andrew’s case the evidence against him was essentially that he was associating with a website, didn’t operate the website. But beyond that, the FBI wiretaps that were admitted established Andrew’s attempts, repeated attempts, to reflect his decision not to violate the time, place and manner restrictions of the civil injunctions that were imposed on certain demonstrations. And the government argues that at one point when Mr. Stepanian, communicating with another individual, another defendant in this case, decides to communicate through email, what they allege was an encrypted email, the government alleges that’s evidence of his criminal intent. And this is a frightening example of — the journey that Andrew Stepanian has gone through is a frightening example of what Will has talked about, which is this incredible attempt by the government to envelop political activists, criminalize dissent, convict them and then send them to special housing units based on a political agenda. And that’s the frightening, frightening example that Andrew Stepanian’s case presents to the American public.

And I would also urge the Obama administration to look very carefully not only into the CMUs. And there’s a long history of supermax prisons and the suppression of dissent within the prisons or expression within the prisons of political activists in this country. But what is reflected in this — the application of this statute and in Andrew’s conviction is a new attempt by the government, in a long history in this country of struggle over First Amendment rights, a new attempt by the government to suppress political dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, can you talk about the entities that lobbied for the American Enterprise Terrorism Act?

WILL POTTER: Sure. They’re really the most powerful players in the pharmaceutical, animal research, meat and dairy industry, the food industry, the fur industry, all of these industries that most of the activists that you’ve had on the — the animal rights activists you’ve talked to and people like Andy are targeting in their campaigns. And they push this, and they have been for quite awhile. I’ve been following various incarnations of these Animal Enterprise Terrorism legislation and ecoterrorism legislation for about nine years now. And they’ve tried it at the state level, and they finally got the expansion they wanted on the national level in 2006, as once mentioned earlier.

And the way they did that is they rushed it through — through an obscure procedure called a suspension of the rules. There were actually only six members of Congress on the House side in the room when it passed. These industries had lobbied for it heavily. And because it was an issue that these industries who have so much financial and so much influence on members of Congress, it got through with very little discussion and debate.

And actually, when I testified about the law in 2006, it really reflected the disconnect between the kind of statement you read earlier from the Bureau of Prisons and some of rhetoric of the government and what’s really going on, because just as — just after the SHAC defendants were convicted, so just after Andy Stepanian was convicted, these corporations were already pushing for an expansion of the law, saying the animal research and meat and dairy industries are being targeted, and existing legislation doesn’t go far enough. They wanted new power, new surveillance power, new terrorism power, to attack their political opponents.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Will Potter, in the last weeks, we saw the killing of Dr. Tiller, the abortion provider, the obstetrician/gynecologist, who was gunned down in church. Can you talk about the way the media, the Obama administration, talked about the — his death and link it to what we’re talking about today?

WILL POTTER: It was a drastic and — even though I’ve been covering this for quite awhile now, I was really surprised of how the press was responding to the Holocaust shootings — or the Holocaust Museum shootings and Dr. Tiller’s murder, because, mind you, with all these so-called ecoterrorism cases, the press has overwhelmingly bought into this term. It’s being used in headlines. It’s being used in the lede. It’s being used in all the government quotes and sound bites, calling these activists ecoterrorists and domestic terrorists. And they’ve never harmed anyone in the history of these movements. And despite that, according to the FBI, these animal rights and environmental movements are the number one domestic terrorism threat.

Then, when we have activists — or not activists, but individuals who go out and murder a doctor or murder or attempt to murder people in the Holocaust Museum, clearly because of their political agenda, the press is suddenly restrained. And they’re biting their tongues, and they’re being very reluctant in labeling this as terrorism. It was called an isolated individual, an individual working alone, a kind of lone wolf operation, which was a radical departure from how we’ve been talking about terrorism when it comes to these animal rights and environmental activists.

And in saying that, I’m not advocating that all of this should be labeled as terrorism and everything should be labeled as terrorism, but I think it’s a crystal clear example of how this word is being used selectively to push a political agenda. And the press has really overwhelmingly dropped the ball in being critical of these government policies and this smear campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Andy Stepanian, you’re out of prison after several years in prison, a portion of that time at the CMU, this Communication Management Unit in Marion. Can you talk about your activism, reflect on that, and the future of the animal rights movement?

ANDREW STEPANIAN: I can’t really speak to the future of the animal rights movement. I’ve stepped back away from it a little bit myself, simply just out of self-preservation. But I definitely applaud people that fight for animal liberation, that fight for earth liberation, that fight for human rights and justice.

And I have to say that I don’t have any regrets. I don’t have any regrets, because I know deep down inside — I mean, I’ve been involved with a variety of causes. I was doing Food Not Bombs, feeding the homeless once a week for about six years. It’s the same motivation that I had to do that every Sunday morning that brought me to question what was going on inside Huntingdon Life Sciences, the efficacy of testing on animals and the efficacy of the way we treat animals in this country. And it also brought me to New Orleans, Louisiana, to help folks after Hurricane Katrina. I mean, that’s what has motivated me to do what I do. It’s the same, I guess, tugging on my heartstrings. So I can’t say that I have any regrets for following my heart.

At the end of this prison sentence, instead of, you know, dragging my feet, I’ll look back on the fact that I had a tremendous opportunity to meet people from different cultures, to be exposed to the Islamic world and understand that it’s not something to be feared, it’s not something to be vilified. And if at any point we could reach our arm out and try to rectify some of these predicate steps that cause terrorism —- and by that, I mean it seems as if our government keeps trying to find a new way to attack its opposition, as opposed to questioning what is causing people to act the way they do. This, by no means, is me trying to undercut victims of terrorism and, by no means, is me trying to make apologies for people that are terrorists. But rather, I think that we should start questioning how people are treated in other countries or third world debt or how our economy is affecting other people and causing this desperation, causing this hopelessness, that makes people do these things.

AMY GOODMAN: Very briefly, the other member of the SHAC 7, where they are now.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: Half of them are home. Darius Fullmer is home. Joshua Harper just came home recently. Kevin Kjonaas is still in prison, I believe in Minnesota. Jacob Conroy is in prison in California. And Lauren Gazzola is in prison in Connecticut. If anybody watching this show has an opportunity to write them letters and wish them well, support them in any way you can. Maybe send them a book.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Paul Hetznecker, the appeal? And we just have twenty seconds.

PAUL HETZNECKER: It is currently in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. And I believe this appeal represents a clarion call for the protection of political activity governed and always been protected in our tradition under the First Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Will Potter, in Washington, freelance reporter, we will link to your articles, your blog Paul Hetznecker, attorney for Andy Stepanian, and Andrew Stepanian himself, just out of prison serving a twenty-six—[month] sentence.

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