They’re known to many as “Gitmo North” or “Little Guantanamo”: restrictive units in federal prisons in Illinois and Indiana that cut off inmates from almost all contact with their families and loved ones. Prisoners get two 15-minute phone calls a week. When their family and friends travel for their two 4-hour visits a month, they are not allowed to touch each other. No hugs. No arms around shoulders. Just a phone call on two sides of a thick plastic window. The conversation is monitored by guards, who could stop it at any moment if inmates speak in a language other than English, use hand signals, or break another one of the many visiting rules.
CREDIT: photo provided by Daniel McGowan
“It is soul-crushing,” said Daniel McGowan, who spent nearly four years in the two CMU units. When McGowan served his time in 2007 for his role in two arsons with the Earth Liberation Front, inmates were only allowed one 15-minute call a week and four hours of visiting a month. “You feel very removed from things, even the society of the prison. Things like playing softball, doing something productive, all of that is impossible in the CMU.”
Documents released by the Center for Constitutional Rights this week shed new light on how inmates who have often broken no rules are arbitrarily transferred to the cells, known as “Communication Management Units”, sometimes for years at a time. Prisoners are given incomplete or inaccurate information as to why they’ve been moved, CCR found, and have almost no way to substantively protest their placement.
The Center for Constitutional Rights released the files on Wednesday, as part of a federal lawsuit filed in 2010 over the subjectivity of who is put in the units for “communications monitoring.” The documents confirm that the Bureau of Prisons has no formal policy on who should be put under the restrictions, or how they can earn their way back into general population.
“The CMU was established to house inmates who, due to their current offense of conviction, offense conduct, or other verified information require increased monitoring of communications,” said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress. The list of inmates that might warrant increased monitoring include those convicted on terrorism charges, those “attempting to coordinate illegal activities while incarcerated,” and those with “extensive disciplinary history for abuse of approved communication methods,” Ross said.
“To this day, there still is no final rule that governs the operation of the CMU,” said Alexis Agathocleous, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This failure of process has resulted in a disproportionate focus on both Muslim and politically active prisoners.”
CCR found 60 percent of inmates housed in the CMUs are Muslim–compared to just 6 percent of the overall federal inmate population. While many of these inmates are in prison on terrorism-related charges (several from a series of post-9/11 sting operations), others are merely religious or an active part of the prison’s Muslim community. Among the other 40 percent of inmates are political activists and “jailhouse lawyers” filing their own lawsuits or helping other prisoners with legal issues.
In a 2009 Senate Judiciary hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder testified the units housed prisoners “who have a history of or nexus to international terrorism.”
But depositions and internal prison memos show that officials used widely differing criteria for who should be sent there. One prison official testified that it was “very vague,” but that she thought “significant leadership abilities, high education and technical background and blatant disregard for government” were all qualities that might warrant limiting an inmate’s communications.
McGowan, who was given a terrorism enhancement, had served roughly 9 months of his sentence at a low-security prison in Minnesota when he was transferred to the CMU in Marion, Illinois.
“You have been identified as a member and a leader in the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, groups considered domestic terrorist organizations,” read the single-page notice he received five days into his time at Marion. “Your contact with persons in the community requires heightened control and review.”
McGowan had written and received a large amount of letters from family and friends, and had been blogging on his own website about issues ranging from prison life to immigration. He hadn’t received any warnings or disciplinary actions before being moved, though he knew his mail was being opened.
“It was clear they had been watching me from the get go,” McGowan said. “They really squat on people accused of terrorism crimes.”
When he tried to appeal the transfer through the prison’s administrative remedy process, he received a response repeating almost the exact same language on his first notice. The head of the Bureau of Prison’s counterterrorism unit, Leslie Smith, had written to the regional prison director to advise against releasing McGowan into the general population.
“While incarcerated and through social correspondence and articles written for radical publications, inmate McGowan has attempted to unite the radical environmental and animal liberation unions,” Smith wrote. “Though his efforts to lead and unite radical environmental and anarchist groups have been some-what marginalized while in the CMU, inmate McGowan continues to correspond with numerous associates of these groups.”
“I write a letter to the editor of a magazine and that makes me an aspiring leader? It’s farcical,” McGowan said in response to the accusations. “I read those documents and I don’t even recognize the person they’re talking about. It bears no resemblance to me.”
CCR found not a single inmate had ever successfully challenged being put in the CMUs through the prison’s appeal process. “It just sort of traps these prisoners in this kafkaesque situation where theres actually no meaningful review happening at all,” Agathocleous said.
In some ways, inmates in the CMUs have even more limited communications with those outside the prison than those in a federal supermax facility–and fewer opportunities to get out. Maximum security inmates generally get 35 hours of visitation a month, and earn more phone calls as time proceeds.
Inmates moving to supermax also get a pre-transfer notice and a hearing at which they can present witnesses and evidence to fight the prison’s claims. “The process involved in designating a prisoner to [federal supermax] is far more rigorous, at least on paper,” Agathocleous said.
CREDIT: photo from the Bureau of Prisons website.
CMU inmates, on the other hand, receive a single piece of paper after the transfer, explaining why they’ve been moved. CCR found many of these memos only list some of the reasons prison officials decided to house an inmate in the restrictive units, making it harder for an inmate to appeal.
“I was told the reason I was moved to CMU was because of ‘recruitment and radicalization,’ but wasn’t told anything else,” former plaintiff Avon Twitty told CCR. “Without knowing what I had allegedly done to land in a CMU, I was helpless to challenge those allegations and had no hope of being transferred out.”
According to recent testimonies, even prison officials don’t really know what would qualify an inmate to leave the facility. Some prisoners were told 18 months of good behavior would earn them their way out, but were simply transferred to the other CMU. One inmate was deemed ready to return to general population because he was “distancing himself from the Muslim community.”
“We deposed numerous [prison] officials who were kind of all over the map about what a prisoner needs to do to earn his way out,” Agathocleous said. “Some of them basically testified that they need to stop believing what they believe in order to be eligible for removal.”
The median stay in one of the restrictive units is over 2 1/2 years. CCR found 25 inmates who’d been housed there for over three years without any disciplinary problems. There’s no limit on how long an inmate can be held for “communications monitoring.”
Several studies suggest that regular visits from family members significantly decrease the risk of recidivism among inmates. McGowan, who was released to a halfway house in 2012 and now lives with his wife in Brooklyn, said the isolation of the CMUs made the transition home particularly hard. “I had a hard time with my family, getting along with people, and feeling dissociated, feeling like no one understands what I feel right now,” he said.
The units opened almost in secret in 2006 and 2008. Critics say they flouted federal law by not publishing the proposed rule and opening up a period for public comment. Since then, in response to mounting media attention and legal pressure, the Bureau of Prisons has made some changes to how the CMUs operate. In January 2010, they upped the number of calls and visits inmates receive to two calls a week and two visits a month (though it remains a fraction of the time given to inmates outside the units).
Prison officials have also started moving some inmates back into general population. “Before we filed this lawsuit [in 2010], not one single prisoner had been transferred out of CMU into general population,” Agathocleous said.
The Bureau of Prisons proposed a new rule on how the CMUs would operate in 2010. If adopted, the policy would be even more restrictive. It limits inmates to one 15-minute phone call a month and a single hour visit each month. The Bureau of Prisons has received over 700 comments in response to the proposal.
Four years later, federal prison officials have yet to respond to the public comments or finalize the rules.