Secret Prison Units Aim to Silence Dissidents
(Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana)
Few throughout the United States have likely heard of the Bureau of Prisons’ “Communications Management Unit” or CMU. This is because, like most secret prison projects attached to the ever expanding U.S. War on Terror, it wasn’t announced to the public when first rolled out four years ago.
Yet for a number of Americans, specifically those who have been held within the CMU units for “radical” or political speech, the nature of these institutions remains a daily part of their lives.
Avon Twitty, who recently completed a prison sentence for a fatal shooting in 1982, is very familiar with the CMU. During the last several years of his 27 year term, Twitty, a Muslim, was confined to the Terre Haute CMU, after Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accused him of attempts to “radicalize” fellow inmates. Contained within his transfer papers and inmate record are vague and unspecific references to “radicalization” that fail to go into any real measure of detail.
Twitty maintains that while he is and was a practicing Muslim, who at the time communicated regularly with other Muslim inmates, he had no involvement in organizing or radicalizing of any kind. Despite this and the lack of specificity in his orders, in October of 2010, without warning or explanation, he was labeled a terrorism risk by BOP and quietly transferred to the Terre Haute facility.
There Twitty, as well as the other mostly Muslim prisoners, held within what prison guards jokingly refer to as “little gitmos,” found themselves effectively cut off from the world.
Allowed only one 15 minute phone call a week and infrequent visitations from family made through plexiglass windows, the added levels of surveillance and restriction of communications surpass those of even Colorado’s “supermax” prison, which is used to hold those deemed to be the most dangerous of convicted offenders.
These specially designed prison units were created initially in 2006 and 2007, with the intent of minimizing prisoner communications with the outside world. The initial logic was to keep terrorism suspects who were not held at Guantanamo from organizing and communicating with potential terror networks.
However in recent years, under criticism that the special units were disproportionally populated by Muslims, the CMUs have been expanding their guest lists, now including political dissidents, radicals and prisoners deemed by the BOP to be potential threats to the general order.
In 2006, Daniel McGowan, an activist with the radical environmentalist group The Earth Liberation Front (ELF), pleaded guilty to the charges that he had conspired with others in a planned pair of arson attacks meant to target Oregon area lumber companies.
During his trial, as prosecutors sought to classify ELF actions as terrorism, McGowan pleaded guilty to federal prosecutors and received a seven year prison sentence for his role in the conspiracy.
He was initially sent to FCI Sandstone, a low security federal prison in Minnesota. While there, McGowan enjoyed the privileges afforded to most prison inmates, such as visits from family, phone calls and letters from outsiders as well as the ability to communicate (relatively) freely with other prisoners.
During his time at the Sandstone facility, McGowan continued writing about his interest and passion in environmental activism, essays on the nature of activism and militancy.
McGowan claims that at no time did prison officials raise issue about his works, however in 2008, despite what he describes as a spotless disciplinary record, he was abruptly transferred to one of the CMUs.
Both Twitty and McGowan, as well as five other individuals, filed a civil legal complaint in a 2010, which alleges that classification and transfer to CMUs was effectively an arbitrary process. In Twitty’s case, it was also argued that his transfers to the CMU resulted in a needless extension of his already long prison sentence.
More recently, McGowan who is serving the last portion of his sentence in a Brooklyn halfway house, was ordered back into the CMU after publishing a blog on the Huffington Post in which he described the unit in depth and his own experience being incarcerated within it. He has since been released.
Neither the Bureau of Prisons nor Justice Department is saying much about the CMUs. As civil rights organizations and legal watchdogs press harder to raise issue regarding the secretive isolation units, many are expressing concern that during their initial creation, the development and implementation of the CMUs was never made subject to public scrutiny as is required by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).
With little to no official public overview, the concept of a secret prison unit which specializes in locking down inmates for their political beliefs or speech, has been enough to cause the National Lawyers Guild as well as the American Civil Liberties Union to take action. As legal challenges continue to mount against CMUs, the government is remaining largely silent on the matter.
This is while the activists throughout the country continue to worry to what lengths their speech and freedom of expression remain protected.
(Photo from stateimpact.npr.org)