Photo from Flickr's antonychammond under Creative Commons license.
As a quick introduction, there are two Communications Management Units, or CMUs , in the country. They radically restrict prisoner communications with the outside world to levels that rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country. [For more information: "Secretive U.S. Prison Units Used to House Muslim, Animal Rights and Environmental Activists."]
Secretive, experimental prisons have no place in a healthy democracy, and their existence should concern every American:
- They were opened secretively in violation of the law. The CMUs were opened without public notification and the required comment period, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, after similar programs were thwarted by civil rights groups. If the Obama administration feels these secretive prisons should exist, they should defend these policies in the open.
- They are political prisons. Most prisoners in CMUs have no significant disciplinary history, and many have no disciplinary history whatsoever. None of the defendants in the lawsuits have any previous violations of communications rules, yet they are being housed in a Communications Management Unit. They were transferred without notification. The only common thread to explain why these prisoners have been moved to the CMUs is that they are individuals the government would rather keep hidden: controversial cases, jailhouse lawyers, and prisoners such as Daniel McGowan who have remained outspoken about their political beliefs, despite being incarcerated.
- Inmates are transferred without opportunity for appeal, in clear violation of their due process rights. The director of the Bureau of Prisons has testified that there are 1,200 international and domestic terrorist prisoners. The few who are housed in CMUs, though, have been singled out and deprived of their right to challenge their designation. CMUs operate secretively with very little paper trail and no checks and balances.
- These experimental facilities are cruel and inhumane. The restrictions on prisoner communication rival or exceed the worst in the country. The extreme restrictions on inmate communications, including not allowing them to hug family members at the few visits they are allowed, go against a body of research and official government policy on prisoner treatment. Generally, the government encourages contact visits by family because they improve prisoner behavior, increase morale, and further rehabilitation. As an example of the long-lasting impact these policies will have on prisoners and their families, Yassin Aref (one of the plaintiffs) will not be able to hug his four-year-old child until she is 12.
- CMUs mark a continuation of the Guantanamo mindset by the Obama administration. Guantanamo reflected a fundamental contempt for the rule of law and basic human rights. The Obama administration has advocated closing Guantamo, and it must also close secretive facilities on U.S. soil that single out prisoners because of their religious beliefs and political ideology and deprive them of their due process rights to challenge their incarceration.
Regardless of how you feel about the individual prisoners or their beliefs, this is an issue that should concern everyone. These CMUs place far too much unchecked power in the hands of the government, and should make everyone wonder: Who is next? What else is planned?
As Rachel Meeropol, one of the attorneys for CCR, told me, this is one of the reasons the suit is so important: "Our goal is to get into the discovery process and figure out why these people were actually moved," she said. "If we can get that out, it will hopefully blow the lid off the whole situation."