In March 2016, inmates from two highly secretive US prisons, known as Communication Management Units (CMUs), appealed a previous summary judgment for the government in their case against the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In March 2015, the US District Court for the District of Columbia had ruled against the prisoners, asserting that CMUs did not violate inmates’ rights because restrictions were “limited in nature” compared to ordinary prison units, and far better than solitary confinement. In their appeal, attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights argued that CMUs represent a “fundamental disruption” to prisoners’ rights and freedoms. CMUs have strict regulations against outside communication. Prisoners are isolated from the rest of the prison population, and are limited to four hours of visits per month, none of which permit direct contact, and three phones calls per month (for a total of forty-five minutes), which must be carried out in English. Lawyers representing the CMU inmates argued that the typical time served in a CMU is three to five years, or fifty-five times longer than the average time in administrative detention.
Beginning in 2006, the Federal Bureau of Prisons created CMUs without any written conditions or procedures. Prisoners receive very little information as to why they are transferred to the unit in the first place. They are able to appeal their transfer, but not a single prisoner has ever been released through the appeal process. Without written rules in place, it is suggested that these transfers take place based on discrimination.
In January 2015, the Federal Bureau of Prisons finalized rules regarding who can be sent to CMUs and how the facilities should operate, but as Christie Thompson of the Marshall Project reported, prisoner advocates claimed the new rules imposed “even stricter limits on contact without providing a legitimate way for inmates to appeal being placed under such restrictions.”
About 178 inmates are held in CMUs. Nearly 60 percent of them are Muslims, according to Center for Constitutional Rights attorneys representing the prisoners. Journalist Will Potter, who has visited a CMU, told the Real News Network that CMUs are effectively “political prisons for political prisoners.” “People are sent to the CMU because of their race, and their religion and their political beliefs,” rather than the crimes they have committed, Potter said.
In a January 2015 TED Talk on CMUs, Potter noted that CMU guards call non-Muslim prisoners “balancers,” meaning they “help balance the racial numbers, in hopes of deflecting law suits.” Many of these “balancers” are animal rights and environmental activists. Journalists are not permitted in CMUs, but Potter was able to visit an imprisoned environmental activist, Daniel McGowan, “as a friend.”
There are two known CMUs in the United States, one in Marion, Illinois, and the other in Terre Haute, Indiana. Both operate within larger federal prisons.
In March 2011, NPR ran a two-part investigative report and the Nation published a detailed article on CMUs. In 2011 and 2013, the Huffington Post published reports by Daniel McGowan, the first of which was written while he was imprisoned in the Marion, Illinois, CMU. The Huffington Post has consistently published articles by attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights on CCR’s efforts to defend prisoners’ rights to due process and to bring CMU policies in line with constitutional requirements. Otherwise, coverage of CMUs in the popular press is limited to articles such as the New York Times report from April 2016, “The Terrorists in U.S. Prisons,” which briefly mentioned CMUs and their predominantly Muslim inmates, but did not discuss challenges to the CMUs’ constitutionality.
Will Potter, “The Secret US Prisons You’ve Never Heard of Before, “ TED video, filmed January 2015, https://www.ted.com/talks/will_potter_the_secret_us_prisons_you_ve_never_heard_of_before.
Will Potter, interview by Sharmini Peries, “‘Little Guantanamos’ in the US,” Real News Network, broadcast October 20, 2015, transcript, http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=14945.
Carrie Johnson, “Inmates Try to Revive Lawsuit over Secretive Prison Units,” NPR, March 15, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/15/470430094/inmates-try-to-revive-lawsuit-over-secretive-prison-units.
Chip Gibbons, “Circuit Court Weighs Appeals in ‘Communication Management Units’ Prison Case,” Bill of Rights Defense Committee, March 17, 2016, http://bordc.org/news/circuit-court-weighs-appeals-in-communication-management-units-prison-case/.
Student Researcher: Allison Bamford (University of Regina)
Faculty Evaluator: Patricia W. Elliott (University of Regina)