The Black Hole of CMU: Muslims isolated in special US prisons
by Karin Friedemann
Not much is known about the new federal prisons called Communications Management Units (CMUs), that house primarily Muslims and political activists, except that they are located in Terre Haute, Indiana and Marion, Illinois. Although the US government refuses to disclose the list of prisoners to the public, inmates include Enaam Arnaout, founder of Islamic charity Benevolence International Foundation, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, physician and founder of Iraqi charity Help the Needy, Ghassan Elashi, founder of Holy Land Foundation and CAIR’s Dallas office, Randall Royer, Muslim civil rights activist, Yassin Aref, imam and Kurdish refugee, Sabri Benkahla, an American who was abducted the day before his wedding while studying in Saudi Arabia, and John Walker Lindh, an American convert to Islam who was captured in Afghanistan, plus some non-Muslim political activists. Most of these prisoners were falsely accused of terrorist offenses and then imprisoned for lesser charges but given sentences meant for serious terrorism-related crimes.
Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said, “The primary problem with the opening of (the CMU) is that no one knows the criteria used to send the person imprisoned to that unit.” What the prisoners have in common is that they were well disciplined, studious, and often religious compared to those in the general prison population, they maintain strong commitments to various causes, and for some reason the government wants to keep them separate, to restrict their communication with the outside world.
Prison officials claim, “By concentrating resources in this fashion, it will greatly enhance the agency’s capabilities for language translation, content analysis and intelligence sharing.”
Attorney Paul Hetznecker stated, “These Communication Management Units are an expansion of a continued war on dissent in this country… of using that word “terrorism” to push a political agenda and to really dominate and to control—attempt to control these social movements.”
Andy Stepanian, an animal rights activist who is the first to be released from a CMU, called it “a prison within the actual prison.” He said that the prisoners “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.”
He further stated, “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… 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.”
He concluded, “At the end of this prison sentence, … 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.”
Daniel McGowan, a non-Muslim political activist in “Little Guantamo” wrote: “The most painful aspect of this unit, to me, is how the CMU restricts my contact with the world beyond these walls. It is difficult for those who have not known prison to understand what a lifeline contact with our family and friends is to us. It is our link to the world — and our future (for those of us who are fortunate enough to have release dates).”
The US houses 2.3 million domestic prisoners. Conditions are far worse in some of the other prisons. Within the CMU, Muslim prisoners are at least safe from violence.
However, the discrimination against prisoners at CMUs, in addition to the severe limitations on visits, phone calls and letters, includes a lack of access to vocational training and paying jobs that are available to other prisoners. More than half of the men face deportation after their release, and the difficulty in obtaining law books makes it difficult to prepare for an immigration hearing.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed lawsuits on behalf of several prisoners challenging the CMUs’ “violation of federal laws requiring public scrutiny” as well as the prison’s restrictions of Islamic group prayer. This legal struggle must be supported by increased activism on the outside to demand the release of the innocent either falsely convicted or intimidated into pleading guilty to bogus charges.
Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based writer on Middle East affairs and US politics. She is Director of the Division on Muslim Civil Rights and Liberties for the National Association of Muslim American Women.