Monday, April 05, 2010

“Experiment in Social Isolation”

By William Fisher

Two federal prisons are being used overwhelmingly to hold Muslim prisoners and prisoners with unpopular political beliefs, and are practicing religious profiling, retaliation and arbitrary punishment.

These are the principal allegations in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ houses the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which runs the two units, one in Terre Haute, Indiana, the other in Marion, Illinois.

“These units are an experiment in social isolation,” said CCR Attorney Alexis Agathocleous. “People are being put in these extraordinarily restrictive units without being told why and without any meaningful review. Dispensing with due process creates a situation ripe for abuse; in this case, it has allowed for a pattern of religious profiling, retaliation and arbitrary punishment. This is precisely what the rule of law and the Constitution forbid.”

At the same time, some prisoners at the CMU are protesting their being designated as “terrorists” by the DOJ, despite never having been convicted of any terror-related crime.

One such prisoner is Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an American Iraqi-born upstate-New York oncologist. He was arrested by 85 federal agents who descended on his home, handcuffing him in his driveway. Then Attorney General John D. Ashcroft referred to him as a terrorism supporter apprehended

Dhafir was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 22 years in prison for violating the Iraqi sanctions by sending money to Iraq through his charity, “Help the Needy,” and for fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, and a variety of other nonviolent crimes. Five other people, including his wife, had already pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the case.

In the period leading up to his trial, political figures strove to paint Dhafir with a broad terrorist brush. Then New York State governor George E. Pataki described Dhafir's as a "money laundering case to help terrorist organizations . . . conduct horrible acts." The New York Times reported that prosecutors hinted at national security reasons for holding Dhafir without bail. And Federal prosecutors heralded his arrest as another blow in the Justice Department's war on terrorism.

However, federal prosecutors never filed any charges related to terrorism nor did they prove any link to terrorists. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “this turned out to be a case of white-collar crime; the trial process was filled with descriptions of financial statements and details of financial transactions.”

In a letter to a supporter, obtained by IPS, Dr. Dhafir wrote, “I am really upset about the lies concerning the DOJ list. I have every intention of going after them to correct this falsehood by any legal means. I think that we should publicize this as much as possible and ask people to protest these lies. I also ask your input regarding how to remedy this travesty.”

The CCR lawsuit is challenging violations of fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to due process, at the two experimental prison units called “Communications Management Units” (CMUs). It was brought on behalf of five current and former prisoners, and the spouses of two prisoners.

The two experimental prison units were created in 2006 and 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush. They were designed to isolate certain prisoners from the rest of the prison population and the outside world. They were called ‘Communications Management Units’ or ‘CMUs.’

The CCR says that, “Despite the fact that their creation marked a dramatic change in BOP policy, they were opened without the required opportunity for public notice and comment.”

The group adds, “Prisoners in the CMU, alone out of all general population prisoners within the federal system, are categorically banned from any physical contact with visiting friends and family, including babies, infants, and minor children. To further their social isolation, the BOP has placed severe restrictions on their access to phone calls and work and educational opportunities. Adding to the suspect nature of these units, upwards of two-thirds of the prisoners confined there are Muslim – a figure that over-represents the proportion of Muslim prisoners in BOP facilities by at least 1000 percent. Many of the remaining prisoners have unpopular political views, including environmental activists designated as ‘ecoterrorists’.”

“Transfers to the CMU are not explained; nor are prisoners told how release into less restrictive confinement may be earned as there is no review process. Lawyers say that because these transfers are not based on facts or discipline for infractions, a pattern of religious and political discrimination and retaliation for prisoners’ lawful advocacy has emerged,” according to the CCR.

“In addition to heavily restricted telephone and visitation access, CMU prisoners are categorically denied any physical contact with family members and are forbidden from hugging, touching or embracing their children or spouses during visits. Attorneys say this blanket ban on contact visitation, which is unique in the federal prison system, not only causes suffering to the families of the incarcerated men, but is a violation of fundamental constitutional rights,” the CCR says.

Between 65 and 72 percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim men, a fact that attorneys say demonstrates that the CMUs were created to allow for the segregation and restrictive treatment of Muslims based on the discriminatory belief that such prisoners are more likely than others to pose a threat to prison security.

Other prisoners appear to be transferred to the CMU because of other protected First Amendment activity, such as speaking out on social justice issues or filing grievances in prison or court regarding conditions and abuse.

According the Bureau of Prisons, the 76 inmates housed in the isolation units are there to prevent them from furthering acts of terrorism. But civil liberties advocates say the extreme conditions in the CMUs amount to abuse and that the program violates the inmate’s constitutional rights. The BOP says CMUs were set up after authorities discovered that some Islamic militants were able to send messages abroad from their prison cells.

The lawsuit triggered angry responses – both for and against the CMUs – in the blogosphere. One fairly typical “pro” response: “Here we go again, our authorities try to protect us, and Muslims look to reverse policies by claiming discrimination. For the record, the Fort Hood terrorist Hasan also claimed discrimination.”

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