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.”

IG Blasts 287(g)

By William Fisher

A controversial government program that enlists local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to help enforce the nation’s immigration laws is verging on being out of control and unable to assess whether it is meeting its stated goals.

These are among the findings in a new report released by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on the program known as 287(g). The program, administered by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), authorizes local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws.

Calling ICE “an agency that has lost its way,” Mary Giovagnoli, Director of the Immigration Policy Center, an immigration advocacy group, said the IG’s report was “a damning critique of the 287(g) program, confirming many of the criticisms levied against the program by community leaders, law enforcement officials, and immigration groups.”

The report “raises serious questions about the wisdom of state and local immigration enforcement partnerships with ICE,” she said, adding:

“There is no evidence that 287(g) makes communities safer or improves our broken immigration system. In the rush to engage state and local law enforcement on federal immigration matters, ICE has created a program that lacks oversight, undermines community relations, and breeds mistrust. As proven time and time again, a deportation-driven strategy exacts a high toll on individuals and communities with little real impact in stopping illegal immigration,” she said.

"The OIG report is further evidence that the Administration has yet to distinguish between deporting large numbers of immigrants and making us safe. In the rush to engage state and local law enforcement on federal immigration matters, ICE has created a program that lacks oversight, undermines community relations, and breeds mistrust. As proven time and time again, a deportation-driven strategy exacts a high toll on individuals and communities with little real impact in stopping illegal immigration."

Giovagnoli, an immigration lawyer who formerly served with ICE and several of its predecessor agencies, told IPS that ICE “needs to create an Ombudsman with the skills and resources to resolve conflicts and adjudicate complaints quickly and fairly.”

The IG found that the 287(g)program is poorly managed and supervised, and ICE has not instituted controls to promote effective program operations; lacks strict guidelines for implementation, which results in different implementation methods in different jurisdictions; lacks an adequate and consistent vetting process for jurisdictions that apply for the program, as well as for officers applying to be deputized under the program; does not gather data necessary to track how the program is being used; lacks a process for reviewing Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) on a regular basis, and for modifying or terminating an MOA as necessary; has not taken action against law enforcement agencies that are clearly violating the terms of the MOA, nor adequately trained deputized officers about immigration law or their authority under the MOA; lacks public outreach efforts, and often provides the public with misleading or inaccurate information” about the program.

The 287(g)program has created tensions within communities where local law enforcement agents have used their delegated authority to conduct large-scale operations in Latino and immigrant communities. Numerous law enforcement organizations and officials have cautioned against participating in 287(g) partnerships because they “foster community distrust and operate with inadequate supervision.”

Brittney Nystrom of the National Immigration Forum (NIF), said the IG’s report “confirms our worst suspicions about this program.”

“While some local law enforcement agencies continue to use this program to intimidate and terrorize immigrant communities, ICE does not have the structures in place to evaluate or restrain the actions of rogue enforcement agencies,” she said.

She noted that the Inspector General is calling attention to the program's inability to safeguard civil rights and civil liberties, to assess the program's effectiveness in targeting dangerous individuals, to properly train officers enrolling in the program, to receive and respond to community input, and to oversee local officers enrolled in the program. “In sum, the Inspector General made 33 recommendations for fundamental reforms necessary to make the program accountable and effective in its mission, “she said, adding, “We believe the program has proven itself to be beyond repair and should be terminated.”

She said that, “Given the well-documented abuses committed by some local enforcement agencies enrolled in this program, the lack of concern with the civil rights record of enrolled agencies is astounding.”

“Also troubling is the program's the lack of ability to track whether it meets ICE's stated goals for the program-to remove non-citizens who pose a threat to public safety or a danger to the community. In fact, the IG found that ICE's performance measures are more concerned with the quantity of arrests rather than adherence to program goals. This raises again the specter of arrest quotas driving ICE's detention and removal operations, which have been the subject of criticism earlier this week,” she said.

The IG report said, “We observed instances in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement and participating law enforcement agencies were not operating in compliance with the terms of the agreements. We also noted several areas in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement had not instituted controls to promote effective program operations and address related risks.”

The IG report comes on the heels of recent revelations that ICE is failing to prioritize genuine threats to the community. The Washington Post recently reported that a senior ICE official sent a memo to field offices outlining an enforcement strategy which emphasized large enforcement quotas rather than focusing on serious criminals. Similarly, the OIG found that 287(g) programs have not prioritized serious criminal immigrants, and performance standards by which local officers are evaluated focus on the number of immigrants encountered, not the seriousness of their crimes.

Section 287(g) refers to a law, written into the 1996 comprehensive immigration reforms, which for the frst time in US history created a formal mechanism for federal executives to extend to local community­based agencies the arrest and incarceration powers originally reserved for immigration police stationed at the borders.

The IG’s report closely channels a finding by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, The GAO concluded that immigration bureau officials had not closely supervised how their agreements with the local agencies had been carried out, had inconsistently described the program’s goals, and had failed to spell out what data should be tracked, collected and reported.