Communications Management Units and Prisoners Rights

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Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty-(rafflaw)- Weekend Contributor

If you were like me, you may never have heard the term “Communications Management Units” before.  They are basically a section of a prison where certain prisoners are housed with limited or no access to communications or family visitations.  The reason very little was known about the CMU’s is that when they first were initiated at prisons in Indiana and Illinois, their existence was kept from the public.

“The units opened almost in secret in 2006 and 2008. Critics say they flouted federal law by not publishing the proposed rule and opening up a period for public comment.” Readers Supported News  If a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights had not been filed in 2010, we may never have known much about these abusive tactics in our domestic prison system.  Maybe the harshest aspect of being sent to the CMU was the realization that you may never know why you were sent there or how you could get out of it.

Just what kind of treatment do prisoners in these CMU’s deal with?  “Prisoners get two 15-minute phone calls a week. When their family and friends travel for their two 4-hour visits a month, they are not allowed to touch each other. No hugs. No arms around shoulders. Just a phone call on two sides of a thick plastic window. The conversation is monitored by guards, who could stop it at any moment if inmates speak in a language other than English, use hand signals, or break another one of the many visiting rules.

“It is soul-crushing,” said Daniel McGowan, who spent nearly four years in the two CMU units. When McGowan served his time in 2007 for his role in two arsons with the Earth Liberation Front, inmates were only allowed one 15-minute call a week and four hours of visiting a month. “You feel very removed from things, even the society of the prison. Things like playing softball, doing something productive, all of that is impossible in the CMU.”

Documents released by the Center for Constitutional Rights this week shed new light on how inmates who have often broken no rules are arbitrarily transferred to the cells, known as “Communication Management Units”, sometimes for years at a time. Prisoners are given incomplete or inaccurate information as to why they’ve been moved, CCR found, and have almost no way to substantively protest their placement. ” Readers Supported News

At first glance, some may consider that treatment normal for a prisoner at a maximum security prison.  However, all prisoners are supposed to have rights to know why they are being taken out of the general population.  The residents of these CMU’s were not given accurate reasons why they ended up in a CMU and it seems that the Bureau of Prisons has still not written clear guidelines that can be enforced on a system wide basis.

“But depositions and internal prison memos show that officials used widely differing criteria for who should be sent there. One prison official testified that it was “very vague,” but that she thought “significant leadership abilities, high education and technical background and blatant disregard for government” were all qualities that might warrant limiting an inmate’s communications.

McGowan, who was given a terrorism enhancement, had served roughly 9 months of his sentence at a low-security prison in Minnesota when he was transferred to the CMU in Marion, Illinois.

“You have been identified as a member and a leader in the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, groups considered domestic terrorist organizations,” read the single-page notice he received five days into his time at Marion. “Your contact with persons in the community requires heightened control and review.” Readers Supported News

In the early 1970’s, I had the opportunity to “visit” Marion Federal Prison in Marion, Illinois.  At that time it was a maximum security facility that housed many inmates formerly held at Alcatraz. When I was there the inmate population had many restrictions, but if they followed the rules they were allowed to contact the public and have regular visitations.  It was a scary place and I can’t imagine how those men would have reacted if the CMU’s were in place then. Since 2010, Marion Federal Prison has been designated as a medium security prison.

As a country that is supposed to be based on the rule of law, shouldn’t everyone be upset when prisoners rights are curtailed and they are not offered any meaningful process to appeal any denigration of those rights?  The lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2010 has uncovered some interesting information on the lack of uniformity and lack of legitimate reasons for a prisoner being assigned to a CPU.

“But the documents revealed today show that the BOP did not draft criteria for designating prisoners to the facilities until 2009 and that, even then, different offices within the BOP, each of which plays a role in the designation process, have a different understanding of the criteria. Other documents reveal that the reasons provided to CMU prisoners for their designation were incomplete, inaccurate, and sometimes even false. Discovery in the case also shows that prisoners were told they could earn their way out of the CMU by completing 18 months with clear conduct, but upon meeting that goal, their requests for transfer out of the CMU were repeatedly denied without explanation.  Other documents show political speech was used as a factor in CMU designation. The documents made public today also show that 60 percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim, though Muslims comprise only six percent of the federal prisoner population.

‘ “The documents revealed today show that CMU prisoners have been denied due process at every step, from designation to review,” said CCR Senior Staff Attorney Alexis Agathocleous. “The CMUs impose harsh restrictions on prisoners, including a ban on even momentarily hugging their families. Meanwhile, the BOP has denied hundreds of prisoners, who are mostly Muslim, the opportunity to understand or rebut the rationale for their placement, or a meaningful review process to earn their way out, …” ‘  Center for Constitutional Rights

The rule of law and the need for due process seem to have escaped the purview of the Bureau of Prisons.  Without the knowledge of why these prisoners were kept in these restrictive units, they had no chance of challenging the designation or “earning” a way back to the general population.  Since these CMU’s were created in 2006 and 2008, is their conceptual beginnings based on the Gitmo idea of incarceration?

If the Bureau of Prisons can keep anyone locked away from family and the public without having to go through any due process, any prisoner for good or bad reasons could be shut out from the usual helpful connection to family and friends in the outside world.  “Several studies suggest that regular visits from family members significantly decrease the risk of recidivism among inmates. McGowan, who was released to a halfway house in 2012 and now lives with his wife in Brooklyn, said the isolation of the CMUs made the transition home particularly hard. “I had a hard time with my family, getting along with people, and feeling dissociated, feeling like no one understands what I feel right now,” he said.”  Readers Supported News

I am glad that the Center for Constitutional Rights filed their lawsuit and that it may just bring some relief and some due process to the prisoners now being held in CMU’s and some solace to those who were unjustly held in a CMU during the time of their incarceration.  We are all entitled to due process and without it, a government could incarcerate anyone for just about any reason.  What would these prisoners have done without a group of defense attorneys standing up for the prisoners rights?  What do you think?

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59 thoughts on “Communications Management Units and Prisoners Rights

  1. Steve Fleischer: You’re reading a contradiction in one of rafflaw’s posts that isn’t there.

    He says elsewhere that militant refusenik Bundy should be jailed, an expected outcome for anyone who refuses to pay taxes. It’s true that potentially lethal force might be necessary in order to bring him to justice, since the police would be armed.

    But the police are undoubtedly armed when they arrest eco-terrorists, as well, soMr. McGowan certainly faced potentially lethal force when he was arrested.

    Any contradiction terms is too much of a stretch.

  2. Rafflaw, this is frightening stuff. I can almost see it as a model for some political prisons of the future, or is the future here already?

  3. Terrorists are not political prisoners. They are people who have been convicted of felonies. Aryan Brothers are not political prisoners. None of these people in these units are political prisoners.

  4. Paul,
    Your comparison to prisoner suing for access to porn is not germane. These prisoners do have some rights and it does not matter what there crime was, the BOP has to produce rules to allow any prisoner in these units the ability to known why they are there and how they can appeal it and what procedure is in place to change their alleged behavior to get out the unit.
    Carlyle,
    thanks for the links to the Siddiqui case.

    • rafflaw – I am not sure you are right legally. You might be right morally, but legally is another matter.🙂

  5. “None of these people in these units are political prisoners.”

    So says Nick.

    None? None? As it’s been said, “The only person who is absolutely certain of anything is a fool.”

  6. “Don’t believe me. Read the lawsuit filings linked to above.”

    That would require some effort.

    (And I say, “death” to emoticons… insipid little things.)

  7. anon, There are political prisoners in many countries. They are imprisoned w/o a trial. There are NO PRISONERS in the BOP who have not been CONVICTED OF A CRIME. NONE. ZERO.

  8. Saying it with caps, doesn’t make it true or more important, or whatever, Nick.

    No time to go ’round and ’round the mulberry bush with you on this one.

    I’ll say it again: “The only person who is absolutely certain of anything is a fool.”

  9. Anon, Please name me one inmate in Federal prison who has not been convicted of a crime or is awaiting trial on a criminal charge. The BOP have MCC’s, Federal jails for inmates w/o bail. Please just name we one “political prisoners.”

  10. Darren, at last someone has picked up on the way to treat the lesser of the criminals, which goes back to the penal systems of earlier years where they were not locked up except when in the hospital or at night. They supported themselves on penal farms and weren’t a drain on the rest of the country. Of course the worst of the worst were placed in systems like Alcatraz or the infamous Ohio Prison. However, those who were habitual eventually wound up in the latter. The idea is to try to rehabilitate the first offenders or the ones that kept their noses clean and wanted another chance.

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