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Secret Experimental Prisons Subject Inmates to Drastic Isolation

Inmates at secret prisons inside the U.S. are prohibited from having virtually any contact with the outside world.

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According to Stepanian, prison staff referred to non-Arab and non-Muslim inmates as “balancers.” One white guard comforted Stepanian, who had received biweekly visits from his fiancée at his previous prison, saying, “You’re nothing like these Muslims. You’re just here for balance. You’re going to go home soon.”

Based on these and similar reports, observers began to speculate that because of criticism, the BOP was trying to improve the CMUs’ racial and ethnic demographics. The BOP, however, told The Nation, “Race, religion and ethnicity are not a basis for designation decisions.” Nonetheless, as of this writing, the BOP reports that 18 of 33 prisoners at Terre Haute (55 percent) and 23 of 36 at Marion (64 percent) are Muslim. Muslims make up just 6 percent of the federal prison population.

The BOP declined to disclose the CMU inmates’ names or convictions. It did, however, provide a partial list of “examples” of activities that might land an inmate inside a CMU, including being convicted of or associated with international or domestic terrorism; repeated attempts to contact victims or witnesses; a history of soliciting minors for sexual activity; a court-ordered communication restriction; coordinating illegal activities from inside prison and a disciplinary history that includes continued abuse of communications methods. According to the BOP, twenty-four (73 percent) and twenty-three (64 percent) of the inmates at Terre Haute and Marion, respectively, were assigned to the CMUs because of terrorism-related reasons.

As the populations of the CMUs grew, civil rights groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights began to receive letters from inmates. Eventually, CCR attorneys Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol communicated with a majority of the inmates. They quickly noticed that in many cases there was nothing in inmates’ disciplinary records—many of which were clean—or security-level designations that would suggest they warranted such drastic isolation. Indeed, convicted terrorists like Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and shoe bomber Richard Reid are housed not in a CMU but in high and maximum security prisons in Colorado. Many of the CMU inmates will eventually be released; eleven already have been. Nine others have been transferred back to general population housing.

Of the CMU inmates who are there because of a link to terrorism, Meeropol says, “The vast majority of these folks are there due to entrapment or material support convictions. In other words, terrorism-related convictions that do not involve any violence or injury.”

Bound by confidentiality, Meeropol declined to name these inmates, but The Nation was able to identify several. They include the officers of the Holy Land Foundation—a now-defunct US-based Islamic charity that sent funds to social programs administered by Hamas, a US-designated terrorist organization—and the Lackawanna Six, who admitted to traveling to an Al Qaeda training camp before the 9/11 attacks. Some of the notable entrapment cases include those of Shahawar Matin Siraj, convicted for taking part in a plot planned by a paid FBI informant to bomb Herald Square, and Yassin Aref, whose underlying act was simply witnessing a loan in another plot planned by an FBI informant.

CCR attorneys also noticed the presence of CMU inmates who had neither links to terrorism nor communications infractions. They fell into three general groups, with occasional overlaps. The first had made complaints against the BOP either through internal procedures or formal litigation, and their placement appeared retaliatory. The second held unpopular political views, both left- and right-leaning, from animal rights and environmental activists to neo-Nazis and extreme antiabortion activists. The third seemed to be Muslims, including African-American Muslims, whose convictions had nothing to do with terrorism and ranged from robbery to credit card fraud.