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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.

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for theiremail newsletters here.

On the evening of May 13, 2008, Jenny Synan waited for a phone call from her husband, Daniel McGowan. An inmate at Sandstone, a federal prison in Minnesota, McGowan was serving a seven-year sentence for participating in two ecologically motivated arsons. It was their second wedding anniversary, their first with him behind bars. So far his incarceration hadn’t stopped him from calling her daily or surprising her with gifts for her birthday, Valentine’s Day and Christmas. But Jenny never got a call from Daniel that night—or the next day, or the next.

It was only days later that Jenny heard from a friend that Daniel was in transit, his destination Marion, Illinois. She quickly researched Marion and learned that it housed both a minimum- and a medium-security facility. Daniel, however, was classified as a low-security prisoner, a designation between minimum and medium. Even though he had a perfect record at Sandstone and had been recommended for a transfer to a prison closer to home, Jenny still didn’t think it was likely that Daniel would be stepped down to minimum security. But it made no sense that he would be moved up to medium security.

By May 16 the inmate locator on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website showed Daniel in a variety of places, including a federal correctional facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. After speaking with several people at the BOP, Sandstone and Terre Haute to no avail, Jenny e-mailed friends, “This is seriously like pulling fucking teeth.”

Finally on June 12, one month after their missed call, Daniel telephoned Jenny. He was still in transit and had only a few moments to speak. He was definitely going to Marion, where he heard he would be housed in something called a Communications Management Unit (CMU). He had no idea why he was being transferred. He simply had been told he was moving, given 30 minutes to pack and thrown into “the hole” until he was moved. All he knew was that the CMUs were supposedly run out of Washington and placed severe restrictions on phone calls, mail and visits. He was anxious about his new placement and asked Jenny to find out all she could about Marion.

But Jenny couldn’t find much. There was nothing on the BOP website about CMUs or a special unit at Marion. She did find a few scattered articles, all about a Terre Haute CMU, described as a secret experimental unit for second-tier terrorism inmates who were almost all Arab and Muslim Americans.

There was, in fact, little to be found; the Bush administration had quietly opened the CMUs in Terre Haute and Marion in December 2006 and March 2008, respectively, circumventing the usual process federal agencies normally follow that subjects them to public scrutiny and transparency. The first whisper of what the government was planning reached public ears in April 2006, when the BOP—in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)—published its proposed rule for “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates.” Under the APA, federal agencies like the BOP must publish notice of any new regulations and solicit public comments in order to operate legally. After a period of review, the agency publishes the finalized rule.

In the 2006 rule, the BOP proposed restricting the communications of inmates with a “link to terrorist-related activity” to one six-page letter per week, one fifteen-minute call per month and one one-hour visit per month, limited to immediate family members. The rule left it to the discretion of the warden whether visits would be contact or noncontact. (As a point of comparison, the BOP generally allows most prisoners 300 minutes of calls per month and places few caps on the number or duration of visits prisoners may receive. Even at the only federal Supermax, inmates are allowed 35 hours of visits a month.)