Secretive U.S. Prison Units Used to House Muslim, Animal Rights and Environmental Activists

by Will Potter on April 14, 2009

in Terrorism Prisoners

Welcome to everyone visiting from Democracy Now, Digg, BoingBoing, Reddit and elsewhere! After you read this article, you can learn more about the Green Scare, and other attacks on civil liberties in the name of fighting “terrorism.” Thank you!

mcgowan_cmu_transferThe government is using secretive prison facilities on U.S. soil, called Communication Management Units, to house inmates accused of being tied to “terrorism” groups. They overwhelmingly include Muslim inmates, along with at least two animal rights and environmental activists.

Little information is available about the secretive facilities and the prisoners housed there. However, through interviews with attorneys, family members, and a current prisoner, it is clear that these units have been created not for violent and dangerous “terrorists,” but for political cases that the government would like to keep out of the public spotlight and out of the press.


In April of 2006, the Department of Justice proposed a new set of rules to restrict the communication of “terrorist” inmates. The proposal did not make it far, though: during the required public comment period, the ACLU and other civil rights groups raised Constitutional concerns. The program was too sweeping, they said, and it could wrap up non-terrorists and those not even convicted of a crime.

The Bureau of Prisons dropped the proposal. Or so it seemed. Just a few months later, a similar program (now called the Communication Management Unit, or CMU), was quietly opened by the Justice Department at Terre Haute, Ind.

Then, in May of 2008, a handful of inmates were moved, without warning, to what is believed to be the second CMU in the country, at Marion, Il.

Both CMUs are “self-contained” housing units, according to prison documents, for prisoners who “require increased monitoring of communication” in order to “protect the public.”


The CMUs are distinct from other ultra-restrictive prisons like ADX Florence, the notorious supermax prison for the most dangerous inmates. The supermax holds al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui and Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski.

CMU inmates stand in sharp contrast to the Moussaouis and Kaczynskis of the world, though.

  • They include Rafil A. Dhafir, an Iraqi-born physician who created a charity called Help the Needy to provide food and medicine to the people of Iraq suffering under the U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison for violating the sanctions.
  • They include Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist sentenced to seven years in prison for a string of property crimes in the name of defending the environment. He was previously at FCI-Sandstone, a low-security facility, and was transferred without notice to the CMU, and told it was not for any disciplinary reason.
  • And, until recently, they included Andrew Stepanian. Stepanian was convicted of conspiring to commit “animal enterprise terrorism” and shut down the notorious animal testing laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences, in a landmark First Amendment case pending appeal. The government’s case focused on a controversial website run by an activist group that published news of both legal and illegal actions against the laboratory. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and is currently on house arrest in New York City. Stepanian is believed to be the first prisoner ever released from a CMU.


Attorneys and prisoners have said that inmates are transferred to the CMUs without notice and without opportunity to challenge their new designation, in what seems to be a clear violation of their due process rights.

“No one got a hearing to determine whether we should or should not be transferred here,” said Daniel McGowan in a letter from the CMU in Marion, Ill.

Similarly, Rafil A. Dhafir said in a letter to his family from the CMU in Terre Haute, Ind., that he was put in isolation for two days before the move. “No one seems to know about this top-secret operation until now,” he wrote. “It is still not fully understood… The staff here is struggling to make sense of the whole situation.”

“We are told this is an experiment,” Dhafir says. “So the whole concept is evolving on a daily basis.”


The CMU “experiment” limits prisoner contact with the outside world through a list of restrictive policies. According to prison documents giving a skeleton of CMU policies, called institution supplements, they include:

  • Phone calls: Only one phone call per week, limited to 15 minutes, live-monitored by staff and law enforcement (according to attorneys, this includes the NSA) and scheduled one and half weeks in advance. It must be conducted in English. Other prisoners get about 300 minutes a month.
  • Mail: All mail must be reviewed by staff prior to delivery to the inmate or processing at the post office. This means significant delays in communications (and, in my personal experience, letters frequently not being received by inmates).
  • Visits: Four hours of personal visits per month, non-contact, behind glass, and live-monitored by staff and law enforcement. It must be conducted in English. By comparison, at FCI Sandstone (where McGowan was previously housed) prisoners can receive 56 potential visiting hours per month. I have learned from attorneys and prisoners that when a CMU inmate is transferred to the visiting room, the entire facility goes on lock-down.

For many inmates in federal prisons, phone calls, mail and visits are flecks of light in the darkness. Virtually eliminating all contact with family, friends and the outside world can have a devastating psychological impact on prisoners, and raises serious concerns about basic human rights.


It is difficult to discern the rationale behind why some inmates are transferred to the CMU and others are not. For instance, John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” is housed at the CMU in Terre Haute. He pleaded guilty to supporting the Taliban and carrying a rifle and grenades on the battlefield in Afghanistan. However, the government announced last month it is actually easing restrictions on his communication.

In the case of Andy Stepanian, he was one of six codefendants, and by the admission of prosecutors he was one of the minor players in the case. He is not accused of any violent crime or any property destruction, and had no disciplinary problems while incarcerated. Stepanian received the second-lowest sentence of the group, and his codefendants are not in CMUs.

Daniel McGowan’s notice of transfer to the CMU gives some indication of the government’s reasoning. It says that he has been identified “as a member and leader in the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups considered domestic terrorist organizations.”

But in a letter from the CMU, McGowan wrote: “It’s funny–I have like 13 codefs [codefendants] + there are 11 other eco prisoners and I end up here.”

Part of the explanation for his transfer to the CMU, it seems, is that he is a vocal, prominent activist with a large group of active supporters. For McGowan, his near celebrity status within the environmental movement, along with his continued activism, has become a liability. When I attended his sentencing hearing in Eugene, Ore., in 2006, the judge made a point of criticizing his media appearances and his website,

Attorneys, prisoners and their supporters speculate there may be legal calculations involved as well. The CMUs have been overwhelmingly comprised of people of color since their inception, and lawsuits have been filed alleging discrimination and racial profiling.

“Throwing a few white kids into the mix makes it appear less like an American Guantanamo,” said one attorney who did not want to be identified. “And it also sends the message to the prisoners and to the movements that supporter them. It’s meant to have a chilling effect.”


The creation of secret facilities to primarily house Muslim inmates accused of non-violent charges, along with a couple animal rights and environmental activists, marks both a continuation and a radical expansion of the “War on Terrorism.”

First, it is a continuation of the “terrorism” crackdown that Arab and Muslim communities have intensely experienced since September 11th. Guantanamo Bay may be closing. But as Jeanne Theoharis beautifully wrote recently: “Guantánamo is not simply an aberration; its closure will not return America to the rule of law or to its former standing among nations. Guantánamo is a particular way of seeing the Constitution, of constructing the landscape as a murky terrain of lurking enemies where the courts become part of the bulwark against such dangers, where rights have limits and where international standards must be weighed against national security.”

Second, it is an expansion of the lesser-known “terrorism” crackdown against animal rights and environmental activists by corporations and the politicians who represent them. This coordination campaign to label activists as “terrorists” and push a political agenda—the “Green Scare”—has involved terrorism enhancement penalties, FBI agents infiltrating vegan potlucks, and new terrorism legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and it all has proceeded unobstructed and unseen. There has been a near-complete media blackout on the Green Scare, and transferring vocal, public Green Scare prisoners to CMUs sends a clear message that the government hopes to keep it that way.


When the CMU at Terre Haute was created, Dan Eggen at The Washington Post described it as a facility for “second-tier terrorism inmates.”

What Eggen was clearly getting at is that the CMU overwhelmingly held Arab Muslim inmates rounded up and smeared by the government as “terrorists,” even though they had not done anything violent or “terrorist.”

But the CMUs are not “second-tier terrorism” prisons. They are political prisons. All of the defendants—Muslim, environmentalist, animal rights activist—are housed there because of their ethnicity, their religion, their ideology, or all of the above.

The mere existence of the CMUs should be yet another warning call to all Americans concerned about the future of this country. If we allow the government to continue widening the net of who is a “terrorist,” and expanding the scope of what punishments are applicable (and what rights are inapplicable) when that word comes into play, it places us all at risk. The reckless expansion of the War on Terrorism didn’t stop with Arabs and Muslims, and it won’t stop with environmentalists or animal rights activists.

The power to create and maintain secretive prison facilities for political prisoners is antithetical to a healthy democracy. If there is one thing that we should learn from history, from governments that have gone down this path, it is this: If there is a secretive prison for “second-tier” terrorists, it will only be followed by a secretive prison “third-tier terrorists,” and “fourth-tier terrorists,” until one by one, brick by brick, the legal wall separating “terrorist” from “dissident” or “undesirable” has crumbled.


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