[Ppnews] PP Daniel McGowan - Tales from Inside the U.S. Gitmo
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jun 8 19:38:49 EDT 2009
from Inside the U.S. Gitmo
Daniel McGowan is an environmental and social justice activist from
NYC charged in federal court on counts of arson and conspiracy and
given the "terrorism enhancement" for his involvement in two
environmentally motivated actions in Oregon in 2001. He is currently
serving a 7 year sentence in the Communication Management Unit at USP
Marion in Illinois with very limited access to seeing and talking to
friends and family. The Department of Justice and FBI have labeled
Daniel and his co-defendants among the "number 1 domestic terrorism threat."
As of May 2009, I have been at USP Marion's "Communication Management
Unit," or CMU, for roughly nine months and now is a good time to
address the misconceptions (and the silence) regarding this unit. I
want to offer a snapshot of my day-to-day life here as well as some
analysis of what the existence of CMUs in the federal prison system
implies. It is my hope that this article will partially fill the void
of information that exists concerning the CMU, will help dispel
rumors, and will inspire you to support those of us on the inside
fighting the existence of these isolation units -- in the courts and
in the realm of public opinion.
It is best to start from the beginning -- or at least where my story
and the CMU meet. My transfer here is no different from that of many
of the men here who were living at Federal Correctional Institutions
(normal prisons) prior to the genesis of the CMUs. On May 12, 2008,
on my way back from a decent lunch, I was told to report to "R&D"
(receiving and discharge). I was given two boxes and half an hour to
pack up my meager possessions. After complying I was placed in the
SHU (secure housing unit or "hole") and put on a bus the next day.
There was no hearing and no information given to me or my attorneys
-- only after a day was I told I was on my way to Marion, Illinois' CMU.
Hearing the term "CMU" made my knees buckle as it drummed up some
memory I had of the infamous "control units" at Marion (closed in
1995 and replaced by Florence ADX: the lone Federal "Supermax"
prison). Then it hit me. The lawyers, in challenging the application
of the terrorist enhancement in my case, made the prescient argument
that if I receive the enhancement, the Bureau of Prisons (BoP) would
use that to place me in the CMU at FCI Terre Haute, Indiana (at the
time just 5 months old). In fact, on the way to FCI Sandstone in
August 2007, I not only saw the CMU but met one of its residents
while in transit. Let me back up and offer a brief history of the
Communication Management Units.
The CMU I reside in, at USP Marion, received its first prisoner in
May 2008 and when I arrived, held about 17 men, the majority of whom
were Muslim. Currently, the unit has 25, with a capacity of 52 cells.
In April 2009, we received seven new people, all of whom were from
the CMU at FCI Terre Haute. The unit is overwhelmingly Muslim with 18
men identifying as such. Most, but not all of the prison, have
so-called terrorism cases. According to a BoP spokesperson, the unit
"will not be limited to inmates convicted of terrorism-related cases
through all of the prisoners fit that description." Others have
prison disciplinary violation or allegations related to communication
and the misuse of telephones etc. Here, almost everyone has a
terrorism related case -- whether it is like my case (destruction of
property characterized as "domestic terrorism") or conspiracy and
"providing material aid" cases.
Before the Marion CMU opened, there was the original CMU, opened in
December 2006 at the former death row at FCI Terre Haute. According
to early articles, the unit was intended for "second tier terrorism
inmates, most of them Arab Muslims and a less restrictive version of
the Supermax in Florence, Colorado."
Additionally, BoP Director Harley Lappin, in a July 2008 hearing on
the 2009 BoP budget request, said of the CMUs, "A lot of the more
serious offenders, terrorists, were housed at ADX Florence. So, we
are ramping up two communications management units that are less
restrictive but will ensure that all mail and phone calls of the
offenders are monitored on a daily basis."
Terre Haute's CMU has 36 men (27 of whom are Muslim) and is roughly
comparable to Marion's CMU. The rest of this place focuses on the
latter, in which I have resided and of which I have seen firsthand.
You may be curious about just what a CMU actually is. From my
correspondence, I can tell that many correspondents do not know much
about what goes on here. I hope this can clear up any misperceptions.
According to the BoP,
The CMU is [sic] established to house inmates who, due to their
current offense of conviction, offense conduct or other verified
information, require increased monitoring of communication between
inmates and persons in the community in order to protect the safety,
security, and orderly operations of Bureau facilities and protect the
public...The CMU is a self-contained general population housing unit.
There are, of course, alternate views to the above definition
including the belief that the CMUs are Muslim units, a political
prisoner unit (similar to the HSU operated by the BoP in the 80's,
and a punishment unit.
The CMUs have an extremely high Muslim population; here at Marion, it
is 65-75%. An overrepresentation of any one demographic in a prison
raises constitutional issues of equal protection as well as safety
issues. Nowhere in the BoP will you find any group represented in
such extreme disproportion. To counter these claims, the BoP brought
in a small number of non-Muslims to be used as proof that the units
are not strictly Muslim (an interesting note is that some of the
Muslim men here have cases unrelated to terrorism). Does the
inclusion of six people that are non-Muslim really negate the claim
of segregation though? What are the criteria for determining who
comes to the CMU? The BoP claims there are 211 international
terrorists (and 1000 domestic terrorists) in their system. Yet, the
CMUs have no more than 60 men at the present time. Where are the rest
of these people? How does the BOP determine who of those 1200 are
sent to a CMU and who to normal prisons? These are questions that
need to be asked -- in court and in the media.
Many of the men here (both Muslim and non) are considered political
prisoners in their respective movements and have been engaged in
social justice, religious organizations, charities and humanitarian
efforts. Another conception of the CMU is that it is a location
designed to isolate us from our movements and to act as a deterrent
for others from those movements (as in "step outside the line and you
too will end up there"). The intended effect of long-term housing of
this kind is a profound sense of dislocation and alienation. With
your mail, email, phones, and visits monitored and no human touch
allowed at the visits, it is difficult to feel a connection to "the
streets." There is historical evidence of the BoP utilizing political
prisons -- despite the fact that the Department of Justice refuses to
acknowledge the concept of political prisoners in US prisons,
choosing to call us "criminal" instead.
The Lexington High Security Unit (HSU) was one such example. Having
opened its 16-bed facilities in 1988 and housing a number of female
political prisoners, the HSU functioned as an isolation unit --
underground, bathed in fluorescence, and limited interaction with
staff. In the opinion of Dr. Richard Korn, speaking on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union, the unit's goal was "...to reduce
prisoners to a state of submission essential for their ideological
conversion. That failing, the next objective is to reduce them as
efficient, self-directing antagonists. That failing, the only
alternative is to destroy them by making them destroy themselves."
After an arduous campaign by human rights advocates and supporters,
the BoP capitulated, stating it would close its facility (when it did
not, it was sued). The judge ruled that the plaintiffs were illegally
designated based on their past political affiliations, statements and
political beliefs. The unit was closed and the women were transferred
to other prisons.
The correlations between the HSU and CMU are many and seem to have
some of the same goals as well as methods used to designate us here.
Knowing they are dealing with people committed to ideals and the
movements they are a part of, we were placed here in order to weaken
those connections and harm our relationships. An example is the
horrendous strain that the CMU puts on our familial relations --
especially our marriages. It was certainly considered by the
architects of the CMU that preventing visits that allow human touch
for long-term prisoners would have a disastrous impact on our
relationships and would lead to weaker inmates.
Finally, the CMU can be viewed as "the stick" -- a punitive unit for
those who don't play ball or who continue to express political
beliefs anathema to the BoP or the US government. Although I am not
aware of the BoP's criteria for sending people here (due to their
refusal to release specific CMU information), it is curious who is
and who is not here. Out of roughly 18 codefendants in my criminal
case, I am the only one at a CMU (the remainder of them are at low
and medium security prisons). The same goes for a member of the SHAC7
campaign, Andrew Stepanian, one of 6 defendants in his case who was
sent here for the last 6 months of his sentence. Other men here have
codefendants at the Terre Haute CMU while others have codefendants at
normal federal prisons. Despite numerous Freedom of Information
Requests, the BoP refuses to grant the documents that specify the
rules governing transfer to the CMU. Remember, hardly any of the men
here have received any disciplinary violations and some have been in
general population over 15 years! How can someone be okay in general
population for that long and then one day be seen as a communication threat?
So, I have hypothesized about the goals of the CMU. Let me discuss
the many problems and injustices associated with the existence of the CMUs.
More appropriately, a lack thereof. A term I never thought much about
before my imprisonment, due process is:
...the conduct of legal proceedings according to established rules
and principles for the protection and enforcement of private rights,
including notice and the right to hearing before a tribunal [my
emphasis] with the power to decide the case.
I was moved from FCI Sandstone, against my will and at a moment's
notice, with no hearing and thus no chance to contest the reason for
my transfer. A FOIA request recently received states I was
redesignated May 6th, my transfer was signed the next day and I was
moved on May 13th with the reason given as "program participation".
Since I got here, I have not had a hearing to contest the claims made
in the "Notice to Inmate of Transfer to CMU, " some of which were
woefully inaccurate. Instead, I was told I can utilize the
administrative remedy process (which I have done to no avail) and
request a transfer after 18 months of "clear conduct".
The irony is that all prisoners who violate prison rules are subject
to a series of disciplinary hearings in which they could offer their
defense. For legal units such as Florence ADX (Supermax) or the
control unit program, there exists a codified set of rules and
hearings for transfer to these locations. The BoP has deliberately
ignored this process and has instead transferred us to this special,
brand-new CMU without due process. My notice of transfer was given to
me 12 days after I arrived!
Similar to the callous disregard for due process (and the US
Constitution), there is no "step down" process for the CMU. Unlike
the ones that exist at Florence ADX, control units or even the gang
units, the CMU has no stages, no requisite amount of time we are to
spend here before being sent back to a normal prison.
Because these preceding programs are specifically for prison
misbehavior, there is a logical and orderly way to finish the program
and eventually transfer. For us, the BoP has set up a paradox -- if
we are here for our offense conduct, which we cannot ever change, how
can we reasonably leave the unit? In its "Admissions and Orientation"
guide for Marion's CMU, here is what they say:
Every new commitment to the CMU will be evaluated by his unit team
regarding his suitability for incarceration in this institution. If,
for some reason, the inmate is deemed not acceptable for confinement
in this unit, he will be processed as expeditiously as possible...
[I am still roughly 10 months from my 18-month period in which I must
wait before requesting a transfer. Considering the fact that all my
remedies have been denied, I am not hopeful about this.]
CMU as Secret
In addition to the due process and transfer issues, there is the
secretive and illegal manner that the CMU was created (Note: for
historical perspectives, it needs to be stated that the CMU was
established roughly halfway through the second term of George W. Bush
and his Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.)
In April 2006, the BoP proposed a "Limited Communication for
Terrorist Inmates" policy, which suggested new restrictions for
"terrorists" and "terrorism related inmates" such as:
1) One 6-page letter per week.
2) One 15-minute phone call a month.
3) One 1-hour visit a month.
A coalition of civil rights organizations signed a letter of protest
criticizing the proposed rules and raising numerous constitutional,
practical and ethical objectives. The outcry appears to have caused
the BoP to reconsider it and just 6 months later, open the CMU at FCI
Terre Haute quietly. Since the BoP never sought public comment on the
new CMU, it certainly appears to be a violation of the Administrative
Procedural Act (APA), an argument a federal judge in Miami raised in
response to a prisoner's legal challenge to transfer to the CMU.
The unit is functionally an open secret. While the BoP circumvented
the standard public comment (and feedback process), it has sought to
get around this by describing the CMU as a "self-contained general
population unit," implying that the unit is legally and penally no
different than a normal unit at an FCI. There is no mention of the
CMU on the BoP's website (ww.bop.gov) or USP Marion's subpage on the
same site. You will not find extensive Congressional hearings on the
subject -- other than a July 2008 subcommittee hearing in which it
appears that the BoP director was not fully forthcoming on the CMU36.
Letters here are stamped "USP Marion," not CMU, and the unit is
called "I Unit" by staff. (An interesting anecdote: while on transit
in Winter 2009, I met men from the FCI here and asked them what they
knew about I Unit. Without hesitation, they said, "That's where the
terrorists are." They informed me this is what BoP Staff routinely told them.)
Media queries are met with silence or vague information. Requests by
the media to interview me by coming to Marion have been denied -- due
to it "being detrimental to the safety, security and good order of
the institution." There still is no Program Statement on the CMU -- a
legal requirement, outlining the specific rules of the CMU and its
Because of this, and the general refusal of the BoP to hand over
relevant documents through FOIA, it is impossible to determine the
specific reasons why one is sent here -- and thus, how to contest
this process. In effect, the CMU was created on the fly, with no eye
toward legality; they are free to operate it in whatever manner they choose.
Communication Management (The Promotion of Isolation and Alienation)
The most painful aspect of this unit, to me, is how the CMU restricts
my contact with the world beyond these walls. It is difficult for
those who have not known prison to understand what a lifeline contact
with our family and friends is to us. It is our link to the world --
and our future (for those of us who are fortunate enough to have
release dates). Prison authorities and architects are well aware that
those with strong family ties and in good communication with their
loved ones are well behaved and have significantly lower rates of
recidivism. The BoP, in theory, recognizes this by claiming they try
to situate us within 500 miles of our homes. Mostly, this is a cruel
farce for many prisoners -- I have not been within 1000 miles of my
family in 2 years.
The most Orwellian aspects of the CMU are in how they manage our
A) Telephones- at my previous prison, I was able to use the phones
for 300 minutes a month -- days, nights, weekends and holidays --
basically at any point I was not in my housing unit (6am-10pm). Here,
we receive one 15-minute phone call a week. The call can only take
place between 8am and 2:30pm, never on weekends or holidays and must
be scheduled one and a half weeks in advance (we can choose a back-up
number to call but if neither picks up, we don't get a call). The
call is live-monitored and recorded. Not only do we receive one fifth
of the minutes granted to other federal prisoners but the call is
also very trying for our families -- all of whom have day jobs and
many of whom have children in school. The CMU requires calls be made
in English only -- a difficult demand considering over half of the
men here speak English as a second language (this restriction is not
present at other federal prisons).
B) Visits- At FCI Sandstone, I received up to eight visiting days a
month (56 hours) -- contact visits in which I could embrace my wife,
play cards with my nieces and share vending machine food with my
visitors. These visits were my lifeline. I got about twelve of them
in eight months and it aided in my adjustment to prison.
The CMU restricts our visits to one four-hour non-contract visit a
month. One short visit through two inches of plate glass with cameras
hanging overhead and my visitors stuffed in a four-and-a-half by
three-and-a-half-foot stuffy booth -- a tight squeeze for two. The
visits can only take place on weekdays from 8am-2pm -- no more
Christmas or Thanksgiving visits -- and worse, no physical contact
(Consider what it would be like to have no contact with your loved
ones. What if you couldn't hug or kiss your lover, partner, wife,
husband? What would that do to you?) I find myself riddled with guilt
when I ask friends to spend $500 to fly across the country, drive
three hours (and repeat) for a four-hour non-contact visit. I'm lucky
though, having people who will do this. Many of the men here can't
afford it or don't want to subject their children to this reality.
C) Mail- We can only send out mail once a day and we cannot visit the
mail room to send out packages. We are one-hundred-percent reliant on
the one staff person who deals with our mail to do so and sending a
box home is a laborious procedure. We must leave our envelopes
unsealed so that staff can read, copy, scan and send to whatever
other agency studies our correspondence. A letter to NYC takes
roughly seven to nine days (which should take five). Letters sent
abroad, especially those not written in English, could take a month
or more -- a common complaint of some of my fellow prisoners.
Staff here has an interesting reading of the rules governing legal
mail leading to the charge that they open our legal mail (this is the
subject of an administrative remedy I filed with the BoP Central
Office in Washington DC). The rule states that the lawyer's name must
be clearly identified and that the envelope must say "Special Mail-
Open only in the presence of inmates" and yet staff has opened my
legal mail that said "Law Offices of Jane Doe" stating that it should
have said, "Jane Doe, Attorney at Law"! The staff looks for any
reason to disqualify our legal mail as protected and gather
intelligence this way. In doing so, they violate the sanctity of the
attorney-client confidentiality principle.
Most of my violations have been petty -- a package has more than
twenty pieces of paper or a friend kindly enclosed stamps. A few
instances though amount to censorship and a limiting of political
expression and dialogue. See Appendix B for a detailed discussion of
D) Media Contact- Although requests have been made to interview
people in the CMU, none have been granted to date. This is a
violation of the spirit of the BoP's own media policy. There is an
imperative on the Bureau's part to control and ultimately suppress
information on the CMU from making it to a mass audience.
Daily Life at the CMU
Neither one of the two CMUs were built for long-term habitation. The
Marion CMU was the site of the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), the USP
that closed here in 2005. Terre Haute's CMU is in "D-wing" -- the
site of the former federal death row.
The CMU was seemingly converted to its current use with the addition
of televisions, steel tables, and new wiring and yet it is not
suitable for long-term use due to its "open cell" design (i.e. with
bars). With 25 prisoners, our movements are restricted to two housing
ranges (hallways about 100 by 12 feet); a recreation range where we
also eat (consisting of seven cells with a computer, typewriter,
barber shop, religious library, social library, art room and
recreational equipment); and a small rec yard (all concrete, a lap
equals one-eighteenth of a mile, four cages with two basketball
hoops, one handball court, a weather awning with tables and some
sit-up benches). We are lucky to be visited daily by a resident bird
population of doves and blackbirds, and overhead, the occasional hawk
or falcon (ironically, as I write this, I overhear warnings from
staff that if we continue to feed the birds, we will receive
violations). The appearance of the yard with its cages, concrete, and
excessive barbed wire has earned it nickname "Little Guantanamo" (of
course a punitive unit with seventy-five percent Muslims also
contributes to the name as well).
The conditions here are not dire -- in fact, the horror stories I
have heard over the last two years have convinced me it is far worse
at many prisons and yet, I believe it is important to be descriptive
and accurate -- to dispel fears (about violence, for instance) but
also to demonstrate just how different life is for us at the CMU.
There are many things we lack here that other prisons in the federal
system have to offer:
1- A residential drug/alcohol program- despite at least one person
here having completion of it ordered by the court.
2- Enough jobs for the prisoners here- There is not nearly enough
jobs for all the men here and most are extremely low paying.
3- UNICOR- This is Federal Prison Industries which has shops at many
federal prisons (including this one outside the CMU). These jobs pay
much more, allow men to pay their court fees, restitution and child
support and, as the BoP brags, teaches people job skills.
4- Adequate educational opportunities- Until recently, we did not
have GED or vocational programs. Due to inmate pressure and
persistence, we now have both of those as well as a few
prisoner-taught classes but no college courses at all.
5- Access to staff on a daily basis- At other federal prisons, you
are able to approach staff members at lunch every day, including the
Warden. Here, we get (at most) two quick walk-throughs a week,
usually taking place early in the morning. You are often left waiting
days to resolve a simple question.
6- Law library access- We have a very small law library here with
only twenty-five percent of the books required by law. We can only
request books twice weekly and those are only delivered if the other
nine hundred prisoners at the adjacent Medium are not using them. We
lack Federal Court and Supreme Court reports as well as books on
Immigration Law (fifty percent or more of the men here face
deportation). This lack of access makes for an arduous and
ineffective research path.
7- Computers- We have four computers for our email system (two for
reading, one for printing and one that we were told would be for
legal but it still isn't working). Unlike my previous prison, where
we had forty computers with a robust computer-class program, or like
other prisons that teach a vocational computer course, we have no such thing.
8- Access to general population- Being in an isolation unit makes for
a situation in which we cannot have organized sports leagues and
tournaments due to not having enough people at all. This may not seem
crucial but sports are a very useful diversion from the stress of
prison life and separation.
After reading the preceding sections, perhaps like me you are
wondering what really is the purpose of the CMU. In short, the SMU is
Florence ADX-LITE for those men whose security points are low and
present no real problems to staff. From my interactions with the men
here, I can say with certainty, that people here are remarkably
well-behaved and calm -- many without any disciplinary violations. If
these men, like myself, don't get in trouble, and have been in the
system for some time, why are we here? Consider my case.
My short time in prison prior to coming to the CMU consisted of two
months at MDC Brooklyn and eight months at FCI Sandstone. I had never
gotten in trouble and spent my days as a clerk in psychology, working
toward a Master's degree, reading, writing and exercising. My goal
was to get closer to home and my loved ones. In April 2008, I filed a
"hardship transfer" request due to my mother's illness and her
inability to travel to Minnesota to visit me. I had my team meeting,
and my security points were lowered. Weeks later, I was moved to the CMU.
The irony is that I was moved to the CMU to have my communication
managed, but what changed in that one year to justify this move? If I
was a danger, then why did the BoP house me in a low-security prison?
The same applies to many of the men here-- some have been in general
population for twenty years and then suddenly a need to manage their
communication is conjured up. During my pre-CMU time, I had used 3500
phone minutes and sent hundreds of letters. If there was a problem
with my communication, shouldn't the BoP have raised this with me? My
notice stating their rationale for placing me here attributed it to
me "being a member and leader in the ELF and ALF" and "communicating
in code." But if this is true, then shouldn't I have been sent to the
CMU as soon as I self-reported to prison in July 2007?
The CMUs were crafted and opened under the Bush administration as
some misguided attempt to be tough on the "war on terror." This unit
contains many prisoners from cases prosecuted during the
hyper-paranoid and over-the-top period after 9/11 and the passage of
the USA Patriot Act.44 The number of prosecutions categorized as
terrorism-related more than doubled to reach 1,200 in 2002. It seemed
that every other week, there was some plot uncovered by overzealous
FBI agents -- in Lackawanna, NY, Miami, FL, Portland, OR, and
Virginia and elsewhere (never mind the illegal wiretaps and
unscrupulous people used in these cases). These cases may not be
headlines anymore but these men did not go away -- they were sent to
prison and, when it was politically advantageous for Bush,
transferred to the CMUs. The non-Muslim populations of these units
(although definitely picked judiciously) were sent there to dispel
charges that the CMUs were exclusively Muslim units.
The codified rationale for all prisoners being transferred here are
"contact with persons in community require heightened control and
reviews" and "your transfer to this facility for greater
communication management is necessary to the safe, secure, and
orderly function of Bureau institutions..." Should an increase in
monitoring of communication mean a decrease in privileges? If the
goal is to manage our contact with the outside world, shouldn't the
BoP hire enough staff so that we can maintain the same rights and
privileges as other prisoners (since the party line is that we are
not here for punishment)? The reality is the conditions, segregation,
lack of due process and such are punishment regardless of whether the
BoP admits it or not.
Where to from here, then? Does the new President and his Attorney
General take issue with segregation? Will Obama view the CMU, as he
did with Guantanamo Bay, as a horrible legacy of his predecessor and
close it? Many people are hopeful for an outcome like that. On April
7th, 2009, Mr. Obama, while in Turkey, said, "The United States will
not make war on Islam," and that he wanted to "extend the hand of
friendship to the Muslim world." While that sounds wonderful, what
does that look like in concrete terms? Will he actualize that opinion
by closing the CMU? Or will he marry the policy of Bush and condone a
secret illegal set of political units for Muslims and activists? What
of the men here? Will he transfer us back to normal prisons and
review the outrageous prosecutions of many of the CMU detainees? If
it can be done with (former) Senator Ted Steven's case, it can be done here.
While lawsuits have been filed in both Illinois and Indiana federal
courts, what is needed urgently is for these units to be dragged out
into the open. I am asking for your help and advocacy in dealing with
this injustice and the mindset that allows a CMU to exist. Please
pursue the resource section at the end of this article and consider
doing something. I apologize for the length of this piece -- it was
suggested to me (by people way smarter than myself) that it would be
best to start from the beginning and offer as many details as
possible. I hope I gave you a clearer idea of what's going on here.
Thank you for all your support and love -- your letters are a bright
candle in a sea of darkness.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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