[Ppnews] ACLU suit to challenge isolation prisons

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 18 12:28:05 EDT 2009

 From the Los Angeles Times

ACLU suit to challenge isolation prisons

Civil rights activists question the transfer of inmate Sabri Benkahla 
to a federal facility that drastically limits outside contact.
By Dean Kuipers

June 18, 2009

Civil rights activists plan to file a lawsuit today contesting the 
transfer of a Tunisian American prisoner to a federal prison facility 
that some inmates have dubbed "Little Guantanamo."

The suit by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Sabri 
Benkahla could be the first of many challenging the secretive units, 
which drastically restrict outside contact.

Benkahla was transferred to the Communications Management Unit in 
Terre Haute, Ind., in 2007, eight months after his conviction on 
perjury and obstruction of justice charges in a terrorism case. 
Prosecutors contended that he lied to a grand jury about his contact 
with an alleged Al Qaeda fundraiser and other terrorism suspects.

The Terre Haute unit opened in 2006. Another began operations last 
year at the federal prison in Marion, Ill.

The suit charges that the federal Bureau of Prisons violated 
Benkahla's right to due process by pulling him out of the Northeast 
Ohio Correctional Center with no transfer paperwork, no hearing and 
no opportunity to contest his transfer beforehand. It also questions 
the legality of the units.

Similar suits are being prepared by the Center for Constitutional 
Rights in New York and by attorneys of other inmates, calling the 
specialized units an unwarranted expansion of the war on terrorism.

Inmates in the units get one 15-minute phone call a week and two 
two-hour visits a month. They have access to computers, a library, a 
basketball court and a religious library. Though the rules are more 
restrictive than those of most federal prisons, they are not as 
strict as the 
facility in Florence, Colo., which houses terrorists such as 
unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

The Bureau of Prisons said the list of inmates in the units was not a 
matter of public record. It said it needed to monitor communications 
involving the prisoners because they posed a public-security risk.

"The Communications Management Unit (CMU) was established to house 
inmates who, due to their current offense of conviction, offense 
conduct, or other verified information, require increased monitoring 
of communications between the inmate and persons in the community in 
order to protect the safety, security and orderly operation of Bureau 
facilities, and to protect the public," the bureau said in written 
response to questions from The Times.

But civil rights attorneys contend that the communications 
restrictions serve another purpose.

"These are political prisons," says Rachel Meeropol, a staff attorney 
at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "These people are being 
targeted to limit their ability to communicate with the outside 
world, and to limit their ability to be political people."

David Shapiro, an attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project 
working on Benkahla's case, said, "The fact that somebody like Sabri 
is in the CMU really shows the need for better procedures before 
people are thrown in there and kept in there indefinitely."

Among the inmates at Marion is environmental activist Daniel McGowan, 
who was convicted in 2007 of burning a lumber company office in 
Oregon and facilities at an Oregon tree farm that marketed hybrid 
trees. Federal Judge Ann Aiken added a "terrorism enhancement" to his 
sentence for the political nature of his acts, resulting in a seven-year term.

In May 2008, McGowan was returning to his cell from lunch at 
Sandstone, a minimum-security prison in Minnesota, when guards told 
him to pack.

"My knees kind of buckled when I heard the term 'CMU,' " McGowan said 
in an interview with The Times. "I was on this bus, and I realized, 
'Oh, my God. This is pretty much what my lawyer had said.' She said 
[to the judge], 'If you give him the terrorism enhancement, the BOP 
will treat him differently.' "

McGowan thinks he was put in the unit because he remained in contact 
with other activists and published a blog.

Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense 
Center and lead attorney in McGowan's case, notes that none of 
McGowan's co-defendants ended up in the CMU.

"What's different about Daniel?" she said. "The only difference is 
the outreach that he was doing and the voice that he had behind bars."

Benkahla was studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in 2003 when Saudi 
agents picked him up and shipped him back to the United States to 
face trial in Virginia on charges of providing material support to 
the Taliban. He was acquitted in 2004.

Federal prosecutors soon called him back before a grand jury, where 
he lied under oath about e-mail and phone contact with suspected 
jihadists during travels to Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan. Among 
the evidence federal prosecutors had were e-mails in which Benkahla 
talked of "studying in Afghan," and traveling to a place "far, far 
away" that was "top secret." Because the grand jury was part of a 
terrorism investigation, his recommended three-year sentence was 
extended to 10 years.

The ACLU lawsuit asks that Benkahla be transferred out of the CMU and 
that the units be shut down pending full approval under the process 
required by the federal Administrative Procedures Act. The lawsuit 
maintains that the Bureau of Prisons violated the provisions of the 
act by failing to issue a public notice or solicit comments when it 
set up the units.

The bureau contends that existing federal regulations allow it to set 
the conditions of prisoners' confinement.

<mailto:dean.kuipers at latimes.com>dean.kuipers at latimes.com

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