[Ppnews] I 'Got Snatched': Daniel McGowan's Bizarre Trip Through America's Prison System

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 12 12:01:51 EDT 2013

  I 'Got Snatched': Daniel McGowan's Bizarre Trip Through America's
  Prison System

Posted: 09/12/2013 10:08 am EDT  |  Updated: 09/12/2013 11:27 am EDT


Daniel McGowan was in the yard of the Federal Correctional Institution 
in Sandstone, Minn., when his name rang out over the loudspeaker. It had 
been eight months since he first reported to the low-security prison to 
start a seven-year sentence for conspiracy and arson. To pass the time, 
he worked as an orderly in the prison psychology department, took 
correspondence classes and exercised.

Sandstone, located nearly smack-dab in the middle of the country, was 
about as far removed as McGowan could be from his wife, Jenny Synan, in 
New York and from his former compatriots in the Earth Liberation Front 
in Oregon, with whom he had been caught in a national law enforcement 
sweep. But he still kept in touch with the outside world, writing 
passionate articles about the environment and prisons for publications 
like the Earth First! Journal. He was allotted 300 minutes of phone time 
a month. And on the rare occasions when Synan could get away from work, 
she would come see him. In the prison's visiting room, they would hug 
and kiss and play board games together.

He was looking forward to such a visit when the loudspeaker told him to 
report to the prison's shipping and receiving department. It was the day 
before his second wedding anniversary in May 2008, and he assumed that 
he was being called in for some routine matter. Perhaps the package full 
of books he had recently mailed to his wife had been returned for 
insufficient postage, he thought.

Instead, a prison staffer handed McGowan two boxes and told him to fill 
them up with his possessions. He was the one being shipped. When he 
asked his case manager where he was being taken, he was thrown in a cell.

He headed south the next day, still unsure of his destination. "When I 
got on the bus, they told me 'Marion,'" McGowan says.


** * * * **

The U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., is home to more than 1,100 
prisoners <http://www.bop.gov/news/weekly_report.jsp>. Originally built 
in 1963 to house inmates from Alcatraz, it operated on long-term 
lockdown as one of America's most notorious prisons for decades. Inmates 
were held in their cells for 23 or 24 hours a day, in what was 
essentially the first federal "supermax." 

After the supermax in Florence, Colo., opened in 1994, Marion remained 
in use as a maximum-security prison. In 2006, it was renovated, expanded 
and downgraded to a medium-security facility. But in March 2008, it 
quietly regained some of its supermax identity -- and its status as an 
experimental prototype for the prison system -- when the Federal Bureau 
of Prisons established within its walls a secretive wing known as a 
Communication Management Unit, where prisoners are held under tight 
restrictions. Inmates call it "Little Guantanamo." This is where McGowan 
was headed.

Forty-two prisoners are currently in the CMU at Marion. Another 43 are 
in a similar facility in Terre Haute, Ind., that was built two years 
earlier. The special units were developed as part of the federal 
government's crackdown on terrorism following 9/11. Particularly after 
Lynne Stewart, the former defense attorney for the Blind Sheik, Omar 
Abdel-Rahman, was convicted in 2005 of covertly sending messages to her 
client's followers in Egypt, the Bureau of Prisons was determined to 
create a new form of incarceration to monitor inmates' every contact 
with the outside world. When the CMUs were first opened, nearly all of 
their inmates were Muslim men.

Unlike at Guantanamo, the prisoners in these CMUs are not being held 
indefinitely. But they are subjected to unusual restrictions: only two 
15-minute phone calls a week, heavily monitored mail and eight hours of 
visitation a month. Inmates are restricted in how many times 
a week they can hold group prayers. Their movements and conversations 
are recorded at all times. Critics have described the conditions as 
psychologically debilitating.

Some of the inmates currently being held in CMUs are people like John 
Walker Lindh, who fought with the Taliban against U.S. forces in 
Afghanistan. Many others have only tenuous connections to terrorism, 
however. Some of their crimes are merely hypothetical. Yassin Aref 
<http://nymag.com/news/features/yassin-aref-2011-7/>, an Albany, N.Y., 
imam, for example, was convicted of witnessing a fake loan for a Stinger 
missile to be used against the Pakistani ambassador in New York. 
According to Paul Wright, the ex-con founder of Prison Legal News 
<http://www.seattleweekly.com/2004-01-28/news/freed-speech/>, most of 
the prisoners being housed in CMUs "aren't even the second- and 
third-tier prisoners in the war on terror. These are like the sixth and 
seventh tier."

Others have no publicly known connection to terrorism at all, beyond 
sharing a religion with the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. Avon 
for example, was serving a 27-year sentence for killing a man during an 
argument before being transferred to a CMU for the final years of his 
sentence, but he was also a convert to Islam.

According to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on 
behalf of a number of prisoners, the CMUs are analogous to solitary 
confinement -- an "experiment in social isolation" that allows 
corrections officials to retaliate against what they view as bad 
behavior, even if it is protected by the First Amendment. By classifying 
the CMUs as simply a way to monitor inmates, rather than as a 
punishment, the Bureau of Prisons has sidestepped the knotty issue of 
due process rights.

In a bit of what McGowan's lawyer at the Center for Constitutional 
Rights, Rachel Meeropol, calls "beautiful doublespeak," the BOP refers 
to the CMUs as "self-contained general population units." The inmates 
may be quarantined in the CMUs, the BOP asserts, but the units are still 
"general population" and thus don't require additional administrative 
procedures to determine which prisoners will be placed there.

"My suspicion from the get-go was, I'm unrepentant in terms of my 
political identity," McGowan says of his placement in the CMU. "I think 
what they're trying to do is say, 'OK, you want to be a little political 
prisoner type, you want to write and be all active and say stuff, and 
get a ton of mail and everyone thinks you're peachy keen? You're gonna 
get crushed.'"

The Bureau of Prisons has strenuously denied that it places inmates in 
CMUs because they are Muslim or because they have exercised other First 
Amendment rights. "Inmates are designated to the unit for management of 
their communications based on the potential security threat they 
present," Chris Burke, a BOP spokesman, wrote in a statement to The 
Huffington Post. At least some inmates, he added, may be placed in the 
units for other communications threats, like trying to harass victims or 
witnesses of their crimes.

McGowan, at first blush, does not fit the image of a terrorist. Born the 
son of a police officer in New York's working-class Rockaway 
neighborhood, he attended the State University of New York in Buffalo 
and then drifted into the world of environmental activism. In the 
hothouse atmosphere of Eugene, Ore., in the late 1990s, he became more 
and more radicalized -- an evolution detailed in the Oscar-nominated 
documentary "If a Tree Falls" -- and eventually joined a small cell of 
the Earth Liberation Front.

McGowan and his group conducted a campaign of vandalism and arson across 
the Pacific Northwest for several years. No one was killed or injured. 
Eventually, McGowan says, while his hands were still covered in gasoline 
during one of their actions, he decided to split from the group. In 
2002, the year in which he turned 28, he moved back home to New York and 
took a job at a Brooklyn nonprofit for victims of domestic violence.

McGowan met Synan at his sister's birthday party just before he moved 
back, and he was instantly taken with her. They began dating. She was 
sitting at work at an arts organization in December 2005 when she 
received a call from one of McGowan's office mates that he had just been 
taken away by FBI agents. "And that was the first that I knew" that 
McGowan might have been under investigation, she says.

McGowan's autonomous cell within the decentralized Earth Liberation 
Front was known as "The Family." Its members had promised never to turn 
on each other if the feds came calling. But one of them did, leading to 
indictments for McGowan and six of his companions.

After bail, house arrest and legal proceedings -- protracted because he 
refused to testify against his fellow defendants -- McGowan eventually 
agreed to enter a non-cooperation plea. He would admit to taking part in 
arsons at a lumber company and a tree farm, but he would not be forced 
to testify against his fellow defendants.

"I hope that you will see that my actions were not those of [a] 
terrorist but of a concerned young person," McGowan said in his plea 
statement in November 2006 
<http://www.supportdaniel.org/news/statements.html>. "After taking part 
in these two actions, I realized that burning things down did not fit 
with my visions or belief about how to create a better world. So I 
stopped committing these crimes."

McGowan did not see himself as a terrorist, but the federal government 
did. In the midst of a nationwide panic over environmentalist-linked 
crimes that critics call "the green scare," 
prosecutors obtained a terrorism enhancement 
for McGowan's crimes. The designation did not result in a longer prison 
term, but McGowan's supporters warned that it could lead to his 
placement in one of the CMUs, which were just being set up at the time.

Civil liberties groups like the National Lawyers Guild and criminal 
defense attorneys were infuriated by the "terrorist" label, which 
McGowan rejects to this day. Although they may not have approved of his 
criminal tactics, they argued that labeling him a terrorist was an 
absurd overreaction to crimes that resulted in nothing more than 
property damage.

"Is this what a terrorist is?" Heidi Boghosian, executive director of 
the National Lawyers Guild, asked at the time. "Americans know the 
difference between Daniel McGowan and Osama bin Laden, and this effort 
to subvert the fairness of the judicial system is an affront to the 
values they hold dear."

Still, as McGowan was serving his sentence at Sandstone, Leslie Smith, 
the chief of the prison system's Counter-Terrorism Unit, made the case 
to have him transferred to a more restrictive facility and to have his 
communications cut off. In a memo dated March 27, 2008, Smith argued 
that McGowan was an "organizer."

"While incarcerated and through social correspondence and articles 
written for radical publications, inmate McGowan has attempted to unite 
the radical environmental and animal liberation movements," Smith wrote. 
McGowan, according to Smith, had spoken bitterly of the government's 
cooperating witnesses as "snitches" for their "betrayal."

There were inconsistencies in Smith's dark portrait. He singled out 
McGowan's prison letters and interviews, but in them McGowan cautioned 
against the kinds of destructive actions 
<http://www.supportdaniel.org/media/journal2.html> for which he had been 
convicted, as he had in his plea statement.

"We need to have serious conversations about whether militancy is truly 
effective in all situations," McGowan told the Earth First! Journal. 
"Certainly, direct action is a wonderful tool, but from my experience, 
it may not be the most effective one at all times or in all situations."

"Direct action" is a deliberately vague term that covers a wide range of 
protest tactics, from non-violent sit-ins to sabotage and property 
destruction. But for those versed in the movement's lingo, it was clear 
what McGowan was saying: Think twice before you try actions as 
aggressive as mine.

Nevertheless, to Smith, those articles and interviews about "direct 
action" were proof positive that McGowan was trying to act as a 
"spokesman" for the radical environmental movement.

According to Burke, the BOP spokesman, inmates can be placed in CMUs 
when they "have been convicted of, or associated with, international or 
domestic terrorism," when they "attempt to coordinate illegal activities 
via approved communication methods while incarcerated," or when they 
"have extensive disciplinary histories for the continued misuse/abuse of 
approved communication methods."

In his memo, Smith noted McGowan's sterling disciplinary history but 
emphasized his speech since entering prison. Two months later, he was on 
the bus out of Sandstone.

In McGowan's words, he "got snatched."


** * * * **

At Marion, McGowan says, he found a totally different world from the one 
he had known at Sandstone. With severely limited contact with the 
outside, and little access to the classes and activities available at 
regular prisons, inmates would stare at the TV all day or wander the 
halls aimlessly, like zombies.

When his wife visited him, they could no longer kiss and hug and play 
board games. Instead, they would walk down a hallway together, with two 
sets of bars between them, unable to touch. In a small room, they would 
sit across from each other, separated by glass, and speak through 
phones, so that agents in the BOP's Counter-Terrorism Unit could listen in.

"The worst part would be in the hallway together, and it'd be like two 
sets of bars, and she'd be coming in and I'd be going in the same room, 
and I'd see her in the flesh and I'd go I can't even believe how insane 
this is," McGowan remembers thinking. "Because then we go into our 
little box, and there's two cameras, and you're on a crappy little phone."

"And then you go there and you're behind glass," Synan says. "You can't 
touch the other person, feel their hands, touch their skin. But also 
you're sitting there in a very tiny booth, holding a phone, knowing that 
there's somebody recording the call."

Other families broke apart under the strain, McGowan says. His 
relationship with Synan, whom he married shortly before his prison term 
began, was tested.

At the time, only 15 minutes were allotted for phone time each week, 
making conversations frustrating. "Say you're just bickering about 
something, but after 15 minutes that phone hangs up, but you get nothing 
for the next week," Synan says. "You have to just sit there and, say 
somehow, we're in the middle of this argument, but you can't do anything 
about it."

Most difficult for McGowan, Synan says, was when his mother died in 
2009. On their one phone call a week, she told him that his mother was 
in the hospital. "Your mom's very sick," she said. "It's just a matter 
of time."

But McGowan needed to have the hospital's phone number approved before 
he could call it -- a process that couldn't be completed late on a 
Friday. All through the weekend, he lived in a suspended state, waiting 
for Monday to find out whether his mother was dead.

"It's horrible. This is life and death, and they had to approve a 
hospital room phone number, which is ridiculous," Synan says.

McGowan's mother made it through the weekend -- a small solace. He 
called the hospital room, and with his sisters holding up the phone on 
the other end to his barely speaking mother, he talked to her. "He's got 
15 minutes and that's it," Synan recalls. "And so the phone hangs up and 
he's talked to his mom, and he won't know anything for a while."

When McGowan's mother died days later, Synan told him in a message sent 
through a special, heavily monitored prison email system 

"That was the only way to do it," Synan says. McGowan had made her 
promise she would let him know as soon as possible.

With a few interruptions, McGowan was held in the CMU at Marion for two 
years. In October 2010, he was released into the prison's general 

But McGowan's time in Little Guantanamo was far from over. After several 
months in general population, in February 2011 he was sent off to the 
other CMU, housed on the old death row at the Federal Correctional 
Complex in Terre Haute. McGowan says that move also smacked of 
retaliation and further highlighted the absurdity of treating prisoners 
like dangerous terrorists one day and common criminals the next.

The reason for his second transfer seems Kafkaesque. In January 2011, 
the leaks website Public Intelligence released two BOP Counter-Terrorism 
intelligence reports 
which included details on letters to many of the inmates held at the 
CMUs. The documents provided a rare look into just what sort of 
communications monitoring the BOP was conducting on its "terrorist" 
inmates, including McGowan.

In one week, the report detailed 
<http://info.publicintelligence.net/BOP-CTU-1.pdf>, McGowan received two 
items of interest to the BOP: a series of postcards from a woman at a 
G-8 summit in Italy, describing the demonstrations there as "boring and 
depressing" because of their "total lack of antagonism," and a letter 
from a lawyer describing an animal rights conference at which the "green 
scare" and McGowan's incarceration were discussed.

Another report <http://info.publicintelligence.net/BOP-CTU-2.pdf> said 
that McGowan had been mailed a copy of a radical environmentalist 
magazine, which prison officials rejected, and an email from a member of 
a social justice public relations collective. "Much respect to you for 
hanging in there and staying strong," Ryan Fletcher wrote to McGowan on 
Aug. 7, 2009. "One day all of this will come out and expose this thing 
for what it is."

The BOP delivered some of these messages to McGowan and rejected others 
as too inflammatory for prison. But with the reports about his 
communications now live on the Internet for anyone to see, McGowan asked 
his wife to have his lawyer mail him copies.

To the BOP, that was "circumventing monitoring through the use of legal 
mail." McGowan was sent to the Terre Haute CMU, where he spent the next 
22 months.


** * * * **

In December 2012, in the final months of his seven-year sentence, 
McGowan was released to a halfway house in Brooklyn and obtained a job 
manning the front desk of a law firm.

But even then, he and his lawyers say, he was not free from the prison 
system's efforts to retaliate against him.

On April 1, 2013, McGowan wrote a blog post 
for The Huffington Post about his incarceration in the CMUs. Three days 
later, U.S. marshals showed up at his halfway house. He was taken to the 
Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and placed in solitary 

For McGowan, his wife and his lawyers, what followed were 20 hours of 
terror. They had no idea whether he was about to be shipped back to one 
of the CMUs. They had no idea, other than perhaps the blog post, why the 
BOP was so upset with him.

McGowan's jailing provoked protests from his lawyers and was reported 
across the Internet, including HuffPost and Politico 
Three different BOP officials gave HuffPost three different explanations 
as to what was happening and why. Barely a day later, perhaps realizing 
the public relations mess it was causing, the Bureau of Prisons released 
McGowan back to his halfway house. Federal officials later admitted that 
McGowan's re-entry manager had jailed him on the basis of a regulation 
barring prisoners from speaking to the media -- a regulation that had 
been ruled unconstitutional in 2007.

To McGowan, the episode was a reminder of just how arbitrary and 
over-the-top the BOP's reaction to political speech can be.

"The irony is just so thick," McGowan says. "You're writing an article 
about retaliation for freedom of speech and writing, and they retaliate 
by throwing you in prison."

BOP spokesman Burke would only say, "We don't comment on an inmate's 
disciplinary history."

If the prison system was hoping to break McGowan's will to express 
himself by sending him to the CMUs, or by jailing him for his blog 
posts, it failed. McGowan vows that his experience will only make him 
fight harder for the environment. It has also given him a new cause to 
fight for: prison reform.

In July, a federal judge ruled that McGowan could no longer participate 
in the Center for Constitutional Rights' lawsuit against the federal 
prison system, in large part because he is no longer a prisoner. But he 
is not the only one to have faced retaliation, the suit alleges.

Kifah Jayyousi is a Detroit native and Navy veteran who became a 
supporter of the Blind Sheik. Convicted in 2007 of conspiracy to murder, 
kidnap and maim in a foreign country and to provide material support to 
al-Qaeda, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Jayyousi has never been accused of trying to communicate with al-Qaeda 
or any other terrorist group while in prison. But in June 2008, Smith 
had him transferred from a Florida prison to the Terre Haute CMU based 
on his conviction for a terrorism-related crime.

Inside the unit, Jayyousi became a leader among his fellow Muslims. Two 
months after his arrival, in the middle of the heated presidential 
election, Jayyousi delivered a sermon to the other prisoners.

"You were brought here because you are Muslim and ... our response to 
that has to be to stand firm, stand strong, to stand steadfast," 
Jayyousi said, according to the BOP's transcript of his monitored 
speech. "John McCain is a presidential candidate, and in two months he 
could be our president. Where was he 20 years ago? He was being tortured 
in a Vietnamese prison for many years with no hope. ... He stood fast, 
he stayed firm, he came through."

"You are going to return to your Lord to meet him with your hard work 
and the hardships that you have faced and done in this life; this is why 
we martyr," Jayyousi said.

In October 2010, when one of his original co-defendants was sent to 
Terre Haute, Jayyousi was shipped off to Marion. The CMU unit manager 
there recommended him for release into the general population in 
February 2011, citing "clear conduct and a good rapport with staff and 
other inmates" and "no continuation of actions which precipitated his 
placement in the CMU." But Smith again interceded.

"Jayyousi made statements which were aimed at inciting and radicalizing 
the Muslim inmate population in [the] CMU," Smith wrote. In Smith's 
characterization, Jayyousi's long statement about prison conditions -- 
which cited McCain; the late Vice Adm. James Stockdale, another Vietnam 
POW; and Nelson Mandela -- was transformed into a call for inmates to 
"martyr themselves to serve Allah."

Jayyousi claims, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights 
lawsuit, that he was simply standing up for himself and other Muslim 
inmates who had been put in prison and the CMU because of "fabricated" 
terrorism convictions. But Smith said the speech was a "highly 
inflammatory" action from a "charismatic leader" that "encouraged 
activities which would lead to a group demonstration."

The debate is important, because courts have long held that prison 
officials may take actions limiting the free speech of inmates if those 
actions also advance "legitimate penological objectives," such as 
disrupting potential prison riots.

"The Constitution applies to prisoners too," says Meeropol of the Center 
for Constitutional Rights. "When you're put in prison, there are a lot 
of limits on your rights ... but there are limits on what can be done to 

In July, a federal judge found 
<http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/07/16/59414.htm> that Jayyousi had a 
"plausible claim" that he had suffered retaliation because of his 
speech. "There is arguably a disparity between the actual content of the 
sermon and Smith's description of it," the judge wrote.

Jayyousi remained in the Marion CMU until May 2013, when he was released 
into the general population at Marion. He "was not provided with any 
explanation," Meeropol says.

Although Meeropol is glad that the BOP has instituted procedures for 
moving inmates out of the CMUs -- in fact, the first time a prisoner was 
released from a CMU was when the BOP let one of her group's named 
plaintiffs out a week before the group launched its lawsuit -- she still 
calls the situation of alleged hardened terrorists being moved in and 
out of the general population "ridiculous."

"There's no clear criteria for how a prisoner can earn their way out of 
the CMU," Meeropol says.

"When you don't have procedural protections in place, it's not 
surprising that abuse would result," she adds. "The retaliation comes in 
with a case like Daniel."

On June 6, McGowan was released from the halfway house after seven years 
in the Bureau of Prisons' custody. At 6:01 a.m., he left the house. He 
got on the subway and finally headed home to crawl into bed with his 
wife. That weekend they stayed in at a fancy hotel. Since then, he says, 
he's enjoyed simple pleasures like rock concerts -- the Postal Service 
and Black Flag, two bands that have been re-formed since he was 
incarcerated -- and his niece's birthday party on Long Island.

Other than that, McGowan says, "it's very early, and I'm trying to get 
my head straight about just being out and living my life. Trying to get 
through each day."

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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