[Pnews] New Gitmo? Muslim inmates housed in Marion
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Apr 22 14:34:15 EDT 2015
New Gitmo? Terrorist inmates housed in Marion
April 12, 2015 5:00 am • By Molly Parker
MARION — A few miles south of town, just past the intersection of
Justice Drive and Prison Road, Ghassan Elashi is serving out the
remainder of a 65-year sentence in a controversial, restrictive unit at
the U.S. Penitentiary that opponents have nicknamed “Gitmo North” and
There, along with about 40 other male inmates largely of Middle Eastern
descent, his every spoken or written word to anyone on the outside is
scrupulously monitored by the federal government. The few phone calls
he’s allowed to make weekly must be pre-arranged and cleared in advance.
He cannot intermingle with the other hundreds of inmates in the prison’s
Elashi is separated from his visiting loved ones by a Plexiglas window
— including his three girls and three boys ages 14 to 29. He can speak
to them only through a telephone, while prison officials listen nearby
to their exchanges.
The scheduled release date for the 61-year-old man is October 2069,
meaning he could die without any physical contact ever again from his
family members. That possibility became increasingly likely earlier this
year as the federal government finalized its rules concreting the use of
two so-called Communications Management Units — the one in rural Marion
that opened in 2008 and the original one that opened in Terre Haute,
Indiana, in 2006 – for inmates officials believe need to have their
communication monitored to protect national and international security.
Further, on March 15, a federal judge upheld the government’s use of the
units, saying the defendants challenging them as unconstitutional failed
to show they represent an “atypical and significant hardship … in
relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”
“We try to make the most of it when we go see him,” said Elashi's eldest
child, Noor Elashi, a New York freelance writer who is writing a book
about her family's experiences. “It’s an extraordinary, frustrating
situation that we travel hundreds of miles, and by the time we see him,
we’re a quarter of an inch apart and we can’t just walk through the
glass and give him a hug and tell him everything is going to be OK.”
Muslim charity leaders convicted
Three months after al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and the Twin
Towers collapsed in a ball of smoke and flames, the government shuttered
Elashi’s Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity based in
the United States.
Seven years later, following a 2007 mistrial, federal prosecutors
secured a conviction on 108 criminal counts against Elashi, the
chairman, and the organization’s four other leaders for support of
terrorism and money laundering, among other charges.
The defense argued, as the family continues to, that the organization’s
money was for legitimate purposes, including help for Palestinian
orphans and for rebuilding schools and hospitals in places of desperate
need. Born in Gaza City, Elashi was for years a refugee without any real
home since he lost his, along with many Palestinians in the wake of the
Six-Day War with Israel in 1967.
He moved to the United States in the late-1970s and began a computer
technology business with his brothers in Texas. Successful in his
business ventures, Elashi roughly a decade later began his philanthropic
activities as a way to give back, eventually growing the largest, most
prolific Muslim charity in the United States, his daughter said.
But following 9/11, the charity leaders were accused, and later found
guilty, of financially supporting Hamas, a Palestinian militant group
and Islamic organization flagged as a terrorist group by U.S. officials
in 1995. A short time after the feds moved to freeze the organization's
assets in December 2001, then-president George W. Bush said: "The
message is this: Those who do business with terror will do no business
with the United States or anywhere else the United States can reach."
In his speech, Bush said he was "confident" most donors "and perhaps
even some of the individuals who are associated with the foundation" did
not know how the money was being used.
"They wanted to relieve suffering in a region of the world that has
suffered too much," Bush said, according to speech archives. "But if
facts are clear, the terrorists benefit from the Holy Land Foundation,
and we're not going to allow it."
The federal government's successful 2008 case represented the largest
terrorism-financing conviction following the attack on the World Trade
Center and Bush’s subsequent promise to wage the War on Terror until
“every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and
Elashi, previously sentenced to 80 months for export violations related
to his computer business, originally was housed in the general
population unit of a federal prison in Texas. Family members could
visit, and his youngest son, then around 7, could sit on his lap in the
visiting area, his daughter said.
In April 2010, a U.S. district judge dropped a requirement that kept
the charity leaders near Dallas to coordinate appeals with their lawyers.
Shortly after that, without warning, Noor Elashi said prison officials
informed her father that he would be transferring to the Southern
Illinois prison that opened in 1963 to replace the infamous San
Francisco prison on Alcatraz Island. For some time, she said, the family
didn’t know where he was going — only that he was no longer in Texas.
“One of the most frustrating and cruel aspects of the transfer is he had
no say-so when it came to the actual transfer,” she said, noting there
was no review hearing or process by which to challenge the transfer. “He
didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t able to refute it for any reason. You
just have to go with it.”
Nine years later, rules issued
The Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Department of
Justice, published its “final rule” for use of Communications Management
Units in Illinois and Indiana on Jan. 22, in the final years of
President Barack Obama's presidency. The rules were published nine years
after the units were set up under the Bush administration in relative
The federal rules say that inmates may challenge the unit designation
decision through the administrative remedy program, though Noor Elashi
said there has been no real opportunity for her father to challenge his
placement. Upon periodic reviews of his placement in the unit by the
government, she said a reason always is found to keep him there.
The units earned the nicknames “Gitmo North” and “Little Guantanamo" as
reports began to surface that almost all of the inmates originally
housed in the two units were Muslims. In its rule, the Bureau of Prisons
said in bold lettering as a section heading that the units are “not
discriminatory or retaliatory.”
The bureau noted that many people commenting on the proposed rule feel
that there is an “over-representation of Muslim and political prisoners”
in the units, showing that the units are not designed for legitimate
purposes, “but rather to discriminate and remove and isolate politically
active members of society.”
The rule says that, instead, inmates may be designated to the unit whose
current offenses or conduct while incarcerated include association,
communication or involvement related to international or domestic terrorism.
“Past behaviors of terrorist inmates provide sufficient grounds to
suggest a substantial risk that they may inspire or incite
terrorist-related activity, especially if ideas for or plans to incite
terrorist-related activity are communicated to groups willing to engage
in or to provide equipment or logistics to facilitate terrorist-related
activity,” the rule reads. “The potential ramifications of this activity
outweigh the inmate’s interest in unlimited communication with persons
in the community.”
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross told The Southern Illinoisan this
past week that the units are not punitive in nature.
“It’s not like being in isolation for a serious violation of a prison
rule," Ross said.
Ross said there are 43 such inmates in Marion and 47 in Indiana
(population counts as of January). Those assigned to the Communications
Management Units have access to indoor and outdoor recreation, social
visits, meal areas, private medical care, religious services and
educational services available to the prison at large, he said.
Ross said the bureau has never released information detailing the ethnic
breakdown of prisoners in any particular unit within a federal prison,
therefore making it difficult to say how many of the roughly 90 men
housed in the units are of Middle Eastern descent. The government also
does not provide information on how many of the men housed in the units
The New-York based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has
challenged the legality of the units, claims that more than 70 percent
of those kept in the Marion unit are Muslim. That includes both African
Americans (many of whom converted while serving time in the prison
system) and prisoners of Middle Eastern descent.
The center contends that Muslims represent only 6 percent of the general
federal prison population.
Former prisoner: Units a 'black eye' for America
A former inmate in the Marion unit, Andy Stepanian said he's concerned
that this is another dark chapter in American history similar to when
thousands of Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in U.S.-based
concentration camps during World War II.
“It echoes to that chapter,” Stepanian said. “It’s a black eye, and we
can’t afford to go through another thing like that.”
Stepanian, 36, spent just shy of three years in federal prison for
violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act following his 2004 arrest
on charges of disrupting the work of a New Jersey pharmaceutical testing
company and threatening its employees and associated companies’ employees.
Then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (now New Jersey governor and possible
2016 GOP presidential contender) successfully prosecuted Stepanian and
other animal-rights advocates for recruiting people online to vandalize
property at homes of employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences of East
Stepanian served most of his time at a prison in Butner, North Carolina,
where he said he was allowed 300 minutes of phone calls each month, and
40 hours of visitations a week in an open visitation hall, where his
then-girlfriend and now wife and mother of his two children regularly
Stepanian said he entered the system upon conviction as a
medium-security prisoner. He was a regular teacher of GED classes in
Butner, and, Stepanian said, his classification was later changed to
that of a low-security prisoner. When guards approached him around 5
a.m. one day in 2008 to let him know a transfer had been ordered,
Stepanian said he figured he was moving to a less-restrictive facility
more in line with his new classification.
Instead, he said, with no explanation, he ended up at the Communications
Management Unit in Marion, where he spent 5-1/2 months before he was
transferred to a halfway house back in his home state and eventually
A white man, Stepanian said the guards regularly referred to him as a
“balancer.” Controversial reports began to surface that the units were
almost exclusively housing Muslim Arabs, and Stepanian believes his
placement there was likely driven by the federal governments desire to
mix the makeup of the units and stave off criticism that the units were
discriminatory in nature to Muslims.
He said one guard told him verbatim, “Keep your head up. You’re here for
Another opined that the unit was a “lawsuit waiting to happen,”
He also suggested that the units were strategically placed in relatively
rural areas of the country, such as the federal prison that sits in a
secluded area outside the town of Marion.
Said Stepanian: “These are not things the government is proud of, no
disrespect to your town.”
Molly.Parker at TheSouthern.com
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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