Monday, June 29, 2009

FIRST INMATE TELLS ABOUT AMERICA'S SECRET PRISONS

AMY GOODMAN: The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder and the Federal Bureau of Prisons challenging the legality of two secretive prison units in Indiana and Illinois. The prisons, known as Communication Management Units, are designed to severely restrict prisoner communication with family members, the media and the outside world.

The prisons were opened by the Bush administration with little public scrutiny. The first CMU was opened in 2006 in a special isolated wing of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. A second CMU was opened last year in Marion, Illinois.

Most of the prisoners held in the CMUs have been Muslim men, but the units have also held several non-Muslim political activists, including environmental and animal rights activists.

The government has provided little information about the special prison units. A search on the Bureau of Prisons website yields just one document even mentioning the program. The ACLU lawsuit marks the first high-profile legal challenge to the prisons.

While President Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo and secret overseas prisons, he has said nothing about these secretive prison units known by some prisoners as "Little Guantanamo."

Today we speak to Andrew Stepanian, an animal rights activist who was held at the CMU in Marion, Illinois. He is believed to be the first prisoner released from a CMU. . .

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what it was like there.

ANDREW STEPANIAN: The Communications Management Unit is a prison within the actual prison. It's set up in the former hole of the United States Penitentiary, which was the first supermax prison in the federal penal system in the United States. . .

The unit doesn't have normal telephone communication to your family. The unit doesn't have normal visitation, like you would be able to communicate with your family or embrace them or hug them. These are restraints that are normally put on people that are considered to be the most violent and have the most egregious offenses. And yet, in this case, almost every person that was at the CMU was either a minimum-security case or, at most, a medium-security level, which gives you all the freedoms of being able to walk around a room normally with your family, spend about eight hours in a normal visiting day, say, walking around a patio or sharing snacks from a vending machine. These are the normal visits that a prisoner would be able to experience. These normal visits are denied.

Normal phone calls, usually 300 minutes a month for an average inmate, are denied. Instead, you have to make an appointment to make one phone call a week, and that needs to be done with the oversight of a translator, a live monitor and someone from Washington, DC. . .

Most of the men that are in these units are Muslim. I, myself, am not Muslim. From what I observed, about 70 percent of the men that were there were Muslim and had questionable cases that were labeled as either extremist or terrorist cases. But when I grew to meet them, I realized that the cases were, in fact, very different, and their personalities affected, you know, my judgment of them to think that they're better people than that.

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