Special US prison units fill with Muslims
WASHINGTON – US federal prisons for the past three years have housed special units filled disproportionately with Muslim inmates whose every communication with the outside world is strictly monitored.
Known as "Guantanamo North," the so-called Communication Management Units (CMU) were secretly opened in 2007 in maximum security prisons in Terre Haute, Indiana and Marion, Illinois and currently have 71 prisoners, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) told AFP.
The US public radio network, NPR, recently published the names, nationalities and reasons for incarceration of 86 of more than 100 detainees who have passed through them, information never before disclosed by the Bureau of Prisons.
NPR found that a number of detainees were convicted of terrorism offenses but mixed in with them were white supremacists and common criminals.
The CMU's are designed to severely limit detainees' contacts with the outside world, to prevent them from organizing crimes or settling accounts from behind bars, harassing their victims, or proselytizing when there is a risk of religious radicalization.
The aim is to "ensure the safe, secure, and orderly running of BOP facilities, and to protect the public," the bureau said in documents obtained by AFP.
But while Muslims account for six percent of the inmate population in federal prisons as a whole, in the CMUs "somewhere between 65 and 72 percent of the population is Muslim," said Alexis Agathocleous, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
"So, that's a tenfold over representation. That obviously raises concerns about religious profiling," he said.
Agathocleous represents five current and former inmates of CMU's who are suing to challenge their incarceration in units "cut off from the outside world."
He said some of his clients have never been convicted of terrorist offenses, nor committed any disciplinary infractions, or broken the rules on communication at other prisons where they have been held.
Their complaint says that of the first 17 prisoners transferred to the Terre Haute CMU, 15 were Muslim.
The population grew quickly. By March 2007, CMU prisoners reported that there were 48 prisoners in Terre Haute CMU and 37 were Muslim.
"In the last several years, subsequent to media scrutiny of defendants' targeting of Muslims, more non-Muslims have been moved to the CMU. Guards on the units have referred to these non-Muslims prisoners as balancers," it said.
Asked about the proportion of Muslims in the CMU populations, Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Tracy Billingsley said she could not provide the statistic because "it is irrelevant."
"They are not placed on the CMU based on their religion, they are put in CMU based on the need to have their communications monitored," she said.
Besides Muslims, Agathocleous said there was "a pattern of people with unpopular political beliefs being designated to the CMU."
He said one of his clients was an environmental activist involved in pressing prisoners' rights. Others appear to have been transferred to the unit as punishment, such as a former inmate who landed in the CMU after filing a complaint against the penitentiary system.
Civil rights organizations also have criticized the secrecy surrounding the creation of the special units, and the tight restrictions on visits and telephone calls without explanation or recourse to appeal.