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Secret Prisons Targeting Muslims?

(Pictured above: The Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute, Indiana - www.rawstory.com)

Secret Bush-era Prisons Continue

New America Media, Commentary, John C. Trang, Posted: Jul 24, 2009

Editor’s Note: Muslims make up 70 percent of inmates in two prisons the George W. Bush regime clandestinely established in the Midwest between 2006 and 2008.

Despite President Barack Obama’s declaration that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam, government practices suggest otherwise.

In June, the ACLU filed complaints against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for illegally establishing secret prisons called Communications Management Units, or CMUs. The ACLU also alleged unconstitutional restrictions on Muslim inmates’ right to religious freedom. As a law student investigating the CMUs, the existence of these secret prisons trouble me.

The first CMU was clandestinely established in late 2006 at the federal prison facility in Terre Haute, Ind. In 2008, another CMU was established in Marion, Ill. According to the government, CMUs were created to “house inmates who, due to their current offense of conviction, offense conduct or other verified information, require increased monitoring of communication between inmates and persons in the community in order to protect the safety, security, and orderly operations of Bureau facilities and protect the public.”

Sounds mundane, right? But the fact is CMUs are a palpable and disconcerting product of xenophobia and the war on terrorism. Concocted during the Bush administration, CMUs are alarmingly reminiscent of McCarthy-era practices and the Japanese American internment camps.

Although the number of inmates placed at the CMUs has not exceeded 40, around 70 percent are Muslim. The likelihood of finding another prison in the United States with similar proportions of Muslim inmates is zero. There is only one other facility under U.S. jurisdiction with similar demographics: Guantanamo Bay.

With such a high proportion of Muslim inmates, civil rights groups have expressed concern about constitutional violations of equal protection. BOP officials deny CMU placement is based on religious identity. According to one government document, criteria for CMU placement includes: continued misuse/abuse of approved communication privileges, history of making judicial threats, and having been convicted of, or associated with, involvement in terrorism. This odd mix of criteria that warrants CMU placement is applicable to hundreds of the incarcerated. Therefore, how and why specific inmates are chosen for CMU placement remains unclear.

Unlike other prisons in the United States, information about CMUs remains scarce. Few publicly available government documents mention “Communications Management Unit.” The secrecy is increased by extreme restrictions on inmates’ communications. All communications to and from inmates are examined. If a message is not approved, it is never transmitted. In fact, in some respects CMU inmates – all of who are categorized as low to medium risk – have more restrictive conditions than inmates categorized with higher security risk levels.

While the government describes CMUs in innocuous terms, many groups have alternate theories as to the actual purpose and nature of CMUs. Some believe CMUs were created solely to house terrorists since some, though not all, inmates have terrorism related convictions. However, even the terrorism related convictions are suspect.

Take for example ACLU’s client and CMU inmate Sabri Benkahla. Benkahla, born in Virginia and a graduate of George Mason University, was studying Islamic law and jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia when he was abducted at Saudi secret police, flown back to America and charged with supplying services to the Taliban and using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. He was found not guilty. Not satisfied with the acquittal, the U.S. government forced Benkahla to testify before a federal grand jury where he was accused and eventually convicted of perjury. Nonetheless, the presiding judge asserted Benkahla was “not a terrorist” and noted the chances of Benkahla committing another crime were “infinitesimal.”

While some view CMUs as facilities for terrorists, a majority of news articles assert the common thread uniting inmates is their strong community support and their politically unpopular views. That is, CMUs are political prisons.

I am not convinced CMUs are traditional political prisons – the sort used to silent inmates. There is growing evidence CMUs were created to extract information from inmates for the war on terrorism. Since privacy rights are reduced for the incarcerated, increasing attention to prisoners as a source of information was a logical step for proponents of sustaining a war on terrorism. And by stretching what constitutes a terrorism related charge, the government could consolidate prisoners believed to possess desired knowledge and ignore even basic civil liberties afforded other incarcerated people by invoking “war on terrorism.” To be sure, similar to the tenuous links to terrorism, the extent of any inmate’s knowledge about terrorism is questionable at best.

Ultimately, due to the secretive nature of CMUs, the real explanation continues to be a mystery. What is not a mystery is that the war on terrorism continues to be wrongfully conflated with Islam. This likely explains the disproportionate level of Muslim inmates. Although there are non-Muslim inmates at CMUs, at least one Muslim inmate claims that security guards have called non-Muslim inmates “racial balancers.” Whether or not non-Muslim inmates are mere decoys is unclear. But such a claim should heighten our concern that the government is targeting inmates based on a racial perception of who is a terrorist.

Any selective targeting of Muslims inside and outside the prison system in the name of war and national security would be dangerously similar to the selective targeting of Japanese Americans during World War II. After decades of struggle, the government officially apologized to the Japanese American community and admitted that xenophobia and wartime hysteria contributed to discriminatory policies that should never be repeated.

Granted there are differences between Japanese American internees and CMU inmates. CMU inmates have been convicted of at least one federal crime, albeit often minor crimes such as incorrectly filing taxes. However, the prison system should not strip inmates of all their constitutional rights, or segregate them in highly restrictive prisons based on religious identity.

Almost eight years after the September 11 attacks, the Obama administration has set a new tenor on the war on terrorism. But the continuing operation of CMUs that began under Bush is reminiscent of anti-Japanese policies and McCarthy era witch hunts. National security is a real concern but it can never justify the practices reportedly involved at CMUs. To do so would be a betrayal of the nation’s commitment to core civil liberties and freedoms.

John C. Trang is currently a law student at UCLA School of Law in the Epstein Public Interest Law and Policy Program with a Critical Race Studies Specialization.

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