Wednesday, August 4, 2010

‘Little Guantanamos’

As Guantanamo is in the agonizingly slow process of shutting its doors, another kind of facility seems poised take its place on U.S. soil. Communication Management Units (CMUs), special divisions within American prisons nicknamed ‘Little Guantanamos,’ house political and terrorism convicts who are denied the basic services provided to prisoners in the United States. These inmates are not permitted basic access to communication ranging from telephone use length, visitation frequency, and postal service privacy. [1]

Quietly established during the Bush administration, CMUs have garnered little media attention. The majority of CMU residents are Muslim; others are labeled as activists espousing ‘extremist views,’ specifically concerning animal rights.

After the government passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in 2006, anyone who participates in animal welfare protests can be labeled a terrorist. Corporations that engage in animal brutality can now claim that these protesters have negatively impacted their profit margin, which is a criminal offense. Many of these activists have been arrested, some of whom have then been transferred to the CMUs.

The ACLU is currently engaged in the first high profile legal challenge to the CMUs. The case involves Andrew Stephaian, an animal rights activist, who is widely thought to be the first inmate ever released from a CMU. He was convicted of conspiring to violate the AETA and disseminating information over the internet that could possible incite criminal behavior in others. He spoke to “Democracy Now!” in an interview about his experiences while in the facility.

Will Potter, founder of, parallels the current environmental movement to the Red Scare. He argues that the government is simply labeling individuals as terrorists to push their own political agenda and justify these highly restrictive prison units. The National Lawyers Guild created a booklet, called Operation Backfire, to inform environmental and animal rights activists about their rights and discuss the ramifcations of the terrorism enhancement in the AETA. Many other organizations, including the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the Coalition to Abolish the AETA, Equal Justice Alliance, Green, and Scholars for Academic Justice, have made the fight against the AETA a priority, along with heightening exposure of CMUs.

Two CMUs exist to date: one facility is located in Terre Haute, Indiana; the other is within the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. Little else is known about these compounds, especially regarding the identities of the inmates housed there or how long their sentences within these facilities will last. Lack of transparency about these facilities hinders the ability to expose them as institutions indulging in religious and political discrimination.

If Obama is going to take a stand to shut down Guantanamo, he must close these “Little Guantanamos,”too. Inmates in CMUs should not be segregated from the rest of the prison population nor denied the basic services provided to the regular prison sector.

[1] Jennifer Van Bergen, 16 February, 2007, “Documents Show New Secretive Us Prison Program Isolating Muslim, Middle Eastern Prisoners,” The Raw Story, accessed 25 July, 2010.