CMUs: The Federal Prison System’s Experiment in Social Isolation


What is a Communications Management Unit (CMU)?

In 2006 and 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP or “Bureau”) secretly created the Communications Management Units (CMUs), prison units designed to isolate and segregate certain prisoners in the federal prison system from the rest of the BOP population. Currently, there are two CMUs, one located in Terre Haute, Indiana and the other in Marion, Illinois. The CMUs house between 60 and 70 prisoners in total, and approximately 60 percent of the CMU population is Muslim, even though Muslims represent only 6 percent of the general federal prison population.

Unlike other BOP prisoners, individuals detained in the CMUs are completely banned from any physical contact with visiting family members and friends. Other types of communication are also severely limited, including interactions with non-CMU prisoners and phone calls with friends and family members.

Individuals detained in the CMUs receive no meaningful explanation for their transfer to the unit or for the extraordinary communications restrictions to which they are subjected. Upon designation to the unit, there is no meaningful review or appeal process that allows CMU prisoners to be transferred back to general population.

Many CMU prisoners have neither significant disciplinary records nor any communications-related infractions. However, bias, political scapegoating, religious profiling and racism keep them locked inside these special units.

Who is Detained in the CMU?


The Bureau claims that CMUs are designed to hold dangerous terrorists and other high-risk inmates, requiring heightened monitoring of their external and internal communications. Many prisoners, however, were sent to these isolation units for their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.

Of 178 total CMU designations, 101 have been of Muslim prisoners. This marks a vast overrepresentation, which cannot be explained away by virtue of the CMU’s focus on terrorism. Of the first 55 prisoners designated to the CMU, 45 were sent there because of their connection to terrorism, but the other ten were designated due to involvement in prohibited activities related to communication; of that ten, eight self-reported as Muslim.

CMUs also house individuals with “unpopular” political views, such as environmental activists. Many of these prisoners were brought to the CMU as a calculated means to “integrate” the units after critical press attention to the targeting of Muslims. Also commonly detained in the CMU are prisoners who have been active in organizing prisoners’ rights, participated in lawful social justice movements, organized worship sessions, or filed grievances based on mistreatment and/or conditions of confinement. Although the Bureau maintains there are broad guidelines determining who is eligible to be sent to these isolation units, thousands of prisoners in the general population fit the criteria – begging the question, why these men?


The CMU: An Experiment in Social Isolation?


Unlike other prisoners in the federal prison system, CMU prisoners are forbidden from any physical contact with their children, spouses, family members and other loved ones that visit them. They are not even allowed a brief embrace upon greeting or saying goodbye. While the BOP claims that these units were created to more effectively monitor communications, there is no security explanation for banning physical contact during visits as visitors are comprehensively searched before visits, and prisoners are strip searched before and after visits. The ban on physical contact during visits contradicts the Bureau’s own policy recognizing the critical importance of visitation in rehabilitation and prison re-entry. The CMUs’ visitation policy is even more restrictive than that of the BOP’s notorious “supermax” prison, where prisoners have over four times more time allotted for visits than prisoners in the CMU.

The Bureau has also placed severe restrictions on phone access. As with visits, the Bureau has recognized the importance of telephone communications with family and loved ones in the rehabilitation process as well as in maintaining family relationships during incarceration. In spite of this, for the first three years the CMUs existed, prisoners were permitted only one 15 minute call a week. In 2009, in apparent response to threatened litigation, the Bureau permitted one extra 15 minute call a week, but the BOP has discretion to limit CMU prisoners to only three 15 minute calls a month. Comparatively, other prisoners in the federal system receive 300 minutes a month for phone calls.

Prisoners in the isolation units are barred even from contact with other prisoners in the general population. In addition to the stigma of being placed in what is widely known as the “terrorist” unit, individuals detained in the CMU have limited access to educational and other opportunities, including programs that facilitate reintegration and employment efforts upon their release.

Secrecy, Transparency and Accountability in the Federal Prison System


These isolation units have been shrouded in secrecy since their inception. CMUs were created without public knowledge and without the opportunity for the public to comment as required by law. In 2010, the BOP attempted to redress this violation by, three years after the fact, finally disclosing CMU policy for public comment. Years later, in 2015, the Bureau final issued a regulation codifying CMU policy and practices.  

What is Aref v. Lynch?


Aref, et al. v. Lynch, et al. is a federal lawsuit challenging the policies and conditions at the two CMUs, as well as the circumstances under which they were established. In March 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the case in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC on behalf of several prisoners and their family members. The defendants in the lawsuit include the Attorney General, the Director of the BOP and the, Assistant Director of the Correctional Programs Division of the BOP.

In August of 2016, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt CMU prisoners a huge victory in the case; the Court ruled that prisoners have a “liberty interest” in avoiding CMU placement, and thus the procedures used by the Bureau of Prison to place and retain people in a CMU must adhere to due process standards.  

The District Court is now considering the question of whether BOP practices meet due process standards.  CCR has submitted significant evidence, based on previously-secret documents gathered through the litigation, to show that current and past procedures are gravely inadequate, and violate Constitutional demands.  


NPR's Interactive CMU History Timeline


NPR's CMU timeline

NPR's Margot Williams and Alicia Cypress have created an interactive timeline of the history of the CMUs.

Last modified 

April 13, 2017