CMUs: The Federal Prison System’s Experiment in Group Segregation

In 2006 and 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) created 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. These isolation units have been shrouded in secrecy since their inception as part of the post-9/11 "counterterrorism" framework implemented by the Bush administration.

In 2014, hundreds of documents detailing the process of designating and keeping prisoners in the CMUs were made public through the Center for Constitutional Rights' litigation, Aref et al. v. Garland et al. (more below and at the link). Much of the public information about CMUs comes from these documents, including that the units house between 60 and 70 prisoners in total, and the CMU population is disproportionately Muslim, even though Muslims represented only 6 percent of the general federal prison population.

Unlike those in other BOP prisons, 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. All visits and calls must be conducted in English. 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 Incarcerated in the CMU?

The BOP claims that CMUs are designed to hold "dangerous terrorists" and other high-risk inmates who require heightened monitoring of external and internal communications. However, in practice, many people 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.

CMUs have been disproportionately used for Muslim prisoners: at the time the BOP disclosed information in 2014, of 178 total CMU designations, 101 were Muslim. This marks a vast overrepresentation, which cannot be explained away by virtue of the CMU's claim to be focused on terrorism. Of the first 55 prisoners designated to the CMU, 45 were sent there because of terrorism-related convictions, but the other ten were designated because they were involved in "prohibited activities related to communication"—of that ten, eight self-reported as Muslim.

Individuals with "unpopular" political views, such as environmental and animal rights activists, are also housed in CMUs in a calculated effort by the BOP to "integrate" the units after critical press attention to the targeting of Muslims. The BOP maintains that there are broad guidelines determining who is eligible to be sent to these isolation units—indeed the criteria are so broad that thousands of people in the general prison population are potentially eligible. But the vast majority of these individuals are never even considered for CMU placement. Instead, the CMUs are filled with people who organized for the rights of other prisoners, filed grievances based on mistreatment, participated in lawful social justice movements, and organized worship sessions.

Extreme Isolation and Restrictions

Unlike others held in the federal prison system, people in CMUs are forbidden from any physical contact during visits with their children, spouses, family members, and other loved ones. 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 BOP'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 in Florence, Colorado, where some prisoners have over four times more time allotted for visits than prisoners in the CMU.

The BOP has also placed severe restrictions on phone access. While the BOP recognizes the importance of telephone communications with family and loved ones in the rehabilitation process, it severely restricts such access for individuals in the CMUs, even as their release date approaches.

People in CMUs 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.

Lack of Transparency and Accountability

For the individuals designated for CMUs, the secrecy, opaqueness, and lack of accountability make the entire experience truly Kafkaesque.

  • The BOP official who makes the final decision to send someone to a CMU does not document the reason for the decision anywhere, so people sent to the CMU have no way to know why they were actually transferred.
  • People sent to the CMU don’t get any explanation for their transfer until after they arrive at the unit. When they are provided a reason, it may be different from the one relied on by the decisionmaker and is frequently vague, incomplete, inaccurate, and/or completely false.
  • When people in the CMU have requested details about the explanation provided for their designation (such as the specific facts involved), their questions are ignored.
  • When prisoners have pointed out that the facts purportedly underlying their CMU designation are false, including by referring the BOP to documentation of the true facts, the BOP has ignored the facts and continued to assert the lies are true, without acknowledging the evidence to the contrary.
  • People in the CMU are given inaccurate, and even impossible, instructions for earning their way out of a CMU. Some people have been baldly lied to and told that they could earn their way out of the CMU by completing 18 months of clear conduct, but after meeting that goal their requests for transfer were repeatedly denied without explanation. BOP policy states that prisoners can appeal their CMU placement through the prison Administrative Remedy Process. However, no one has ever succeeded in getting out of a CMU through this process.
  • Even on those occasions when a someone is transferred from a CMU back to the general prisoner population, he is not told why he was in the CMU or why he was transferred out, so he does not know what behavior to avoid so as not to be sent back.

What is Aref, et al. v. Garland, et al.?

Aref, et al. v. Garland, 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 filed the case in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., 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.

During discovery in this litigation, hundreds of documents detailing the process of designating and keeping prisoners in the CMUS were made public. The documents revealed that prisoners have been denied due process at every step.

In August 2016, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt people in the CMU a huge victory; the court ruled that prisoners have a “liberty interest” in avoiding CMU placement, and thus the procedures used by the BOP to place and retain people in a CMU must adhere to due process standards. The Center for Constitutional Rights 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. However, in 2020, the District Court ruled against plaintiffs once again, ignoring this evidence entirely. Our client Kifah Jayyousi has appealed that decision, and his appeal is now pending in the D.C. Circuit Court.

Kifah Jayyousi, has been released from prison but is still fighting to have inaccurate information about him expunged from his prison records to ensure that it cannot continue to be shared by the BOP with other law enforcement agencies. His decade-plus struggle for accountability will also ensure that others in the CMU avoid discriminatory and retaliatory placement in the units and have a clear way to challenge factual errors leading to placement.

Learn more about our CMU legal challenge: Aref v.  Garland


Learn more about our clients and families who have been impacted by CMUs:

Learn more about our CMU advocacy: 

Last modified 

October 14, 2021