Prisoners’ Rights Attorneys Urge Appellate Court to Revive Lawsuit over Federal Communication Management Units
March 15, 2016, Washington, D.C. – Today, attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the D.C. Court of Appeals to reinstate a lawsuit challenging the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) secretive Communication Management Units, or CMUs. CMUs isolate certain prisoners, overwhelmingly Muslims, from the general prisoner population and the outside world and monitor and strictly control their communications. A district court granted summary judgment to the BOP, ruling that prisoners do not have a “liberty interest” in avoiding placement in the CMUs, despite the severe communications restrictions, stigma, and years-long segregation that come with such placement. Documents uncovered through the lawsuit revealed extensive due process violations, an issue the district court did not consider based on its ruling that prisoner have no liberty interest in avoiding CMU placement.
“Prisoners placed in CMUs routinely go without physical contact with their loved ones for years. And yet BOP decisions about who will be subjected to these harsh conditions are frequently arbitrary or retaliatory,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol, who argued before the court today. “If avoiding placement in a CMU is not among the liberty interests of incarcerated people, it is hard to imagine what is.”
The district court ruled that prisoners do not have a liberty interest in avoiding placement in a CMU because the restrictions within them are not more restrictive than conditions in administrative segregation, where prisoners are routinely placed for investigation, or pending transfer. However, CMU segregation lasts for years, while a typical stay in administrative segregation is only a few weeks. The average stay in a CMU, with its unique communications restrictions, is 55 times as long. Moreover, because the overwhelming majority of prisoners placed in CMUs are Muslim or are sent there because of their religious or political speech, attorneys say that placement in a CMU is uniquely stigmatizing in a way that administrative segregation is not. Sixty percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim, though Muslims comprise only six percent of the federal prisoner population.
“They said that I was recruiting and radicalizing other inmates, but if you read my last progress report before I was sent to the CMU it says clearly that I was not a problem at the institution and that I got along well with inmates and staff. I’d just gotten a bonus for working in the kitchen. There was absolutely no reason for them to snatch me up,” said Abdul-Ali, a former plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Today I’m a free man, but I’m still wrestling with why they snatched me up, because I didn’t have any other problems in the prison at all.”
Because the district court ruled that prisoners do not have a liberty interest in avoiding placement in a CMU, it did not consider CCR’s evidence that prisoners sent there have been denied due process. Documents released through discovery in the case, however, expose what attorneys say are overwhelming due process violations. Government documents show that, though the CMUs were quietly opened in Terre Haute, IN and Marion, IL in 2006 and 2008, respectively, the BOP did not draft criteria for designating prisoners to the facilities until 2009. The documents also reveal that different offices within the BOP, each of which plays a role in the designation process, have different understandings of those criteria. Furthermore, decision-makers are not required to, and do not, document their reasons for selecting a prisoner for CMU placement, making it effectively impossible for prisoners to challenge their designation.
Other documents revealed that the reasons provided to CMU prisoners for their designation were incomplete, inaccurate, and sometimes even false. In addition, some documents showed that political speech was used as a factor in CMU designation. Discovery in the case also found that prisoners were told they could earn their way out of a CMU by completing 18 months with clear conduct, but upon meeting that goal, their requests for transfer were repeatedly denied without explanation.
The law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP and attorney Kenneth A. Kreuscher of the Portland Law Collective are co-counsel in the case.