October 28, 2015, Washington, D.C. – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights appealed a district court ruling in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) secretive, highly-restrictive Communications Management Units (CMU). In 2014, CCR’s lawsuit, Aref v. Holder, uncovered hundreds of documents detailing the BOP’s process for designating prisoners to CMUs. Among other issues, the documents revealed that the BOP did not draft criteria for designating prisoners to the CMUs until three years after the first unit opened; that different BOP offices tasked with designating prisoners have different understandings of the criteria; that the reasons provided to CMU prisoners for their designation are incomplete, inaccurate, and sometimes even false; and that political speech exercised by prisoners was used as a factor in their CMU designation. In its ruling, the district court did not consider these documents, instead finding that the CMUs are not sufficiently unusual, harsh, or restrictive to trigger due process rights.
“The Bureau of Prisons has kept everything about their Communications Management Units opaque—from how you end up there to how you get out,” said plaintiff Daniel McGowan. “I only learned through this lawsuit that I was sent to the CMU because I continued to care about politics when I was incarcerated and because I wrote letters to my friends on the outside about social justice issues. Other people in the CMUs should have the right to learn why they were actually sent there, too.”
In addition to having their telephone and visitation access heavily restricted, CMU prisoners are categorically denied any physical contact with family members, forbidden from hugging, touching or embracing their children or spouses during visits. Attorneys say this blanket ban on contact visitation is unique in the federal prison system and causes suffering to people in prison and their families.
“Communications Management Units impose harsh restrictions on prisoners’ communication with their families and with fellow prisoners for years at a time,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol. “All we are seeking is an explanation of why these prisoners are being singled out for such a restrictive unit, and the chance to contest false or retaliatory placements.”
In addition to appealing the district court’s due process ruling, CCR is also appealing adverse rulings on their claims that prisoners were held in the CMUs in retaliation for First Amendment protected political and religious speech.
The CMUs were quietly opened in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Marion, Illinois, in 2006 and 2008, respectively, to monitor and control the communications of certain prisoners and isolate them from other prisoners and the outside world. Sixty percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim, though Muslims comprise only six percent of the federal prisoner population.
The documents uncovered in CCR’s lawsuit were described in detail in a recent TED Talk by journalist Will Potter.
The law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP and attorney Kenneth A. Kreuscher are co-counsel in the case.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. Visit www.ccrjustice.org and follow @theCCR.