Rights groups criticize restrictive federal prison units that they say house mostly Muslims

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Civil rights groups have asked the Bureau of Prisons to shutter or at least loosen restrictive federal prison units that they say house a disproportionate number of Muslims.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights say the communications management units, or CMUs, at Terre Haute, Ind., and Marion, Ill., place draconian restrictions on inmates' contact with the outside world and even their own families without offering any reason. They also say inmates can be placed in the CMU without being told why, and have no way to earn their way out.

Prisons bureau spokesman Edmond Ross said the units are intended to house those for whom outside contact poses a heightened security risk but who don't need to be placed in the federal SuperMax prison in Florence, Colo.

But ACLU spokesman Will Matthews said the units should be shut down. "There's no justification for their existence," he said.

While the Center doesn't call for the outright closure of the units, it says major reforms are needed to protect inmates' rights.

"We're saying that the CMUs as they currently operate are unconstitutional," said attorney Rachel Meeropol.

The groups filed their latest comments criticizing the prisons bureau's proposed rule governing the CMUs Wednesday, during a public comment period for the rule that ends June 7. The prisons bureau published the rule in April, 10 months after the ACLU sued the agency for operating the Terre Haute unit since 2006 without following federal rulemaking procedures.

The groups saw little improvement under the new rule — and said in some ways it would be even more restrictive. CMU inmates would be allowed only one 15-minute phone call and one hourlong visit per month, only with immediate family members. Inmates would be forbidden to touch visitors, including their own children.

The ACLU contends the units were designed to house terrorists, but also hold inmates convicted of other offenses. Among the inmates at the CMU in Terre Haute is American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh.

Both groups contend a disproportionate number of CMU inmates — perhaps as many as 60 to 70 percent — are Muslim. The Center also contends that others are assigned to the CMU because of their political beliefs. In one case, it says, an inmate was transferred out of the CMU after he agreed to drop a lawsuit against the prisons bureau.

Meeropol said she believes a large percentage of inmates are placed in CMU because of a vague suspicion of Muslims. Since prison officials aren't required to provide reasons for the transfers, such policies go unchecked, she said.

"The lack of due process allows for transfers based on nothing other than suspicion of a religious group," she said.

It also allows the prisons bureau to take steps to silence prisoners it deems "troublemakers," she said.

Ross declined to respond due to the pending litigation and said he didn't have access to how many inmates might be Muslim.

Both groups, along with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, say the proposed rule doesn't address concerns over the lack of due process. Inmates can be transferred to the CMU without a hearing like those required in other transfers, and procedures for challenging placement are inadequate, the groups say.

"The thin procedures contemplated by the proposed rule will land inmates in CMUs whose presence there is unjustified, and leave them with no meaningful way to challenge their designation," said the comment submitted by the Brennan Center.

The Brennan Center comment also said the criteria for CMU inmate placement were "overbroad" and recommended officials allow contact visits with family members unless evidence shows the inmate will abuse the visits.

The prisons bureau has filed a motion to dismiss the ACLU's pending lawsuit, arguing it is moot since the agency has started the rulemaking procedure. But Matthews contends the procedure isn't complete, so the lawsuit isn't moot.

The Center for Constitutional Rights filed a separate lawsuit in March, alleging the units violate inmates' constitutional rights. The prisons bureau hasn't filed a legal response.