By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007
The Justice Department has quietly opened a new prison unit in Indiana that houses a hodgepodge of second-tier terrorism inmates, most of them Arab Muslims, whose ability to communicate with the outside world has been tightly restricted.
At the Communications Management Unit, or CMU, in Terre Haute, Ind., all telephone calls and mail are monitored, the number of phone calls limited and visits are restricted to a total of four hours per month, according to special rules enforced by the Justice Department's U.S. Bureau of Prisons. All inmate conversations must be conducted in English unless otherwise negotiated.
The unit appears to be a less restrictive version of the "supermax" facility in Florence, Colo., which holds some of the United States' most notorious terrorists, including al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui and Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski.
The Indiana unit, by contrast, is part of a medium-security facility and includes inmates set to be released in as little as two years. Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the unit's population will not be limited to inmates convicted of terrorism-related cases, though all of the prisoners fit that definition.
Prison officials said they already seek to fully monitor the mail and other communications of all 213 "terrorist inmates" in the system. "By concentrating resources in this fashion, it will greatly enhance the agency's capabilities for language translation, content analysis and intelligence sharing," the bureau said in a summary of the CMU.
The unit, in Terre Haute's former death row, has received 17 inmates since it was launched in December and eventually will hold five times that number, officials said.
Defense lawyers and prisoner advocates complain that the unit's communication restrictions are unduly harsh for inmates not considered high security risks. They also say that the ethnic makeup of the CMU's population may indicate racial profiling. "If they really believed these people are serious terrorists, they wouldn't be in this unit," said David Fathi, staff counsel for the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "They'd be in Colorado with [Atlanta Olympics bomber] Eric Rudolph and the Unabomber and the rest of the people that the Bureau of Prisons thinks are serious threats."
The prison bureau has come under sharp criticism in recent months for failing to adequately monitor terrorist inmates' communications. The Justice Department's inspector general reported in October that three terrorists imprisoned for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had sent nearly 100 letters to alleged terrorists overseas from the maximum-security facility in Colorado.
"The inclusion of this unit is one of the many things we're doing to improve our monitoring capabilities," Billingsley said.
According to prison records, current residents at Terre Haute include five members of the so-called Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni natives from Upstate New York who attended an al-Qaeda training camp. The unit also houses Randall Royer, a defendant prosecuted as part of the "Virginia jihad" case in Alexandria, and Enaam M. Arnaout, an Islamic charity director who pleaded guilty to diverting money to Islamic military groups in Bosnia and Chechnya.
The only non-Muslim inmates are an unidentified Colombian militant and Zvonko Busic, 61, former leader of a Croatian extremist group that hijacked a jetliner and set off a bomb that killed a police officer in 1976, according to prison records and defense lawyers.
Another CMU resident is Rafil Dhafir, 58, an Iraqi-born physician from Syracuse, N.Y., who was sentenced to 22 years for defrauding charity donors and conspiring to violate U.S. economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein's government.
In a recent letter to supporters, Dhafir recounted his abrupt, heavily guarded transfer to Terre Haute in December and described it as part of "a nationwide operation to put Muslims/Arabs in one place so that we can be closely monitored regarding our communications."
"We are all concerned about the close intrusion on our communications," Dhafir wrote. "We knew all along that our calls, mail and visits were monitored, but with the new system we will have absolutely no privacy including our visits. This is causing a great deal of anxiety and resentment especially among those whose families speak no English."
Dhafir wrote that prison officials "are allowing us total freedom for our religious activities" and appear to be working with inmates to improve conditions.
Prisoner advocates and prisons officials generally agree that the bureau is within its rights to monitor prisoners' mail, phone calls and visits. They differ on whether the intensive use of these tactics is justified for these inmates.
Some lawyers and prison advocates said there are important problems with the CMU, including a lack of public notice about its formation and a lack of clarity about how inmates are chosen to be sent there.
Washington lawyer Carmen Hernandez, who represents Busic and is president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that being sent to the unit is not considered a punitive measure by prisons officials. As a result, authorities do not have to provide hearings and other procedures that are required when punishments are to be administered.
"They claim it's not a punitive measure, but when you start restricting access, it certainly would appear to be punitive," Hernandez said. "If you're going to restrict people's liberties beyond what they already are, it ought to be for a good, particularized reason, and there does not appear to be one here."
Howard Kieffer, a Santa Ana, Calif., defense lawyer who runs a Web site focused on federal prisons, also argues that the unit "screams racial profiling."
"It's highly suspect that basically all of the people in this program are of Middle Eastern descent," Kieffer said.
Billingsley said inmates are not placed in the unit based on ethnicity or religion. She said the facility will eventually house a variety of prisoners, including sex offenders who attempt to communicate with victims and others who have abused mail or phone privileges.
"What they all have in common is a demonstrated need to more closely monitor their communications," Billingsley said.
During a tour of the Colorado prison last week, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the monitoring problems there had been solved, although prison guards say the facility remains understaffed.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.