The federal prison system includes units where inmates can be rarely seen or heard.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
When the Abu-Baker family arrived to visit their father, Shukri Abu-Baker, at the secretive federal prison known as a Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Indiana this past fall, they were forced to sit in silence and stare at him through Plexiglass. The twin phones on either side of the partition wouldn’t work. They raised their voices to hear each other, but the guards told them to stop.
The Abu-Bakers had scheduled their visit over a month in advance. The Federal Board of Prisons (BOP) knew they were coming. The family made the 15-hour trip from Dallas to Terre Haute in a rented van, spending $2,000 so they could spend eight hours seeing and talking to their father.
The prison officials told the family to go to the hotel and wait so that they could fix the phones. They never called. When the family returned a month later to spend Eid at the prison, the same thing happened.
Shukri Abu-Baker was among those convicted in 2009 of providing material support to terrorism because he helped found the Holy Land Foundation, a charity that the U.S. government says is affiliated with Hamas. (The convictions were recently upheld.) He has been imprisoned at the CMU since April 2010. As The Nation reported last spring, the primary purpose of these units – the only other facility of its kind is in Marion, Ill. – is to closely monitor the communications of its inmates. The restrictions are much more severe than for prisoners at the supermax prison in Florence, Colo., with far fewer visitation hours and phone calls. Visits are restricted to family and attorneys, and there is a ban on physical contact, even with the inmates’ wives and children.
Prisoners at the CMU have no real idea as to why they are there. Shukri, for instance, has no history of communications infractions. He spent the first year and a half of his 65-year sentence without incident at the low-security Federal Correctional Institute in Seagoville, Texas. But like most CMU inmates, he is Arab American and Muslim.
A lack of transparency has been a trademark of the CMUs since they first began operating under the Bush administration. It continues under Obama. The BOP has been operating the Marion CMU since December 2006 and the one in Terre Haute since March 2008, despite never having met the protocols dictated by the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires federal agencies to publish proposed new rules and regulations and provide a period of public comment before starting. Although the Bush administration published its proposed rule for “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates” in August 2006 – prompting a wave of criticism – the BOP never published the final rule before moving forward. Word that the Marion CMU was up and running only spread when transferred prisoners leaked information.
In March 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the BOP, alleging both violations of the Constitution and the APA. In response, the Obama administration republished an expanded version of the rule, took comments via mail and email, and indicated that it would publish the finalized rule in October 2011. Assuming the Obama administration was operating in good faith by complying with the APA, the court dismissed CCR’s lawsuit without prejudice. A letter to the BOP from 11 members of Congress also presumed a finalized rule would be published in October.
Civil liberties advocates suggest that this is just another delaying tactic. CCR is currently considering whether to re-file the claims.
As for the Abu-Bakers, they’re not sure when they will see their dad again.
“The past two visits in one month really hit us hard,” Zaira, the eldest daughter, says. “Financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
ALIA MALEK is the author of A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives.