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Aref, et al. v. Holder, et al. is a federal lawsuit filed against Attorney General Eric Holder, federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials, and the BOP itself, challenging policies and conditions at two experimental prison units that are being operated in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Marion, Illinois, as well as the circumstances under which they were established.
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 30, 2010. Defendants’ motion to dismiss was denied in part in 2011, and the case proceeded to discovery. In November of 2012, Plaintiffs received permission to amend their complaint to bring damage claims against Les Smith, the head of the Counter Terrorism Unit of the Bureau of Prisons. The new complaint relies upon previously-secret documents, gathered through the discovery process, showing that Mr. Smith recommended that Plaintiffs be held in the CMU because of their protected political activism and religious beliefs. Discovery in the cases continues, and Plaintiffs expect another round of motions to dismiss this winter.
Click here to see the article about CMUs titled "Gitmo in the Heartland", which appeared in the March 28, 2011 issue of The Nation.
In 2006 and 2008, the BOP secretly created two experimental prison units designed to isolate certain prisoners from the rest of the prison population and the outside world. These units are called “Communications Management Units” or “CMUs,” and despite the fact that their creation marked a dramatic change in BOP policy, they were opened without the required opportunity for public notice and comment.
Prisoners in the CMU, alone out of all general population prisoners within the federal system, are categorically banned from any physical contact with visiting friends and family, including babies, infants, and minor children. To further their social isolation, the BOP has placed severe restrictions on their access to phone calls and work and educational opportunities. Adding to the suspect nature of these units, upwards of two-thirds of the prisoners confined there are Muslim – a figure that over-represents the proportion of Muslim prisoners in BOP facilities by at least 1000 percent. Many of the remaining prisoners have unpopular political views, including environmental activists designated as “ecoterrorists.”
Five CMU prisoners and two of their spouses (who, along with their children, have been subjected to draconian rules governing visitation and phone calls) joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs. All five men confined in the CMU have been classified as low or medium security, but were designated to the CMU despite their relatively, and in two cases perfectly, clean disciplinary history. Not a single one has received discipline for any communications-related infraction within the last decade, nor any significant disciplinary offense.
Like all CMU prisoners, the men received no procedural protections related to their designation, and were not allowed to examine or refute the allegations that led to their transfer. They faced indefinite detention at the CMU without any meaningful review process.
Predictably, the lack of procedural protections has allowed for an unchecked pattern of discriminatory and retaliatory designations to the CMU. Rather than being related to a legitimate penological purpose or based on substantiated information, our clients’ designations were instead based on their religious and/or perceived political beliefs, or in retaliation for other protected First Amendment activity.
These conditions have unjustifiably interfered with the men’s ability to maintain relationships with their loved ones – relationships that are the key to their successful transition back to society.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the BOP has made several important changes. In the Summer of 2010, the BOP opened up a period for public comment around the two CMUs.
Also in reaction to the lawsuit, the BOP began moving prisoners out of the units, including several Plaintiffs. These transfers continue to occur without meaningful explanation.
NPR's MArgot Williams and Alicia Cypress have created an interactive timeline of the history of the CMUs.