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US under fire for running 'little Gitmos'

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Washington

image captionAt the CMU in Terre Haute, all telephone calls and mail are monitored

The story - and the controversy - about the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is familiar and well-rehearsed.

But less-known is the story of what some have dubbed "Gitmo the Heartland" or "Guantanamo North" - two prison units on the US mainland where other inmates in the wider "war on terror" are being held in conditions that civil liberties groups regard as another post-9/11 challenge to normal judicial standards.

Two Communications Management Units (CMUs) were opened at Terre Haute, Indiana, and Marion, Illinois, in 2006 and 2008.

The best-known inmate is John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban and was picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

As their name suggests, the purpose of the CMUs is to limit the ability of inmates to communicate with the outside world.

Phone calls and family visits are severely limited. Prisoners can eat, but not pray together.

When Avon Twitty was abruptly moved to the CMU at Terre Haute in May 2007, towards the end of his sentence, the authorities made a surprising allegation.

"Reliable evidence indicates your incarceration conduct has included involvement in recruitment and radicalisation efforts of other inmates through extremist violence or indoctrination methods," reads a Federal Bureau of Prison document handed to him at the time.

"Everything on that page is without proof," says Twitty, who was convicted of murder after a neighbourhood quarrel in 1984.

A Muslim since the 1970s, he had already served as an imam while in jail. He seems to have been a model prisoner, apart from a running dispute with the authorities over how many credits he had earned over the course of his sentence.

"I have asked them several times to tell me who I recruited, what terrorist organisation I was working for and what radicalisation did I do and where," he says. "They have never answered any of those questions."

The bureau of prisons refused the BBC's request for an interview about Avon Twitty's case or the CMUs in general, but did provide a written explanation of the rationale behind the two facilities.

"Inmates are designated to the unit for management of their communications based on the potential security threat they present," it said.

Lawyer Rachel Meeropol, of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, describes the purpose in less prosaic terms.

"These units are designed to isolate certain prisoners from the rest of the prison population and from their loved ones outside prison," she says.

Cramped booth

CMU prisoners get two 15-minute phone calls a week. Regular inmates get more than twice as much.

Family visits are severely restricted too, with no physical contact whatsoever - again, in sharp contrast to the rest of the prison system. Even prisoners in so-called "supermax facilities" have more contact with the outside world and can earn contact visits.

image captionThe best known inmate of a CMU is John Walker Lindh

It is all taking its toll on Reem Jayyousi.

"I hate to say it but if he was to be dead it would be so much easier," she says of her father, Kiffah Jayyousi, a Jordanian-born US citizen convicted in Florida in 2007 on charges of promoting violent jihad and supporting alleged terrorist groups in Bosnia and Chechnya.

"It feels like you can have him, and then you can't," she says of the visits she makes with family members once a month.

The visiting booth at the Marion CMU is cramped. Reem, her mother and siblings take turns to speak by telephone to the man sitting on the other side of the grimy glass partition.

"We travel for so long and we pay so much money for not even being able to see him or touch him," Reem says.

In written answers to the BBC, the bureau of prisons says it "recognises the importance of maintaining family and community ties in preparing for an inmate's eventual release".

Family visits have increased from four to eight hours a month.

But Steve Martin, a former prisons officer and adviser to the US Department of Justice, says the system errs on the side of extreme caution with certain categories of prisoner.

"The last thing that a prison warden wants is for some inmate to conduct terrorist activity on his watch," he says.

At first the inmates of both CMUs were almost entirely Muslim. Now they make up 60-70% of the population, including numerous US citizens of Middle Eastern origin.

Other prisoners include a member of the Japanese Red Army, several African Americans convicted of bank robbery and a member of the Montana Freemen involved in an armed standoff with the FBI in 1996.

Almost all the Muslim inmates have been convicted of terrorism or "material support" for US-designated terrorist organisations, but Rachel Meeropol says the net has been cast too wide.

"Ever since 9/11 the catchword of terrorism has been used to explain away more and more restrictive treatment of a broader and broader array of individuals who are not actually convicted terrorists," she says.

"The definition of terrorism itself has expanded so greatly that individuals who act based on ideology - whether they're violent or not - are all convicted and treated as terrorists."

In post 9/11 America, few would question the need to control the communications of prisoners who still, despite their incarceration, might seek to do the country harm.

But has due process been sacrificed on the altar of security?

The bureau of prisons says inmates have the right of appeal "through the established Administrative Remedy Program".

But the process, which involves completion of a grievance form, seems inadequate, with no live hearing or right to call witnesses.

It is not clear if anyone has ever successfully challenged their placement in a CMU.

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