Destroying Civil Liberties

An Introduction to Communication Management Units

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The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the World Prison Brief, almost 700 per 100,000 people were imprisoned at the end of 2013. In an age where the perceived threat of terrorism is high, it is easy to deny prisoners their constitutional rights.

Communication Management Units, or CMUs, are prison systems inside of federal prisons where a prisoner’s communications are restricted and heavily monitored. They are referred to by the guards as “Little Guantanamo.”

In August 2015, investigative journalist, Will Potter, gave a TED Talk in which he discussed the secretive prisons. As of now, there are two CMUs: one in Terre Haute, Indiana and another in Marion, Illinois.

According to Potter, every prisoner he’s interviewed “has said there are three flecks of light in the darkness of prison: phone calls, letters, and visits from family.” In CMUs, prisoners are restricted to 45 minutes of phone time per month, compared to 300 minutes for non-CMU prisoners. Moreover, visits are non-contact and restricted to four hours per month.

“It’s like a place that fell from some hell, some evil created this place because it does not belong to anything that [the Federal Bureau of Prisons] has done in the past 300 year history. And you know what is happening here? We are being observed, you are being studied, you are being watched,” voiced Kifah Jayyousi, an inmate who was placed in the Secure Housing Unit after his speech.

Robert Hertenstein, AP US Government and Politics teacher, argues that prisoners in CMUs have their constitutional rights violated.

“I think Communication Management Units are a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. I think they are cruel and unusual punishment. I understand the balance of security for the state, which is critical, but I think security can be achieved without prisoners being completely incommunicado.”

CMUs also seem to house a disproportionate amount of Muslims compared to non-Muslims.

“There’s an estimated 60 to 70 prisoners there, and they’re overwhelmingly Muslim,” noted Potter. “The CMUs also include some non-Muslim prisoners. The guards call them ‘balancers,’” he added.

“I think that’s kind of a travesty. In the first place, that just sounds like a quota system. Secondly, that allows more political decisions about who is targeted so that we see people like activists, environmental activists, and anyone else in disfavor by the administration then can be the so-called ‘balancers’. So I think it’s a really dangerous prospect,” remarked Mr. Hertenstein when asked for his thoughts on the use of the word, “balancers,” in describing the non-Muslims in CMUs.

Daniel McGowan, environmental activist and convicted arsonist, spent some time in a CMU and wrote a piece for the Huffington Post upon his departure from the secret prison.

“In short, based on its disagreement with my political views, the government sent me to a prison unit from which it would be harder for me to be heard, serving as a punishment for my beliefs,” writes McGowan.

It seems alarming that in a country where speech is protected, prisoners are having their First Amendment and Eighth Amendment rights violated. It’s likely that increased public awareness may encourage the reform or discontinuation of CMUs.

“I think the solution to any of these types of situations, any rights abuses, are really dependent on two things. They’re dependent on knowledge that it’s actually happening and then a means and efficacy to actually make a change,” argues Potter.

It is possible that public awareness can make a difference; however, it is impossible to solve a problem that has yet to be within the public’s view.

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Destroying Civil Liberties