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Gitmo in the Heartland | The Nation

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Gitmo in the Heartland

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On March 30, 2010, CCR filed a lawsuit against the government on behalf of several CMU inmates and their families, including Jenny and Daniel. In Aref v. Holder, CCR charges that the government not only violated the APA in establishing the CMUs but also violated the First, Fifth and Eighth Amendments. CCR alleges that designation to the CMUs was discriminatory, retaliatory and/or punitive in nature and not rationally related to any legitimate penological purpose or based on substantiated information. Rather, CCR contends that the inmates’ designation was based on their religion and/or perceived political beliefs. Moreover, since there had been no real notice, hearing and appeal, CCR alleges due process violations as well. The extreme nature of the restrictions also raises the issue of cruel and unusual punishment. CCR also argues that the communications restrictions impeded the free speech and association rights of the family members.

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  • Documenting the Obama Administration's 'Gitmo in the Heartland'

About the Author

Alia Malek
Alia Malek is the author of A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives (...

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Eight days after CCR filed suit, the BOP suddenly gave notice of a proposed rule titled “Communication Management Units.” In it the Obama administration kept the Bush-era communication restrictions while broadening their scope. While the 2006 proposed rule was limited to people with “an identifiable link to terrorist-related activity,” the Obama-era rule can be applied to “any inmate,” including “persons held as witnesses, detainees or otherwise.”

The ACLU’s Shapiro says, “When Obama came into office, we hoped that the use of CMUs would be revisited, and we recommended that BOP withdraw the first rule-making.” But it is unclear if any such review took place. The BOP declined to say if the Obama administration had conducted a review before deciding to maintain the CMUs, or even if it had reviewed the assignment of current inmates.

Starting his presidency with two CMUs established by the Bush administration outside the APA process, Obama, says Luneburg, essentially had two choices. “He could totally abandon it or try to make lawful what was perhaps arguably an unlawful situation.” Taking the latter approach, the BOP accepted comments about the new rule until June 7, 2010. It recently announced it would publish the finalized rule in October—sixteen months after the close of the comment period. According to Luneburg, that delay is surprising, given that the rule consists largely of legal issues, as opposed to complex scientific claims that underlie rules published by agencies like the EPA.

During the comments phase, submissions poured in from civil rights groups, current and former CMU inmates, inmates’ families and mental health professionals. One theme was common to many: the communications restrictions (including the inability to touch) were devastating to family integrity. The writers argued that strong connections to family were essential for a variety of reasons, such as mental health, rehabilitation, prison order and safety, staying recidivism and societal reintegration—truths long recognized by psychologists, corrections professionals and the BOP alike.

As University of Delaware professor of sociology and criminal justice Christy Visher explains, “The lack of connection to family makes it harder to think of a plan for post-release, and if they have no hope for life after release, then they’re less likely to be making behavior change.” Visher, who has looked at the question of how best to reintegrate released convicts for the National Institute of Justice, says, “Contact visits where you can hold a child on your lap or touch your wife are very important.”

* * *

This past November, before driving the 650 miles from Dallas to see her husband, Ghassan Elashi, at the Marion CMU, Majida Salem cut and colored her hair. “Why bother?” one of her daughters asked, alluding to the fact that since Majida’s visit would not be private, her head would be covered by her hijab.

“Because I’m going to be sitting with Baba,” she answered, referring to the man she had married twenty-six years before in Jordan, choosing him after turning away many others. She had felt that his devotion to God mirrored her own.

To the government, however, Ghassan—co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest US Muslim charity—was a material supporter of terrorism. Ghassan has never been accused of engaging in violence, but because the HLF sponsored schools and social welfare programs in the Occupied Territories alleged by Washington to be controlled by Hamas, he was charged with materially supporting terrorism. He was convicted in November 2008, following a 2007 mistrial in which the government failed to convince jurors of its case.

Majida hadn’t seen Ghassan since the previous Thanksgiving, when he was still at the low-security prison in Seagoville, Texas, not far from their home. He was moved to Marion in April 2010. The distance ended their weekly visits and essentially left Majida to raise a family of six children, the youngest of whom had Down syndrome, by herself.

They tried to maintain contact nonetheless. Majida shared her weekly fifteen-minute call with her children and in-laws, co-parenting with Ghassan in these morsels and through e-mails, which arrived days after they were written and only after a detour through Washington. Other CMU families had given up on visits or stopped bringing the children, who were often traumatized by the inability to touch their fathers or speak to them in a native language. But the Elashis were determined to make it work, so on Thanksgiving morning, with three of her children and her mother-in-law, Majida set out for Marion.

Once inside the prison, they were led toward the CMU, passing through a series of sliding barred doors. In the periphery, they could see the general population visitation room, spying a few families, UNO cards and a play area for kids. They were ushered into a 5-by-7 room with a Plexiglas wall at its center. Behind the Plexiglas, in a room that mirrored theirs, Ghassan waited to greet them.

The five of them crowded around three receivers, which would record their conversation and transmit it to BOP officials in Washington. When they gushed at how healthy Ghassan looked, he lifted his sleeve and flexed his bicep. “Pilates,” he told them. When he told them he now had a six-pack, his teenage sons begged him to show them, but he demurred. Soon they realized they could hear through the glass, so they hung up the receivers and spoke naturally. Quickly a guard reprimanded them: all communication had to be through the receivers.

Majida and Ghassan spoke about the boys, how they were doing in school and how the second-to-youngest was acting up. Ghassan turned to him, doing his best to advise him from behind the barrier. His son burst out, “I need you! I need you!”

Toward the end of the visit, to keep things light, Ghassan began demonstrating Pilates exercises. Having put the receiver down, he flashed with his fingers the amount of seconds he held each pose. Guards rushed in on both sides, demanding to know what Ghassan was doing. “Teaching them Pilates,” he answered.

They stayed until they were kicked out, the kids signing off with pantomimed high-fives and Majida blowing him a kiss while touching the glass. She wanted to be alone with him, without the barrier, and there was so much more she wanted to express. But that would have felt like stealing from the children.

* * *

Ghassan’s incarceration at Marion demonstrates one of the biggest problems with the CMUs and with the terrorist designation generally—how broadly and capriciously they are applied. “It is one thing to use restrictive isolationist tactics against the leader of a gang or terror group who, if he could communicate freely with the outside world, would wreak violence on innocent people—that’s not an illusory concern,” says David Cole, of Georgetown University Law School and The Nation’s legal affairs correspondent. “But when you define ‘terrorist activity’ to include material support that can involve no violent activity and no intentional support of violent activity, then you are relegating nonviolent offenders to these very extreme conditions that are entirely unwarranted.”

The BOP declined to say whether it differentiates between nonviolent—even humanitarian—activities and violent activity in determining CMU assignment for a “terrorist-related link.” The profiles of inmates like Ghassan would suggest it doesn’t, and that, in fact, the link to terrorism can be quite tenuous.

Consider, for example, the case of Sabri Benkahla, whose CMU incarceration the ACLU challenged in 2009. In 2003 the government accused Benkahla of materially supporting a terrorist-related group. When prosecutors failed to secure a conviction at trial, he was charged and convicted of grand jury perjury. At his sentencing, the US District Judge declared unequivocally that “Benkahla is not a terrorist” and noted having received more letters on Benkahla’s behalf than any other defendant in twenty-five years, including one from Congressman James Moran, who described Benkahla as “an upstanding and productive member of society.” Although Benkahla lacks a terrorism-related conviction, he was nonetheless transferred to a CMU because of a terrorist-related link, asserted by the government. Before the court could reach a decision in the ACLU case, which challenged the legality of the CMUs on APA grounds, the BOP moved Benkahla back to the general population, and the case was dismissed.

David Shapiro, who was also on Benkahla’s team, sees a lack of clear criteria for CMU placement as the crux of the problem. “People are overclassified,” he says, “and the level of restriction they are placed under bears no rational relationship to the security threat that they actually pose.”

Visher concurs. “We are not making good decisions about who is dangerous,” she says. To remedy the problem and to balance family and penological interests, Visher proposes risk profiles and careful examination by an independent party. Factors that should be considered, she says, are a person’s pattern of communication with terrorist groups, his history of violence, good behavior and strong connections to the community.

On July 21, 2010, the government answered CCR’s lawsuit with a motion to dismiss. In its written arguments, it pleaded that it deserves deference in determining what restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. It also argued that several of the claims, including those of Jenny and Daniel, are moot, as on October 19, after more than two years, Daniel was moved out of the CMU and back to the general population.

Last Thanksgiving, Jenny was finally able to wait for Daniel in Marion’s general visitation room, which she used to walk wistfully past when she visited the CMU. That was behind her now, she thought, as were the once-a-week fifteen-minute calls. When she saw Daniel, she embraced him and gave him a big kiss. They spent the hours talking and playing UNO. When they didn’t feel like saying anything, they sat in the silence they felt they could finally afford, letting a simple touch speak for itself.

A few hours into their visit, Jenny saw the Elashi family as they were led down the hall to the CMU. She felt her eyes tear up. She found it especially hard to watch a whole family going to visit their father, their husband, their son under such conditions. They looked so solemn; Jenny felt guilty that they wouldn’t be able to embrace as she and Daniel could. Later that night she posted on Facebook: “Thankful for hugs and brief kisses.”

But time for hugs and brief kisses would remain short-lived. On February 24, Daniel was suddenly transferred back to the CMU, this time to Terre Haute. The government gave the court notice that in light of Daniel’s reassignment, it was withdrawing its defense that Daniel’s claims were moot; CCR has since asked the court to expedite its consideration of the motions to dismiss.

The notice was almost identical to the one Daniel had been given the last time, but it included a new sentence. The BOP asserted that Daniel’s “incarceration conduct has included attempts to circumvent communication monitoring policies, specifically those governing attorney-client privileged correspondence.” In keeping with BOP practice, Daniel’s notification does not state what evidence or acts serve as the basis for these claims. Neither he nor Jenny knows why he is there. They know only that their next visit will be brief and behind glass.

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