Eugene Weekly : News : 12.04.08

Terrorist Prison
Eco-activist sent to secretive new prison
by Camilla Mortensen

The federal government has begun creating special prison units for terrorists, and eco-saboteur Daniel McGowan has been sent to the newest “communication management unit” (CMU) in Marion, Ill., possibly in retaliation for his continued environmental activism while behind bars. Lauren Regan of the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center says the CMUs are unconstitutional and violate administrative law. She is involved in potential litigation against them.

McGowan at Marion. Photo: Family and Friends of Daniel McGowan

McGowan was sentenced in 2007 to seven years in prison for participating in ecologically motivated arsons in Oregon as part of what the FBI called Operation Backfire, which involved property
destruction across the Northwest. No one was injured in any of the actions, but McGowan and others were given terrorism enhancements on their sentences. 

McGowan may be the first environmental activist to be sent to a terrorist prison unit. In late August he was transferred from FCI-Sandstone, a low security prison in Minnesota, to USP-Marion, the site of the newest CMU created to monitor so-called terrorist prisoners. McGowan has issued updates from prison speaking out on environmental issues, is the subject of an upcoming documentary film and appeared on a calendar featuring political prisoners.

The first CMU, at Terre Haute, Ind., was covertly established late last year by the U.S. Department of Justice. Most of the prisoners sent there are Muslim, and allegations of racial profiling have been made by the ACLU. 

According to information McGowan was able to send to Regan, one of his attorneys, at least half of the 21 prisoners at the new Marion CMU are Muslim. Also in the unit is animal rights activist Andy Stepanian, a member of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, convicted under the controversial Federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act for his efforts to stop animal testing at Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratories.

Requests for media access to McGowan by the L.A. Times and others have been denied, according to Regan, and his incoming and outgoing mail is monitored and sometimes censored by the FBI, making communication difficult not just for the media but for his family as well. According to the Bureau of Prisons’ 2007 State of the Bureau document, the BOP established a Counter-Terrorism Unit in West Virginia to monitor the mail of all “terrorist inmates.” The CTU unit was estimated to cost $17 million, according to a DOJ factsheet. 

EW was able to obtain information through a letter McGowan wrote to Regan. According to McGowan, the prisoners refer to the unit as “Little Guantanamo” and speculate that when the real Guantanomo closes, some of those prisoners will be sent to Marion. 

The prisoners sleep on mattresses on top of concrete slabs, phone calls are restricted to one 15 minute call a week and calls must be scheduled over a week in advance. The calls can only take place on weekdays between 8 am and 2 pm, and they are monitored and recorded. McGowan cannot talk to his family on weekends or holidays, and he writes that it is difficult for prisoners with children since the kids are in school during calling hours.

McGowan and other prisoners at the CMU get one four-hour visit a month from their families, and that visit takes place through a glass partition. There is no physical contact. He writes, “The most depressing part of the CMU is not being able to hug and kiss your wife.”

McGowan points out that with his prison record — no disciplinary issues and a low criminal history score — he belongs at a low or minimum-security prison. Instead, he is at a medium-security facility with his every communication under scrutiny. “They play word games with us,” he writes, “and tell us we’re a ‘self-contained general population unit.’”

He has no idea when or if he might be sent to another prison in the future. Regan says by designating the CMU a “self-contained general population unit” and not a “control unit,” the BOP is avoiding federal rules they would have to follow in regard to prisoners. The way the CMUs were established is possibly a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Regan says the fact that McGowan and the other CMU prisoners have no process to get out of the unit is another one of the legal issues with the CMUs. Normally a prisoner who has been sent to a higher security prison because of a disciplinary issue can return to a less stringent prison after a year of good behavior. Despite their apparently punitive policies, CMUs aren’t considered extra punishment, though BOP materials say a transfer there can be appealed.

There is also a due process issue, Regan says. McGowan was transported to the CMU in the middle of the night without the required five-day notice. When he finally received the notice, it said his transfer was based on “your identification as a member and leader and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups considered domestic terrorist organizations.” Regan says McGowan has long since severed ties to those amorphous nonorganizations.

She says that the potential litigation “would challenge the establishment and perpetuation of secret political CMUs based upon constitutional and administrative law claims as they apply to activists and Muslims alike.”

McGowan believes the CMUs violate segregation laws and BOP policies on racial segregation. 

The BOP has been as closemouthed about the CMU at Marion as it was about Terre Haute. The existence of the CMU, which is called “I Unit” at Marion, is not mentioned on the BOP website, and a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the EW yielded no materials referring to the CMU. However, McGowan’s wife, Jenny Synan, provided an Institutional Supplement for I Unit, giving guidelines and procedures for the CMU dated March 2008. 

Synan says her husband wants “to get information out about these units as they are basically illegal and no one seems to know about them.”

McGowan writes, “I object to the way I was sent here. I object as well to the institution itself, as I find it to be either a Muslim unit and we are there to give them some credibility in denying it or it’s just a plain old political prison.”


See Activist Alert for information about a Dec. 6 benefit for Daniel McGowan.




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