Posted by on July 18, 2011 in Blog

On August 4th, 2004, an upstate New York Imam named Yassin Aref was approached by FBI agents while walking along a run-down part of Albany, New York. The young Imam was arrested. His hands and feet were chained, and he was interrogated (off the record) throughout the night.  Mr. Aref, who suffered persecution as a Kurd under Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, described the experience as the “hardest, darkest, and longest night of [his] life”, even more terrifying than what he had endured at the hands of a ruthless tyrant. After a three week trial he was convicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

What followed was horrifying, and it happened on U.S. soil… not on the far off shores of Guantanamo Bay. First, Mr. Aref spent weeks on end in solitary confinement, a penalty that both the United States and the United Nations recognize as cruel and unusual punishment should the confinement last too long. He was shackled, and placed in different vehicles which transported him from one prison to another. Days became weeks, weeks turned to months, and months to years. By the spring of 2007, Mr. Aref found his new home – a newly created prison unit in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The prison, dubbed “little gitmo”, was first opened by the Bush administration in December 2006. Its existence has been largely a secret since then. Even after writer Alia Malek  broke the story in the Nation, following a series of penetrating investigations at the prison itself, the news is just now trickling down to the more mainstream media. In an exciting turn of events, just this week the story was picked up by the New York Times Magazine demonstrating the issue is finally getting some traction. For our part, AAI has been concerned about this issue for some time.  In early September, 2010, we reported  that the Federal Bureau of Prisons established a clandestine Communications Management Unit (CMU) to isolate and set apart “dangerous terrorists and other high-risk inmates.” At that time, we expressed deep concerns about the disproportionate number of Arabs and Muslims detained there. 

In response to concerns that the prison was set up specifically to target Arab and Muslim Americans, the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) went on record declaring that race and religion were not grounds for designation. However, despite BOP claims, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) estimates that 66 to 72 percent of the inmates are Muslims - a stifling number when one considers that Muslims make up mere 6 percent of the entire federal prison population. Latest reports indicate that the prison currently holds 82 inmates who are kept under 24 hour surveillance in near complete isolation - despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of them are classified as low-security inmates.

 Such excessive use of isolation has drawn wide spread criticism. Alex Agathocleous, a lawyer at CCR has called it “an experiment in social isolation.” Inmates are allowed to write and send one letter a week, and can have one fifteen minute phone call a month, limited to only immediate family members, and even then inmates are not allowed any physical contact with loved ones. Officials point to the possible connection to terrorist activities as justifying the tighter regulations, though several civil rights groups, including the ACLU, have pointed out that the rule appears to be unnecessary, as the law already allows the monitoring and restricting of inmates’ communication to detect and prevent criminal activity.

The prisons’ existence raises very serious concerns over the use of cruel and unusual punishment targeted directly at Muslims. Despite claims by the Obama administration that the U.S. does not torture, it is easy to understand how many would rightfully feel that the government is coming awfully close in its use of excessive isolation – a terrible proposition which is even more troubling when we consider that the overwhelming majority of inmates have not been convicted of any crime that involve the perpetration of any physical violence whatsoever. 

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