ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Secret Creation Of Isolated Housing Units In Federal Prisons

June 18, 2009

Prisoners Unfairly Assigned To Draconian Units Government Claims Are For Terrorists

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

TERRE HAUTE, IN – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana today filed a legal complaint challenging the unprecedented and secret creation of housing units inside federal prisons in which prisoners are condemned to live in stark isolation from the outside world. Called Communication Management Units (CMUs) and designed to house prisoners viewed by the government as terrorists, they were established in violation of federal laws requiring public scrutiny and today are disproportionately inhabited by Muslim prisoners – many of whom have never been convicted of terrorism-related crimes.

The complaint, which names as defendants U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder and two senior Bureau of Prisons officials, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on behalf of Sabri Benkahla, an American citizen confined in the CMU at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana despite being found not guilty by a federal judge in 2004 of providing support to the Taliban.

"The government created CMUs without any opportunity for public comment or oversight in an effort to skirt obligations of accountability and transparency," said David Shapiro, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "And after inventing these units behind closed doors, prison officials arbitrarily assigned prisoners to them without providing prisoners any real ability to challenge their placement there."

Born and raised in Virginia and a graduate of George Mason University, Benkahla was studying Islamic law and jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia in 2003 when he was abducted at gunpoint by the Saudi secret police the night before his wedding, transferred to the custody of the FBI, flown back to America and charged with supplying services to the Taliban and using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. After a bench trial, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema found him not guilty. Brinkema called his arrest and transfer to American authorities "a Kafkaesque situation."

Less than a month later, however, the government – not satisfied with Benkahla's acquittal – forced him to testify before a federal grand jury. He was accused and convicted of perjury, despite the fact that most of the allegedly false statements he was accused of making involved the same subject matter that served as the basis for his previous trial. Benkahla was sentenced to 121 months in prison, but even his sentencing judge, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris, declared unequivocally that "Sabri Benkahla is not a terrorist," highlighted his "model citizenry," and stated that the chances of Benkahla ever committing another crime were "infinitesimal." 

Despite Judge Cacheris' findings, Benkahla was nonetheless moved from the Northern Ohio Correctional Facility in Youngstown, Ohio to the CMU in Terre Haute without any kind of a hearing or legitimate means of challenging his placement. He now endures severe restrictions on his communication with his friends and family and is unable to interact with non-CMU prisoners. Should he be forced to remain in the CMU, Benkahla will be prohibited from contact with visitors for the duration of his sentence – including being barred from hugging his son.

"It is simply unfair to force Sabri Benkahla to serve his sentence in a horrifically isolated housing unit designed by the government to hold terrorists when he has never been convicted of any crime of terrorism," said Shapiro. "The Bureau of Prisons should be held accountable for these units and the people like Sabri who are wrongfully held there."

Additional information about the ACLU's case, including a copy of the complaint and a letter in support of Benkahla from U.S. Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia, is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/39924res20090618.html

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison

Additional information about the ACLU of Indiana is available online at: www.aclu-in.org

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