Part of Obama’s plan for fulfilling his campaign promise to close Guantanamo calls for moving a piece of the notorious detention camp, virtually intact, onto mainland American soil. In a letter sent to members of Congress this week, a coalition including the ACLU, Amnesty International USA, and the Center for Constitutional Rights warned against this portion of the White House plan for Gitmo detainees, which the groups believe “could result in institutionalizing and perpetuating policies that should instead end.”
Since December, the president has been talking about moving a group of some 50 to 100 Guantanamo detainees to a special unit at Thomson Correctional Center in rural Illinois, after the near-empty state prison is purchased and renovated by the federal government. The unit would resemble a federal supermax, but would be run by the Defense Department.
Voices on the right, including many in Congress, have warned against bringing these “terrorists” (none of whom have been tried or convicted) stateside. But some progressives have a different concern: As Glenn Greenwald wrote when Obama’s plans were first announced, it appears that detainees sent to Thomson could “have exactly the same rights–or lack thereof–as they have now at Guantanamo.” The Illinois prison could simply become Gitmo North, another “legal black hole” where the U.S. Constitution does not apply.
Resistance to the Thomson scheme has been building among civil libertarians and human rights groups for some time, as Spencer Ackerman described in the Washington Independent last month. These are some of the same groups that strongly supported Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo. But their skepticism has grown as details of the president’s plans emerged. This week’s letter represents the first public statement by a broad coalition of those groups, and it spells out their objections in detail.
We urge you to oppose legislation authorizing, or appropriating federal funds for, the purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois, unless Congress, at the same time, also enacts a permanent, statutory ban on using the Thomson prison for indefinitely detaining persons without charge or trial, or for holding persons during military commission trials or for serving sentences imposed by military commissions.
All of our organizations strongly support the responsible closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and we would support using the Thomson facility for holding any detainees now at Guantanamo who may be charged, tried, or sentenced in federal criminal court. However, we strongly oppose transporting the worst of Guantanamo policies–indefinite detention without charge or trial and military commissions–to a prison within the United States itself. If used for one or both of these purposes, the purchase of the Thomson prison could result in institutionalizing and perpetuating policies that should instead end.
“There is a right way and a wrong way to close Guantanamo,” the letter states. It praises the Obama administration for taking some of the “right” steps–including clearing certain detainees for release, and committing others to federal civilian trials. “However,” it continues, “there are two developments over the past year that constitute closing Guantanamo the wrong way.”
First, the government has reinstituted the discredited military commissions. The military commissions have now gone through eight years, two statutes, four sets of rules, but have only resulted in three convictions, with two of those convicted detainees now released. By contrast, more than 400 defendants have been convicted of terrorism-related offense in federal criminal courts. The military commissions still do not have any rules based on the new statute, continue to have fundamental problems that could result in their proceedings being held illegal under the Constitution and international law, and deservedly lack credibility both at home and abroad.
Second, the government continues to claim authority to indefinitely detain without charge or trial some of the Guantanamo detainees. Even if there is legal authority to continue to indefinitely detain these men, which many of our groups dispute, the government should make the policy decision that the interests of the United States are better served by either charging a detainee in federal criminal court or repatriating or resettling the detainee.
Based on the government’s own statements, it appears that the Defense Department-run portion of the Thomson prison would house only those Guantanamo detainees being held pursuant to Guantanamo policies that should end—namely, military commissions and indefinite detention without charge or trial.
In fact, the groups argue, having a facility of this kind operate on American soil would in some ways be worse than allowing it to remain at Gitmo (or Bagram, or elsewhere overseas). While providing an illusion of progress, the move would only reinforce and legitimize unconstitutional practices.
Bringing the practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial to any location within the United States will further harm the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution…Moreover, Thomson could eventually become the place to send other persons held indefinitely without charge or trial—with the prospect of detainees being transferred there from Bagram, Afghanistan or new captures brought from other locations around the globe…Once the indefinite detention policy is institutionalized at Thomson, it will be difficult to hold the line at former Guantanamo detainees.
If the government does not intend to provide these Gitmo detainees with due process through civilian trials, the only other reason for bringing them stateside would be to improve their conditions of confinement. But the idea that this would happen is based upon two interrelated myths: first, the fantasy that American prison conditions are relatively humane; and second, the notion that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were Bush-era aberrations.
In fact, U.S. prison reformers know that thousands of American prisoners live in conditions of isolation and deprivation that meet the criteria for torture. Now that the waterboarding at Gitmo has stopped, conditions there are likely no worse (and may in some ways be better) than in the average supermax prison.
In addition, former Guantanamo detainees would no doubt experience the most extreme form of supermax solitary confinement. They would be subject to near-complete isolation, with additional restrictions placed on their contact with other human beings–much like the detainees currently living under “Special Administrative Measures” (SAMs) or the prisoners in the “Communications Management Units” (CMUs) at two federal prisons. Already, these units have been dubbed “Little Gitmos.”