While it never uses the term “solitary confinement,” the front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times titled “Beyond Guantánamo, a Web of Prisons for Terrorism Inmates” is in effect a survey of long-term solitary at the federal level.
The article describes “an archipelago of federal prisons that stretches across the country, hidden away on back roads. Today, it houses far more men convicted in terrorism cases than the shrunken population of the prison in Cuba that has generated so much debate…They serve long sentences, often in restrictive, Muslim-majority units, under intensive monitoring by prison officers. Their world is spare.”
The article focuses on three prisons — the notorious ADX federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, and the two “Communications Management Units” in Marion, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana. They hold the majority of the 362 federal prisoners convicted in “terrorism-related cases,” along with several hundred others, and they have made an art out of isolation — so to say that the prisoners’ “world is spare” is an understatement. So is the assertion that the federal Bureau of Prisons is “resistant to outside scrutiny” of these secretive solitary confinement units.
Both the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress often cite the threat of homegrown terrorism. But the Bureau of Prisons has proven remarkably resistant to outside scrutiny of the inmates it houses, who might offer a unique window on the problem.
In 2009, a group of scholars proposed interviewing people imprisoned in terrorism cases about how they took that path. The Department of Homeland Security approved the proposal and offered financing. But the Bureau of Prisons refused to grant access, saying the project would require too much staff time.
“There’s a huge national debate about how dangerous these people are,” said Gary LaFree, director of a national terrorism study center at the University of Maryland, who was lead author of the proposal. “I just think, as a citizen, somebody ought to be studying this.”
The Bureau of Prisons would not make any officials available for an interview with The New York Times, and wardens at three prisons refused to permit a reporter to visit inmates. But e-mails and letters from inmates give a rare, if narrow, look at their hidden world.
The article’s author, Scott Shane, corresponded with several current and former inmates, which is virtually the only way for the press — and the public — to obtain any information about these fortresses of solitude. But the article is short on detail about the extreme deprivations and lack of due process faced by residents of the facilities it profiles. For a more thorough portrait, see our article on ADX, here, or one of several excellent pieces on the CMUs, here, here, and here.