Inside America's illegal "Little Guantánamos"

Prisoners in America's notorious communication management units (called "CMUs" or "Little Guantánamos") are making great strides in their legal action against the US government over the prisons' illegal status, the illegally discriminatory detention of people in CMUs based on their political or religious beliefs, and their inhumane treatment of prisoners.

In this long, excellent piece, Annie P Waldman tells the story of how the CMUs were opened illegally, without the requisite public comment period, and how they've been used as a gulag to punish political and religious prisoners — more than 70 percent of those imprisoned in CMUs are Muslim — under inhumane conditions.

Waldman profiles one of the CMU prisoners, Yassin Aref, who has only held his youngest daughter twice since she was five. A Kurdish anti-Saddam Iraqi refugee, he served as an imam after migrating to the USA, and was caught in an FBI terrorism sting in which he agreed to witness a loan involving an paid FBI informant who had told the counterparty (but not Aref) that the money originated with an arms sale. Aref is serving 15 years in the CMU under conditions amounting to

Aref is one of the CMU prisoners who are the named plaintiffs in a surprisingly successful lawsuit against the US government.

While inside the CMU, the obstructive nature of the facility restricted not only Aref but his family as well. Telephone calls, their main permitted form of communication, were so difficult to organize that it would often discourage his family from calling. All calls had to be scheduled one week in advance and could only be made between 8 AM and 3 PM during the week. Because the children were in school during this time, the family had to make the calls in the principal's office of the school. Zuhur and her four children would gather around the speakerphone, trying to share the limited time. They never felt that it was enough.

During the first two years of Aref's imprisonment, his family was only able to visit four times. They didn't own a car, so for each trip, a close family friend would volunteer to drive them the nearly 1,000 miles to Indiana. Although the trip took 14 hours, the family was only allowed to have one four-hour visit per month. Steve Downs, a close friend of Aref's, took the family on two of the trips. He tried to make it fun for the children and would let them pick out a motel, which they always chose for the best pool and restaurant. "It's actually where they learned to swim," he said. But these moments of fun were overshadowed by the distressing visits into the CMU. Several guards monitored their short visits, waiting for any violation of the seemingly arbitrary rules. During one visit, Downs pulled a pen out of his pocket to take notes, and immediately the guards stopped the visit and removed the family, stating that they had violated CMU code by using a "recording device."

The visits were also emotionally draining. The children became upset with the sight of their father on the other side of the plexiglass. They would often cry. Aref and Zuhur also found these visits unbearably painful. They could see each other through the blurry window, but they could not touch or hug each other. And Aref could not hold Dilnia, a daughter he barely knew.

Inside the Kafkaesque World of the US's 'Little Guantánamos' [Annie P. Waldman/Vice]