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

For Immediate Release

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Will Matthews, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org

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

Prisoners Unfairly Assigned To Draconian Units Government Claims Are For Terrorists

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 Bankahla'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 and
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."

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

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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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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