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Beware the Justice Department’s power over prisoners

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United States Penitentiary (USP), Terra Haute, Indiana. (Image from Bureau of Prisons’ website).

Federal inmates generally are detained in — and classified to — prisons run by the same Justice Department that has prosecuted the inmates.

Being in prison is no picnic, it goes without saying. My own repeated visits to jails and prisons — having totalled hundreds of hours — are no fun, other than the opportunity to see my clients, and I at least get a roundtrip visit.

We need to keep our radar screens open to a new and disturbing trend in how allegedly terrorism-related and national security convicts in the United States are selected for which prisons and how they are monitored. Last Sunday’s Washington Post reports on the government’s Communications Management prison unit in Terre Haute, Indiana, that overwhelmingly only holds Moslems, severely limits the inmates’ communications with the outside world (which are heavily monitored), and prohibits non-English communication, even though sometimes their family members (aside from the inmates themselves) do not speak sufficient English. 

Any prison ghetto-izing of Moslems or any other religious or racial group is unacceptable. Before prisons prohibit non-English communication, they first should invest in interpreters to make the communications understood to prison officials (not that I agree with such heavy monitoring of communications). The inmates at the Communications Management prison unit are far from all being hardened terrorists, including Rafil Dhafir, who is an Iraqi-born physician serving a two-decade sentence for charity fraud and violation of economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s government. 

The Bush Administration would like nothing better than for prisoners (and civil liberties, for that matter) to be forgotten by the public. However, if the public does so, the civil liberties of both the inmates and everyone else in the United States will suffer. Jon Katz.