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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We've been hearing for years about the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the terrorism suspects held there. But far less is known about two highly restrictive prison units inside the U.S. that keep many of the same kinds of suspects. One is in Indiana; the other, Illinois.

You likely haven't heard of them because the government doesn't talk about them and few outsiders have ever been allowed in.

Well, today, NPR's Carrie Johnson begins a two-part investigative series on these secretive prison units and the inmates they hold.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Prison officials opened the first of the secret prison units with no public notice four years ago - something, inmates say, they had no right to do under federal law.

The one in Terre Haute, Indiana, has 50 cells. These communications management units, or CMUs, contain some of what the U.S. describes as the country's biggest security threats. Like John Walker Lindh. He's an American who was picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan after fighting on the side of the Taliban.

Prison officials have never released the names of inmates in Terre Haute or in a companion unit in Marion, Illinois. But NPR found out who some of them are.

Avon Twitty was one of them.

Mr. AVON TWITTY: ...OK. We're going to go around to the front. Come on, we can go right through here. Watch for my door cable because, as I said, I'm in the process of trying to put the place back together.

JOHNSON: He's also trying to put his life back together. Twitty spent 27 years in prison for shooting a man dead after a neighborhood argument in Washington D.C. Years before that, he converted to Islam.

He's never been convicted of a terrorist offense. But prison officials sent him to one of the special units to finish out the last few years of his long sentence. Twitty says he never found out why, even though he wrote dozens of letters to prison leaders asking for answers.

Mr. TWITTY: OK. Now.

JOHNSON: He keeps a lot of these documents in a white mesh bag.

Mr. TWITTY: So my question was: What government agency labeled me a terrorist? That was my question. My next question was: What terrorist offense did I commit against the American government or any American citizen?

JOHNSON: For the last year, he and other inmates have been suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They say the special units were set up outside the law and raise serious due process issues - issues that other inmates have.

If you've been convicted of a major crime and you're sent to a supermax prison, you can challenge that decision - not here. CMU inmates say there's no way to review the evidence that sent them there or challenge that evidence to get out.

A federal judge in Washington is considering whether to let the prisoners go forward with their lawsuit.

Harley Lappin leads the Bureau of Prisons. He refused to talk to NPR, but he did have to answer questions from Congress two years ago.

Here's Texas Republican Ted Poe.

Representative TED POE (Republican, Texas): We got some real bad guys in the federal prisons. They don't like America. They want to do us harm. And they need to stay locked up. But the problem is they're converting folks to side with them. What's being done to keep that from happening?

Mr. HARLEY LAPPIN (Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons): We want to control their communications. They are housed in communication management units where we can target, again, communication - both written and verbal - and oversee visits more adequately than in our general population facilities.

JOHNSON: That was Lappin talking about targeting. Lappin says one of the things he worries about is inmates recruiting people for terrorism.

But a lawyer for the inmates says what's being targeted is their religion.

Mr. ALEXIS AGATHOCLEOUS (Staff Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights): There is a tenfold overrepresentation of Muslim prisoners at the CMUs.

JOHNSON: Alexis Agathocleous works for the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the groups that's suing on behalf of the inmates.

Mr. AGATHOCLEOUS: So 6 percent of the national prison population is Muslim, and somewhere in the neighborhood of between 66 and 72 percent of prisoners at the CMUs are Muslim.

JOHNSON: After a couple of years, word got out that the special units were disproportionately Muslim. So lawyers say the Bureau of Prisons started moving in non-Muslims, tax resisters, a member of the Japanese Red Army and inmates from Colombia and Mexico. Inmates say the guards called them balancers.

The government won't talk about it. But Agathocleous, the lawyer, has a hunch about how they got there.

Mr. AGATHOCLEOUS: We were concerned about what appears to be racial profiling.

JOHNSON: The inmates in these units are segregated from the rest of the prison. Guards and cameras watch their every move. Every word they speak is picked up by a counterterrorism team that eavesdrops from West Virginia. Prison officials budgeted more than $14 million on the snooping operation last year. Restrictions on visits and phone calls are tougher than most maximum security prisons.

A few weeks ago, a group of Muslim activists and family members met at a Presbyterian church in downtown Washington.

Unidentified Man #1: We're going to go down 13th Street...

Unidentified Man #2: Great.

Unidentified Man #1: ...straight down to Pennsylvania, make a left on Pennsylvania to the Justice Department.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

JOHNSON: From there, they marched to the Justice Department to complain. One of the people who spoke was the mother of Shifa Sadequee.

Ms. SHIRIN SADEQUEE: I am Shirin from Atlanta.

JOHNSON: Shirin Sadequee's son was convicted of conspiracy and trying to support a terrorist group in Pakistan. He's now in the CMU in Marion.

Ms. SADEQUEE: This is our country, yet we are being oppressed simply because of our faith. My life has been interrupted and now filled with depression and tears.

JOHNSON: NPR asked to see the inside of these prisons. Our request was denied. One of the few people who has seen the inside is Ken Falk.

Mr. KEN FALK (Legal Director, ACLU, Indiana): There is a common area where food is served, where there are tables that actually, I believe, have painted checkerboards on them. There are some individual larger rooms where there is exercise equipment.

JOHNSON: Falk is a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, and he only got to visit because he's suing the prison system in an ongoing case. He says inmates are allowed to do all kinds of things together, except pray. He says that's breaking the law.

Mr. FALK: They're allowed to engage in all sorts of activity, and they're not allowed to engage in group prayer. In fact, prisoners have been punished when two prisoners together have gone back to their cells to pray.

JOHNSON: The Bureau of Prisons says there's a very good reason for that: They want to minimize radicalization of inmates in U.S. prisons.

Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll take a look at whether these secret units really work.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: That story was co-reported by NPR's Margot Williams. You can explore the names and cases of the prisoners NPR identified at npr.org.

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