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Leaving 'Guantanamo North'

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Leaving 'Guantanamo North'

NPR News Investigations

Leaving 'Guantanamo North'

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We're reporting this week on two highly secretive units inside the U.S. prison system. They hold U.S. citizens convicted of terrorism and also other inmates convicted of murder or drug crimes that the government wants to monitor around the clock. The units are filled with Muslims - so much so that they could be compared to the island prison at Guantanamo Bay.

An NPR investigation has revealed new details about these units - what life is like inside them and what happens to inmates when they get out. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Seventy-one men now live in these two special prison units -one in Terre Haute, Indiana and the other in Marion, Illinois. They're called communications management units, and many inmates are there because they were involved in terrorist plots. But some got sent to the special units for allegedly causing trouble in other prisons. Their every word is monitored.

The groups live side by side and they have little contact with the outside world - not even their families. But when inmates are preparing to get out, they often get a lot of face time with the authorities, and that includes the FBI. Avon Twitty returned home to Washington a few months ago.

Mr. AVON TWITTY (Former Inmate): OK. You need to sit down? Come on. You can sit. Relax your legs.

JOHNSON: Twitty avoided an FBI interview because he insisted that his lawyer attend. Authorities backed off in his case. But another prisoner told Twitty what happened to him.

Mr. TWITTY: One of the questions was, do you want a job? I got a job for you.

JOHNSON: What did that mean?

Mr. TWITTY: That mean that they recruiting rats, snitches. They want to know if they can pressure you enough where you will come out here in free society and you will talk to people in the community and go back and inform on the Muslims. And that's the only kind of job he can give you. He can't give you a job down there sweeping the floor and mopping the floor.

JOHNSON: In at least three cases, men who had been in the special units went on to testify against a detainee on trial at Guantanamo. The Federal Bureau of Prisons won't talk about what happens at the CMUs. Whether and how the inmates are monitored once they finish their sentences is a secret. Most inmates who are released hesitate to talk.

Ahmed Bilal talked to NPR but he wouldn't go on tape. He says in January two FBI agents came to see him - the same agents who built a case against him for supporting terrorist groups. They told him they wanted to make sure he wasn't up to anything radical. But they also told him they won't be following him around all the time.

Over the next several months, more inmates will be released from the special units. Our investigation identified 20 of them who have been released so far.

Professor STEPHEN VLADECK (American University): I think the real question is, what are the constraints and how are we sure that the right people are being placed in these units and not the wrong ones?

JOHNSON: That's Stephen Vladeck. He teaches constitutional law at American University, and he reviewed some of our findings this week. We found two reports marked law enforcement sensitive from 2009. Some of the reports describe religious tension among different Muslim groups in the units, at least one violent episode involving a man described as an enforcer. Here's what else we found...

As we reported yesterday, people convicted of international terrorism mingle with more conventional criminals in the CMUs. A case in point: Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq. He hijacked an Egypt air flight with other members of his Palestinian terrorist group in 1985. NPR's Alex Chadwick described what happened next.

ALEX CHADWICK: The hijackers get on the place at the airport in Athens, Greece. The flight was going to Cairo. When the plane was airborne, the hijackers apparently pulled guns.

JOHNSON: These days, Rezaq lives in the CMU in Marion along with Muslims who are convicted in FBI sting operations. But many of those men didn't have the resources to carry out a plot on their own. Law Professor Steve Vladeck says he wants to know more about that.

Mr. VLADECK: Mix in prisoners from different backgrounds who actually don't necessarily each live up to those criteria, I think there's trouble in two respects.

JOHNSON: First, he says, some inmates in the special units might not belong there, but they have to live with all the harsh restrictions anyway.

Mr. VLADECK: And second, it dilutes the purpose of having the special program in the first place.

JOHNSON: Eventually, many of these men will finish their prison sentences and get released. For the first few years, the special units didn't have many job opportunities or classes for inmates. In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons says it's now doing more to help prisoners before they leave the CMUs. But advocates say that's still not enough.

Rachel Meeropol works at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Ms. RACHEL MEEROPOL (Center for Constitutional Rights): So there's no way for individuals, some of whom are serving very long sentences, to begin the process of figuring out how they're going to live once they're released from prison. You know, this is something that's incredibly difficult for the prisoners who experience it, and it really is a public safety issue for the public at large.

JOHNSON: When some detainees leave the island prison at Guantanamo, they're required to undergo rehabilitation. The inmates at the special units in the U.S. don't have the same kinds of programs.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And that story was co-reported by NPR's Margot Williams.

You can read more on the cases of the prisoners NPR identified at

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