William Fisher Truthout

In March of this year, Reuters Correspondent David Morgan filed a story following a Congressional hearing, stating, “American Muslims face a rising tide of religious discrimination in US communities, workplaces and schools nearly a decade after the September 11 attacks….”

Civil rights and Muslim advocacy groups hailed the hearing as a positive step forward for the Obama administration’s efforts to stamp out Islamophobia. It had been preceded by a hearing sponsored by New York Congressman Peter King, which many felt was distinctly anti-Muslim in tone.

But one Muslim constituency went totally unnoticed at the hearing. It’s probably not a very important constituency for Congress people because it consists of Muslims who can’t vote – they’re serving time in federal prison.

So, most Muslim leaders were pleased when the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced they would be “probing fresh allegations that federal prison employees abused Muslim inmates.”

These allegations are contained in a DOJ quarterly report required by the USA Patriot Act. According to the DOJ’s web site, the report “disclosed several new complaints by Muslim inmates who allege they faced discrimination from BOP employees.” The report does not reveal the inmates’ names or specify where they are incarcerated.

What are inmates complaining about? And what is the DOJ doing about it? Complaints range from a prison chaplain trying to deny Muslims access to the prison’s religious facilities, to prison staff telling others to stop helping Islamic inmates, to an employee spraying a Muslim inmate with chemicals while he was physically and mentally tortured, to providing meals containing pork products contrary to his religious diet, to “being placed in the [special housing unit] for no reason.”

Based on the material displayed on the DOJ web site, the OIG’s investigators find most complaints without merit. Most, but not all. For example:

  • The IG’s office is investigating two BOP employees who allegedly said they hated a Muslim inmate because he is Arab and insulted his religion. The inmate also said they told the other inmates to assault him and prevented him from receiving immediate medical treatment after the attack.

Several cases have ended in sanctions against BOP agents, according to the report. In one case, a bureau employee resigned and another received a written admonishment after sending a racially inflammatory email. Another BOP officer retired after throwing a prisoner’s Quran into the garbage and later lying about his actions.

A Muslim inmate alleged that a correctional officer lied in an incident report in which he wrote that the inmate’s Koran and personal letters were confiscated and given to the sheriff’s deputy escorts for disposition. The inmate alleged that the correctional officer actually threw the items in the trash. A search confirmed that the Koran and letters had been thrown away and not given to the deputies. This correctional officer subsequently retired from the BOP because he reached mandatory retirement age.

But many complaints never reach the BOP or the IG. Here is an example of one that comes from a Muslim inmate. It deals with what appears to be a frequent source of inmate discontent: Placing indiscriminate restrictions on inmates’ freedom to practice their faith. The inmate said:

“A good number of inmates fast Mondays and Thursdays – as well as three additional days every month for religious reasons. This is something highly recommended in Islam. This practice was recognized from day one here [at the Communication Management Unit]. On fasting days we will take our trays and keep them in our rooms until sunset when we eat. There is no special requirement from the kitchen people whatsoever.

“As of Jan. 4 this year, administration decided that no food is allowed to leave the eating area at all regardless of our fasting. We pleaded with them that this was unfair and is depriving us of a religious practice. An appeal to the Chaplain here went unanswered.

“This is a religious practice that we did not invent. It is something we did since day one and was recognized. We are not asking for any special arrangement, no special meals, no special added work. We simply are asking that we are allowed to have our own meals stored until we are allowed to eat at sunset. If they don’t like us to store it in our rooms (which is what we did for over two years now with no problem), there is an empty refrigerator in the eating area where they can store it and lock it until sunset. We will not remove anything outside the eating area thereby complying with their regulations. (This) is a clear violation of our religious rights.”

Of the complaints that reach the IG or the BOP, it appears that many more complaints are rejected. Here are a few:

  • A BOP inmate alleged that during a “shakedown,” a correctional officer took another inmate’s Koran and threw it in the trash. According to the complainant, the correctional officer allegedly stated that the Koran was institutional property and noted that it had been altered with various writings and markings on the pages. BOP interviewed the correctional officer who stated that she found a Koran while conducting a search of an inmate’s cell and that the Koran had been altered from its original condition with markings on the pages and binding. The OIG said that because the book did not contain the name of an inmate or a register number, the correctional officer discarded it as contraband. A BOP investigation determined that an inmate later retrieved the Koran from the trash. When a staff lieutenant asked the correctional officer about the incident, the correctional officer stated that, rather than throw it away, a better solution would have been to give the Koran to the prison chaplain for appropriate disposition. The correctional officer apologized to the inmate for discarding the Koran. The BOP decided that, since the Koran was not the personal property of the inmate and the correctional officer apologized for having exercised poor judgment, no disciplinary action was necessary.
  • A Muslim inmate alleged that he was targeted by staff for no reason other than their hatred toward Islam and Muslims. The inmate alleged that he was sent to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) three times in 16 months because of staff discrimination against Muslim inmates. BOP’s investigation revealed that the inmate was placed in the SHU due to allegations that he was attempting to radicalize the Muslim inmate population and incite inmates to assault staff. Based on inmate interviews, information received from staff and the fact that the compound became more secure when complainant and other inmates were temporarily removed from the general population, BOP concluded there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the allegations and closed its investigation.
  • A BOP inmate complained about being designated a terrorist and alleged unlawful continuation of Special Administrative Measures (SAM) restrictions. He alleged that the restrictions resulted in his being locked down 24 hours a day and having no communication with his family and friends. The inmate also alleged that he was denied necessary medication and was the victim of theft of personal property and legal work from his cell. The inmate did not provide the names of any specific staff regarding his allegations. BOP determined there was no evidence that the inmate was designated as a terrorist. BOP found further that the inmate had previously been under SAMs [Special Administrative Procedures – intended to prevent terrorists from threatening national security by communicating plans to the outside], but was placed in the general population when the restrictions were no longer necessary. Moreover, according to the BOP, the inmate was participating in a program that provided him the opportunity to be transferred to an open penitentiary upon demonstrating and maintaining good behavior. BOP investigators interviewed the prison staff and found no evidence that the staff failed to follow policy, discriminated against the Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice inmate, or stole the inmate’s property. BOP concluded that the allegations were not substantiated and the investigation was closed.

At any given time, a substantial number of complaints are being investigated. This is a sampling:

  • A Muslim inmate alleged that a BOP employee encouraged staff to issue fabricated incident reports against him and other Muslim inmates and to find the Muslim inmates guilty of the fictitious offenses. The inmate also alleged that Muslim inmates receive more restrictive sanctions than non-Muslim inmates for misconduct.
  • A Muslim inmate alleged that he was assaulted because he is Muslim and of Arab descent. The inmate alleged he was unjustly placed in the SHU for 28 days, which caused him to lose his job at the facility. The inmate also alleged that every time he asked staff about filing an administrative remedy, he was threatened with being sent to the SHU. The inmate stated that he believes the staff possesses a deep-rooted hatred toward Muslim inmates.
  • A Muslim inmate alleged that (i) BOP employees have suggested that all Taliban and Al-Qaida should be killed; (ii) Muslim inmates are not permitted to pray individually at the workplace or to return to their cells for prayers during their work assignments; (iii) Muslim inmates are placed in the SHU more frequently than non-Muslim inmates; (iv) Muslim inmates’ administrative remedy requests are ignored; and (v) BOP staff, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, have threatened Muslim inmates to discourage them from filing administrative remedy requests. The complainant stated that efforts to address these issues have been unsuccessful.
  • A Muslim inmate alleged that a BOP physician sexually harassed her during an examination. The inmate further alleged that she has been racially profiled since September 11, 2001. The inmate also stated that a BOP employee would not permit her to wear loose-fitting clothing and long sleeved shirts as required by her religion and that she was placed in the SHU for having worn a loose-fitting shirt.

Complaints by inmates are expected by their captors. Even in general prison populations, the life of an inmate is difficult. According to one CMU inmate, in a CMU, with its severe restrictions on family visits and other restrictive regulations, life is palpably more trying. Under those conditions, inmates might tend to complain about more things more often.

They also point out that the Federal BOP is a huge bureaucracy and, like most bureaucracies, its members may be reluctant to “rat out” their colleagues and generally tend to support one another in denying wrongdoing.

While the OIG and the BOP do not reveal where the complainants are being held, some observers believe the Muslim inmates are located principally in one of the two federal prisons that contain so-called CMUs. One CMU is located in Terre Haute, Indiana; the other is in Marion, Illinois. The units are prisons within prisons. They were opened to hold prisoners who had posed threats to national security via terrorism or other means. Most of their inmates are Muslims.

The rationale for keeping Muslims together is different depending on where you sit. Government officials say segregating people convicted of terror-related crimes prevents them from radicalizing other prisoners in the general population. In a remark that has to be considered gratuitous, one official says it’s better for the inmates since they all speak Arabic (they don’t). But no federal official has publicly provided any reasonable rationale for CMUs.

Opponents of the CMU approach say the units were established to subject people convicted of terror-related crimes to rules and regulations that are far harsher than those applied to the general prison population. Opponents charge that prison authorities practice religious profiling, retaliation and arbitrary punishment. Terror-related crime is an overbroad phrase that can include someone who plants an improvised explosive device at the door of a school house or a person who collects clothing to send to children on the wrong side of a war zone.

For example, inmates in a CMU are categorically banned from any physical contact with visiting friends and family, including babies, infants and minor children. They may not hug, touch or embrace their children or spouse during visits.

David C. Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project, told Truthout, “These (CMU conditions) are extremely severe deprivations, imposed in a Star Chamber proceeding that lacks any meaningful safeguards. We don’t know that CMU placement decisions are made on discriminatory grounds, but given the utter lack of transparency in the process, it’s impossible to rule that out.”

David Shapiro of the ACLU told Truthout, “CMUs were created secretly in 2006. There were no hearings and the public was not given any opportunity to contribute ideas or raise objections.”

The result, he says, was “the most minimal standards, all written so broadly that almost any convicted person could be placed in a CMU.” Moreover, he adds, “The Bureau of Prisons devised a draconian set of rules governing the inmate’s relationship to the outside world. The visiting rules, for example, are designed to destroy families.”

Chip Pitts, a well-known law professor and human rights activist who is the former chair of Amnesty International USA, told Truthout the CMUs “represent a dangerous new precedent.”

He said, “These overbroad, harsh, discriminatory, counterproductive and probably unconstitutional restrictions on mainly Muslim prisoners suffer from defects in basic humanity as well as law. Even assuming the guilt of those incarcerated – which cannot be assumed given rampant over-incarceration, so-called ‘preemptive prosecution,’ guilt-by-association and the ambiguous and flawed definitions of ‘terrorism’ these days – why deny a child or family member a hug as a means of supposedly ensuring security?”

He added, “Less intrusive means such as more competent observation clearly exist to address whatever legitimate ends the government may have. Instead of the ‘land of the free and home of the brave,’ our nation has increasingly been reduced to the ‘land ironically imprisoned, paralyzed and made ugly by our own fears.'”

Severe restrictions are also placed on inmates’ access to phone calls and letters, as well as work and educational opportunities. Transfers to the CMU are not explained, nor are prisoners told how to earn release into less restrictive confinement, as there is no review process.

Lawyers say that because these transfers are not based on facts or discipline for infractions, a pattern of religious and political discrimination and retaliation for prisoners’ lawful advocacy has emerged.

If that’s true, it should come as a shocker – and a wakeup call – to members of the Judiciary Committees in both the House and the Senate. These committees are mandated to maintain oversight over our country’s huge prison population, including the CMUs. They need to start doing so.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Fisher also served in the international affairs area during the Kennedy administration. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more