Wednesday, April 22, 2009

“Little Guantanamo”

[Image: FCI Terre Haute, Indiana, federal penitentiary. This is the medium security facility the CMU is housed inside.]

Over two years ago we discovered the Bush administration had built a separate secret incarceration unit within the federal penitentiary at Terre Haute in Indiana called the Communications Management Unit (CMU). While very few details or formal acknowledgements ever emerged, officials reportedly explained this as a special space needed to isolate certain inmates within the American prison system to heavily monitor their communications -- both within and outside the prison -- because of their suspected linkages to radical Islamic groups. In the clenches of the war on terror in 2006 the existence of the CMU surfaced right about the time other officials were expressing fears over prisons becoming a domestic breeding grounds for extremism, the same fears that swept over Europe about their own prisons being radicalized by the Muslim populations they were rounding up and detaining in them.

The first dozen inmates sent to the CMU at Terre Haute were (as you’d expect) all Muslims and had been plucked from different prisons around the nation. Literally, they were taken there overnight without any word, explanation, or briefing of any kind, at least according to a lawyer for one of these inmates which I will get to in a moment. But, does that process sound familiar to anyone? It better. I’m not quite sure how the prison administrations facilitated this, or if they have any grounds to block or even question these transfers. All anyone really knew was that senior Bush officials said it was imperative to separate these inmates in order to observe their behavior and try to decode how Islamic extremists were organizing within America’s prisons.

At the time it read more like a domestic rendition experiment, whisking people away to secret prisons within the prisons for no other reason than to hope to spy something that may not even have been there to begin with. In short, it looked like another unfounded basis for rounding up a select group of Arabs from prisons across the states to segregate them simply based on paranoia and suspicion. It mirrors what has been taking place internationally all along in the US's extraordinary rendition program, and the genesis of American torture. Not only would their communications be severely limited but the inmates would also be subjected to harsher penal conditions for no justifiable reason (conditions we learn that have spooky resemblance to Guantanamo Bay) -- all without any ability to question this process or tell anyone about it.

Last I’d read (2 years ago), the CMU, created in 2006 inside an isolated corridor in Terre Haute, was holding 16 inmates but was ready to receive dozens more. For the longest period I couldn’t find any updates or real news out there on this place. If you read our last dispatch you might recall the government built this self-contained unit [sort of similar to a Security Housing Unit (SHU) in that regard, a "prison within a prison"] without a proper public hearing and completely devoid of any legal guidelines as to how inmates would be selected for this program, or more importantly be able to challenge their status once there.

I always thought: if Islamic fundamentalism wasn’t incubating in American prisons before this CMU was created then it surely would be now. I mean, how could a move like this not be the first thing to socially engineer extremism at that point? I’m not saying it is an inevitable outcome, I respect the inmates inside the CMU enough to not assume anything about them, but kind of makes one wonder, if the real purpose of the CMU has any thing to do with social engineering on some level, and how much neoliberal democracy (if mostly unconscious) is dependent on a paradoxical manifestation of its own enemies this way, a systemic flirt with its own collapse -- programmed through its built spaces?

Well, thanks to an excellent piece on Democracy Now (and to Javier for tipping us off) a bit more knowledge has come to light about the CMU's evolution in the last couple of years, who some of the inmates are (John Walker Lindh is there according to wikipedia... all of whom are still without any legal process to question their designation), and -- most shockingly (or maybe not) -- we even come to find out that a second CMU is in operation in Marion, Illinois where a notorious prison has sat for decades.

[Image: USP Marion, Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Census Bureau / Demographics TerraServer / Aerial Photo, Marion, IL. (via)]

Revelations like these make me wonder how much space is truly devoted to secret detention? How could we measure this? There are the trails of black budgets we could use to come up with a financial estimate of the costs that go into maintaining these sites, but I'm interested in the footprint of the built environment. How many square meters of informal detention architecture, how much cubic volume space of boxed air could we say measures the vacancy of legal sanction in the U.S.' geography of global detention? How many watts of siphoned power go into lighting these spaces, what are the transmission costs of powering torture devices, how many speakers are used to blast their torture music? How many ounces of stained blood linger on the walls? How many of these spaces have windows, or views of any kind? How many of these holes have access to outdoors? How many HVAC systems have been used to control the body temperatures of detainees? How many strobe lights have been sold to the CIA? How many phones lines link directly to their secret underworld of rendition space? How many doors could be counted, how many separate keys and locks secure this hidden landscape, etc.?
How many warehouses could you fill with this state-sponsored space where no law exists, or where the law has been specifically tailored to accommodate illegality itself? Capsules of space, that for all intents and purposes, exist in a state of suspended legal disintegration.

Anyway, Amy Goodman spoke with three people: Will Potter (a freelance reporter who focuses on how the war on terrorism affects civil liberties and blogs at; Lauren Regan (attorney for Daniel McGowan – an inmate in the CMU, the only American there who has nothing to do with the War On Terror but who was claimed by the government to have affiliations with the Earth Liberation Front), she heads the Civil Liberties Defense Center; and Kathy Manley, attorney for Yassin Aref (a Kurdish Iraqi refugee who was reportedly set up by the FBI to connect him to a terrorist group called JEM). I won’t summarize the entire broadcast, just read it yourself, even though some of the info we’ve already relayed here before. Here is a gist.

Will Potter, who wrote a great overview of the CMUs, said,
based on a Freedom of Information Act request that he obtained from attorneys, “The government acknowledges that they (CMUs) exist. The government acknowledges that—you know, through their institutional supplements, what the policies are, or at least the skeleton of those policies. But the government refuses to say who is actually there, why they’re there, and how they can get out, if they want to appeal that designation.”

It’s interesting he refers to a skeleton of policies because it helps to imagine the war on terror spatially, structurally, as if the policies around rendition provide a murky x-ray of torture space, and vice versa: the spaces of torture (as we collect data on them) offer their own piecemeal skeleton of the fuzzy policies that are crafted to justify torture. I guess that’s all we really can do at this point, try to observe these patterns between the ways torture is legally architected and how those laws correspond to physical spaces that facilitate torture; space as evidence for a logic of torture as it hatches in both policy and space, sometimes one before the other, always one to justify the other.

Laura Regan, who represents Daniel McGowan (incarcerated for affiliation w/ ELF) was snatched from his prison in Minnesota in the middle of the night and whisked off to the CMU in Marion, Illinois without being told anything. This, after he’d been given a 6 month review and noted by his warden to have been an exemplary inmate in that time.

Laura mentioned that prisoners in this unit have called it “Little Guantanamo” because they feel they’re being hidden from the world, from their fellow inmates, being kept there against their rights as prisoners -- made to disappear. (Remember, these aren’t so called “enemy combatants” or “terrorist suspects” whose status has been designed to fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions, these are convicted criminals prosecuted within the American justice system and therefore have rights.)

She said, when McGowan saw pictures of Guantanamo Bay he told her the secret CMU actually looks much more fortified, and the way inmates are being made to live there (limited recreation time in cages rather than yards, less time outside of one’s cell than normal prisons, less visitor time, less communication freedom, no private communication, no rights to challenge their status, etc.) rivals the conditions of the infamous detention center itself, and harkens to a "Guantanamo-like existence," she said. In fact, if you look at these pics of the Cuban site you might be surprised how similar conditions there look to an American prison, at least from what we've been allowed to see of it, anyway.

She also said, according to her sources, some feel that Guantanamo Bay – should it be closed down – might actually see some of its detainees end up inside the CMU where media requests to interview inmates, and even lawyers trying to defend the rights of these inmates have been so restricted that their client/attorney priveledges have been totally violated. I wonder, if closing Gitmo and moving detainees into the CMU would only help to further blur the legal status distinctions between “enemy combatant” and “Muslim-American criminal.” It seems to me to be a very very dangerous co-mingling that probably should never happen. Not to mention the co-mingling that is already taking place, where once the CMU designated only Muslim inmates with suspected radical linkages it now includes environmental and animal rights activists.

[Image: Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir and the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana.(via)]

Thirdly, we heard from Kathy Manley who’s defending Yassin Aref (the Kurdish-Iraqi refugee brought in by the FBI), who also spoke about another CMU inmate Dr. Rafil Dhafir, “an oncologist from Syracuse, New York” who was also, she said, “convicted very unfairly.” He was prosecuted for “violating the sanctions against Iraq under Saddam by sending charity—money to charity there to help children, called Save the Needy.” Like the others, “they didn’t even accuse him of anything to do with terrorism,” Manley said. “He was the only person convicted of violating these sanctions. And for some reason, they put him at the CMU, too. Basically it’s anybody that they’re suspicious of their ideas.”

That would sum it up. Incarcerating and torturing people based purely on suspicion, without public knowledge much less consent, hijacking the law in order to do so – using prisons as host cells for a viral infection of exceptional secrecy and civil rights abuse. It's a hideous form of experimentation. She also said, “it’s unconstitutional to treat people more restrictively in a prison context because of their race or religion. And they’re clearly doing that. I mean, the CMU in Terre Haute is almost 90 percent Muslim. They just threw in a few non-Muslims.”

Of course, they may have just thrown in a few non-Muslims to try and further deflect the issue of racial profiling, to dilute their power-drunk intentions, but also as a way to perhaps broaden and legitimize the CMU and the scope of the program, and of what or who should ever be able to qualify for the CMU. With this latest news you have to wonder, who will be targeted for this unit in the future, if they already include animal and environmental rights activists now, charity givers, innocents caught in a sting operation, then how soon might we see Mexican immigrants ensnared in the CMU (on war on drugs cartel gang related suspicions), or radical academics who teach being critical of their government, anti-war protestors refusing to leave the streets; just how many CMUs will eventually come to exist? If not inside a prison, then what kind of space will the current model of CMU pave the way for next? Once a space exists it invariably permutates into something else later. Space doesn't just appear and disappear like dark matter. It opens up to a new realm of legal, cultural, and spatial acceptability and exception, that evolves with repurcussions no one every truly knows until the impacts of these spaces are felt in their evolutions in the future.

Anyhow, Democracy Now raises plenty of other critical points: how does the CMU alter what the Federal Bureau of Prisons can and cannot execute on order without public comment; how are inmates in the CMU ever supposed to get out when in all other incarceration scenarios an inmate is always legally provided the opportunity to better his/her status by showing improved behavior (in the CMU there is no reward system, only indefinite detention). Inmate rights are literally being stripped away from them for no real legal reason. The prison is supposed to be that final frontier of space that upholds the law, and that "rehabilitates" the criminal (albeit in its crudest form), but as we all know prisons are more likely where the law breaks down and corruption is wrought, and recidivism is but a social product.

The CMU makes me think more about islands as spaces as well as a kind of template. The archipelago is so overused these days as a metaphoric way of referring to this kind of network territoriality of power, of secrecy, of legal abyss; islands as being totally emblematic of modern space, from driving hours each day in our cars to our single family homes, to the psychology of modern alienated space, to gated communities, movie theaters, prisons, the corporate cubicle, space defragmenting under the politcal crunch of capitalist democracy's implosion, its recessive enclosure, its super foreclosure. The whole thing could represent an architectural formula almost, or a spatial code of some kind for how secrecy and torture politically exercise in landscape. The globe whittled into a network of incarceration hives.

[Image: The CIA's 'Black Sites' / Village Voice / February 21st 2006, illustration: Mirko Ilic.]

The CMU only further evidences how political exception can be inserted into space; spaces that don’t exist until the government injects something into them to make them exist; like detainees – these spaces become new containers for disappeared people. They are the military tupper ware of the war on terror. Secret space in a fully alterable and stackable state of compression in order to deflect attention, to squat in the cracks between what is permissable wherever there is room -- if even by necessity this compression serves secrecy quite well.

I sort of see this type of space as being able to materialize out of nothing, to some extent, like one of those clear perforated produce bags that come on a roll at the grocery store; they are objects first perhaps before they become spaces. In fact, they are barely even objects, or spaces. While they're both, they are also maybe something in between object and space. They are extractions of space; sheets of spatial potential that have not been inflated or unclung from their own walls yet, or deployed. That is to say, they do not really constitute a space until the cellophane membrane is separated from itself and something is placed inside of it. Similarly, I suppose, geographies of global detention exist in these kinds of flat, secretly layered amniotic sacs of potential incarceration, in pockets of non-space, or pre-space; spaces that only exist because people have been stuffed into them.

I would be curious to hear what others think, if these types of clandestine architectural cavities, if you will, indicate a hollowing of the state (as the law is severely compromised in order to conform to this type of executive power), or a hyper-inflation of the state (do these spaces expand the spatial breath and legal prowess of state power?)? I don’t know -- institutional cavities, or torture space’s new bubble wrap? They're like this insidious distribution of lungs for the breathing space of secrecy. Insulation space for covert landscapes.

In Will Potter's must read article Secretive U.S. Prison Units Used to House Muslim, Animal Rights and Environmental Activists, he writes:
“The creation of secret facilities to primarily house Muslim inmates accused of non-violent charges, along with a couple animal rights and environmental activists, marks both a continuation and a radical expansion of the “War on Terrorism.”

First, it is a continuation of the “terrorism” crackdown that Arab and Muslim communities have intensely experienced since September 11th. Guantanamo Bay may be closing. But as Jeanne Theoharis beautifully wrote recently: “Guantánamo is not simply an aberration; its closure will not return America to the rule of law or to its former standing among nations. Guantánamo is a particular way of seeing the Constitution, of constructing the landscape as a murky terrain of lurking enemies where the courts become part of the bulwark against such dangers, where rights have limits and where international standards must be weighed against national security.”

The bottom line is: the CMU is just another example of how this illegitimate space comes from a violent manipulation of the law to empower a political logic that lets the government do whatever it wants, to whomever it wants, and (as we come to see more and more in the secret spaces emerging all around this stuff), almost when and wherever it wants.

[Image: Guantánamo at Home, The Nation . Illustration by ZINA SAUNDERS.]

Snatching people and removing them to a space where they are no longer formally recognized as having rights is what is called rendition in the so called “War on Terror”, only now we see how it is practiced within the American prison system itself. It’s almost as if the CMU is a kind of experimental breathing apparatus for rendition, or a breeding grounds, a test site, a way to keep the program active; a simple regathering for the politics of secrecy that are rooted deeply in our constitution and now somehow help the government’s to act above the law on the basis that it is the law and can therefore declare that it doesn't have to operate within it when it sees fit. Whereas places like Bagram in Afghanistan, or Abu Ghraib in Iraq, provided space outside the U.S. to torture, the CMU signifies a move from within towards a similarly private space where the government can operate outside the law, only in this instance it is about operating in a retooling of the law itself (in these vaguely evident folds that scar our consitution with inidious interpretations) to create the same sort of effect, the same sort of space that's been either legally unraveled from the constitution or virally written into it in order to suffocate the law. The law itself is what is being tortured. Nothing can breath inside one of those plastic produce bags for very long.

First, this goes back to Tom Hilde's curiosity about how the closure of Guantanamo Bay might effect the greater expansion of secrecy. He asked, would it only further push secrecy and torture into lesser visible realms? Implying, that for as terrible as the detention center is there, at least we have some sort of site now to scrutinize and force the government to take accountability. An interesting warning I find, that to get rid of Guantanamo Bay may actually force us to forfeit our only grasp on this secret landscape.

Second, I'm reminded of a point Trveor Paglen brings home in the end of latest book Blank Spots on the Map, which talks about the other side of the coin to Hilde's point, which is: to make these types of places transparent is not enough, because it only forces the government then to turn to attacking the law in order to rewrite it and further justify their secrecy. The law becomes the ultimate victim. Not that transparency isn’t a great part of democracy, he says, but: “transparency, it seems to me, is a democratic society’s precondition; transparency alone is not sufficient to guarantee democracy. […] Just as the secret state has grown by creating facts on the ground, then sculpting the world around them in an attempt to contain the ensuing contradictions, the secret state only recedes when other facts on the ground block its path, when people actively sculpt the geographies around them. […] people practicing democracy.”

It's not enough to cry foul, we have to more actively decide to define our spaces ourselves, rather than rely on the law in some overarching sense to do it for us. Not to take law into our own hands, but to exercise our rights in so far as they can be and should be practiced in the production of space.

See also:

Guantánamo at Home, By Jeanne Theoharis, The Nation. April 2, 2009
Dead Life In A Political Prison: At great risk to himself, Yassin Aref describes the interior of his federal cage... an Albanyweblog exclusive report. (October 14 , 2007)
Dr. Rafil A. Dhafir at Terre Haute Prison's New Communications Management Unit by Katherine Hughes (June, 18, 2007)
Imprisoned Muslims at Terre Haute’s CMU
Torture Space: Architecture in Black
"Block D" Enters the Pantheon of GWOT Space


Blogger mm said...

Here is a use of the domestic space of rendition on an American citizen not connected to terrorism before trial that the film claims resulted in a coerced guilty plea:

From a review of The Political Prosecutions of Karl Rove...

"Another account of political profiling by the DOJ was revealed in the story of Meg Scott Phipps, the daughter and granddaughter of two former North Carolina Governors. Phipps was thought to be eyeing a candidacy for governor when she was charged with 30 separate felonies related to campaign contributions at a state fair. The U.S. Attorney indicted or threatened nearly everyone associated with Phipps, including her 75-year old father. Once Phipps was in custody, she was kept incommunicado for nearly three weeks, by moving her from multiple jails in several states, until she finally pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The Republican judge found nothing improper with this action and gave Phipps the maximum sentence of three years in prison. All witnesses testifying
against Phipps had been indicted and were promised indemnity for their testimony."

Copies of the video & interviews can be requested at

The film can be viewed at

12:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yo. That might be one of the scariest post I've read this year. I hope one day I can write a horror story based on the feelings you brought into my head.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

thank you mm,
i have been checking that link out a bit, thanks for the resource. i have a feeling, we have really only barely scratched the surface of the practice of rendition, internationally, domestically, and beyond. therefore, we must keep digging.

we aim to please, and hope to inspire.
write that story already! we must keep digging.


8:16 PM  
Blogger Urban Floop said...

8:11 AM  
Blogger The Red Son said...

I cannot thank you more for the enlightening and VERY important work that you do. Obviously you spend lots and lots of time and effort writing your posts, something that few people, including myself have the patience or will to do. So again thank you.

Also, I hope they never throw me into one of these types of prison.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

thanks a lot! very much appreciate that!
and that makes at the very least two of us.

10:15 PM  

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