U.S. Political Prisons
by Robert Meeropol
Rosenberg Fund for Children
I first heard of Daniel McGowan (www.supportdaniel.org) several years ago. He’s one of more than a dozen “green scare defendants” now serving time in Federal prison. During the 1990’s several groups of young, militant environmental and animal rights activists engaged in property destruction actions such as burning SUV’s or destroying a horse slaughterhouse. After the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, and more recently, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, federal prosecutors have been arresting those supposedly involved, treating them as domestic terrorists even though no people or animals were killed or even injured in any of their actions, and imposing long prison sentences upon them.
Daniel, at the time of his arrest, was a progressive activist in New York City, who had “walked away from these kind of actions a long time ago,” [www.supportdaniel.org/faq]. While in prison he maintained contact with a large community of supporters and continued to write about progressive issues. He first contacted the RFC not on his own behalf (he and his wife have no children), but to suggest other political prisoners with children the RFC might support. Daniel is one of those people who look beyond themselves no matter what their circumstance to figure out ways to help others.
Apparently his jailors didn’t approve. They transferred Daniel to their new Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Marion, Illinois. This occurred despite the fact the Daniel had no in-prison infractions to justify such action. Daniel’s new “crime” seems to be his contact with his political support group and his continued exercise of his first amendment rights.
The Center for Constitutional Rights describes these political prisons on their website. “In 2006 and 2007, the [Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)] secretly created two experimental prison units designed to isolate certain prisoners from the rest of the prison population and the outside world. These units are called Communications Management Units or CMUs, and despite the fact that their creation marked a dramatic change in BOP policy, they were opened without the required opportunity for public notice and comment.” [http://ccrjustice.org/ourcases/current-cases/aref-et-al-v-holder-et-al]
The BOP has long housed some political prisoners in lockdown facilities of this nature, but had limited such draconian conditions of confinement to those it claimed were the most violent and dangerous criminals. These new CMU units are not designed to house maximum security prisoners. Instead they are social and political control experiments that Wardens can use to isolate “average” prisoners who are outspoken or have the wrong religion. Inmates at the CMU are only allowed limited communication with the outside world, and to see loved ones through plexi-glass barriers and talk via phone hook-ups.
Daniel’s community of support has not taken his transfer to the CMU passively. The “Friends of Daniel McGowan” group (see www.supportdaniel.org and the "Support Daniel McGowan" Facebook Group) organized an art auction that drew public attention to his situation, and that of others (over 60% of them Muslim) held at the CMU. At Daniel’s request, 50% of the funds raised by the group, over $1,000, was donated to the RFC’s Granting Fund. Daniel wrote in explanation: “Although we do not have children ourselves, we have 6 nieces and the pain I feel being separated from them is great. I truly can’t imagine what it would be like if I had children - especially in this unit without contact visits.”
This struck a deep chord in me. If these rules had been applied to my parents after their arrest I would have no conscious memory of their touch or their voices. The only clear memories I have is from those few precious hours we spent together during a dozen or so prison visits I had with them.
And the family connection runs deeper. I was surprised while viewing a slide show of the art exhibit Daniel’s wife helped to organize, to see my younger daughter, Rachel (who is a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights), speaking at the opening! Earlier this week Rachel and another CCR attorney filed suit in Federal District Court in Washington, DC on behalf of Daniel McGowan, another political prisoner connected with the RFC, and others, claiming the CMUs violated the prisoners’ first amendment and due process rights because they are confined in this extra punitive detention “without legitimate reason or meaningful process, [and … ] in retaliation for their protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or lawful advocacy challenging rights violations in prison.” [http://ccrjustice.org/ourcases/current-cases/aref-et-al-v-holder-et-al]
I’m proud to link my family and my community to those of Daniel McGowan.