What is the Carswell Administrative Unit?

“A 24-bed Administrative Unit. This high security unit is designed to house female
inmates with histories of escapes, chronic behavior problems, repeated incidents of assaultive or predatory behavior, or other special management concerns. The mission of the unit is to provide the inmates with structured programs and measurable goals, with the intent of returning them to general population units. The unit is self-contained. (from BOP document)”

What is the Carswell Administrative Unit like?

A gymnasium-sized unit which has been described as claustrophobic, loud and echoing. The BOP defines it as being used to house prisoners with behavioral problems; however, a number of political prisoners with no history of behavioral incidences are housed there, along with prisoners who suffer severe mental illnesses. Access to mental health counseling, medical care, and educational opportunities are greatly diminished because of security issues.

The prisoners are only allowed to exercise in a small, fenced-in, concrete, outdoor area topped by double-coiled razor wire where there is little room for physical activity.

The unit is frequently and unpredictably locked down for hours on end due to violence and suicide attempts resulting from the claustrophobic and oppressive conditions.

Prisoners who are housed there because of behavioral issues are told what they have to do to be transferred. They are given structured programs and measurable goals so that they may eventually return to the prison’s general population. But not the political prisoners, who have no idea what they need to do, if anything, in order to be released from this strict confinement.

The psychological corrosiveness of a sterile environment, the lack of adequate access to exercise and mental simulation, the psychological trauma suffered by all of the prisoners, and the seeming impossibility of attaining freedom from this unit constitutes a cruel, but unfortunately, not an unusual punishment. The unit exacerbates and worsens the behavior it says it works to correct.

Who is/has been in the unit?

Marius Mason: an anarchist, environmental and animal rights activist currently serving nearly 22 years in federal prison for acts of property damage including arson charges at a Michigan State University lab researching genetically modified organisms for Monsanto. No one was physically harmed in these actions. At sentencing the judge applied a so-called “terrorism enhancement.”

Ana Belén Montes is a former American senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States. On September 21, 2001, she was arrested and subsequently charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for the government of Cuba. (read Ana’s statement to the court here).

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui: Dr. Aafia was tried and convicted in a US Federal court on charges of attempted murder and assaulting US servicemen in Ghazni, Afghanistan.  The official charges against Dr. Aafia were that she assaulted U.S. soldiers in Ghazni, Afghanistan, with one of the servicemen’s own rifles, while she was in their custody, waiting to be interrogated by them. No US personnel were hurt but Dr. Aafia was shot and suffered serious injuries including brain damage. Dr. Aafia categorically denies the charges. The forensic and physical evidence denies those charges.

Lynne Stewart, a human rights attorney arrested on charges of helping pass messages from her client, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman an Egyptian cleric convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center attack in New York City. Listen to an interview with her here and a trailer for a documentary about her case here. Stewart was released on compassionate grounds in December 2013 due to terminal cancer. She passed away in March of 2017.

Helen Woodson, an anti-nuke activist spent 27 years in prison for non-violent direct action, was released from Carswell in 2011.

How is the Carswell Administrative Unit similar to a CMU? What is a CMU?

Communication Management Units are a relatively new strategy in high-security housing. Like other high-security units (Secure Housing Units, Seg, Max and Supermax facilities), CMUs are a prison within the prison – special wings or buildings meant to isolate the captives held inside even from other prisoners.

In December 2006, the Bush administration opened the first CMU at the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute. Unlike other high-security facilities, the stated focus of CMUs is limiting communication between prisoners and the outside world. Strict isolation on the wing is used less than in Supermax facilities (though prisoners are still regularly subject to isolation), but there are even stricter controls on all contact across the prison walls.

Prisoners in a CMU receive only two no-contact visits per month and one 15 minute phone call per week. There are variable but intense restrictions on postal correspondence. The goal is to prevent contact between a range of prisoners considered “radical” or dangerous and potential outside supporters. Thus, these control units are primarily populated by Muslim “extremists” (mostly young men entrapped by the FBI) and black and brown people labeled as gang members. There are also politically outspoken prisoners and rebellious “troublemakers.” What they have in common is that these are people the state does not want communicating: with each other, or with the outside.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ CMU program is cloaked in secrecy. The precise guidelines for who is held in CMUs are not known, nor are there comprehensive lists of those imprisoned inside. The two known CMUs are at Terre Haute and in Marion, Illinois, which opened soon after. But Federal Medical Center Carswell contains a women’s wing that has long been described as a women’s CMU, with communications restrictions and holding conditions that closely parallel the two mens’ CMUs. The BOP, though, formally denies this categorization. The absence of formal acknowledgement accentuates the legal limbo faced by prisoners housed in this high-security wing, leaving them without recourse or certainty.