A federal judge ruled Monday against inmates who had challenged highly restrictive federal prison units, dealing a severe blow to their five-year attempt to close what are sometimes called Little Guantanamos.
For years, advocates have complained about the special prison wings set up in the wake of 9/11 called "communication management units." The units restrict prisoners' links to the outside world, severely limiting phone time and barring contact with visitors.
At first, most prisoners in the special wings were Muslims. Today, the inmates are more diverse.
In her opinion for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that the Bureau of Prisons' units do not violate inmates' rights because the additional restrictions are "limited in nature" compared to ordinary prison units, and are far better than solitary confinement. She granted the government's motion for summary judgment in the case.
"In short, except where communication is concerned, (communication management units) function like a general population unit," Rothstein said.
Former prisoners like Daniel McGowan disagree. Sentenced to seven years for arson as a result of his actions with the Earth Liberation Front, McGowan was one of the few non-Muslim prisoners placed in the units.
For McGowan, the difference between a regular federal prison and one of the CMUs was like night and day. The CMU left him feeling isolated and placed a deep strain on his marriage. He was originally a plaintiff in the lawsuit, but he was dismissed from the case after he was released from prison.
Rothstein's ruling "ignores the reality of what these prisoners are living through," said Rachel Meeropol, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who argued for the prisoners.
"We know that maintaining contact with one's family and one's loved ones is the single most important aspect of rehabilitation," she said.
The plaintiffs' lawyers had argued that while federal prisoners typically spend only about a week in solitary confinement, stints in the CMUs can last years. Unlike prisoners in solitary confinement, CMU prisoners are allowed to leave their cells. But their phone calls to the outside world are limited and heavily monitored.
The lawyers also alleged that the government used arbitrary and faulty procedures to place prisoners in the special units, although Rothstein did not address that claim.
Meeropol said the plaintiffs will decide soon whether to appeal the decision. "We'll be considering all of our options," she said.
In the meantime, she said she is heartened at least that the Bureau of Prisons has loosened some of the restrictions since their lawsuit was filed in 2010.
"Just the light that litigation has shown on the unit has resulted in some significant changes that we're proud of, even though we're experiencing this current setback," she said. "Prisoners are now moved out of the unit regularly. A normal stay is probably a year and a half, compared to prisoners who spent four or five years there."
Whatever the fate of the larger litigation against the special units, McGowan is still pursuing his own separate claim against the federal prison system. After McGowan wrote a blog entry for The Huffington Post in 2013 about the conditions in the CMUs, federal marshals picked him up from a halfway house and threw him in jail.
Only after the frantic efforts of his lawyers was McGowan released. His lawsuit over retaliation, filed in September, continues.