Environmental Activist, Prosecuted as if He Was Terrorist, Was Held in Isolation for Political Speech

An environmental activist, who was prosecuted by the Justice Department for engaging in acts the department considers to be terrorism, has found out through a lawsuit of which he is a plaintiff that he was transferred to a prison in Marion, Illinois, and held in isolation for his political speech.

Daniel McGowan in 2006

Daniel McGowan, who had a role in arsons at two lumber companies in Oregon in 2001 that were believed to have been committed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), was sentenced to seven years in prison in June 2007. The government sought a “terrorism enhancement” when prosecuting him. (His case was profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary, If a Tree Falls.)

He was imprisoned for a year at FCI Sandstone in Minnesota. In May 2008, the government had him transferred from this prison, with much lower security, to a Communications Management Unit (CMU) (or what is known to some as a “terrorism unit”) in Marion. In the CMU, he was barred from physical contact with his wife and family members. His phone access was severely restricted with only one to two fifteen minute calls allowed per week. He was not allowed to have contact with prisoners in the general population.

McGowan was transferred out of the CMU in 2010. His wife was able to visit and see him in the general visitation room. However, on February 24, 2011, McGowan was transferred to a CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana. In both transfers to the CMU, virtually no justification was given for why he needed to be moved.

Now, McGowan is in a halfway house finishing out his sentence. He writes in an article at Huffington Post that when he arrived at Marion he was “confused” about where he was and why:

…I was given a single sheet of paper called a “Notice of Transfer.”  It included a few sentences about my conviction, much of which was incorrect, by way of explanation for my CMU designation.  I was provided no other information about why the BOP believed I needed to be sent to this isolation unit.  Frustrated, I filed administrative grievances to try to get the information corrected, and find out how this decision had been made.  When that did not work, I filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.  I got nowhere.  The BOP would not fix the information, and wouldn’t explain why they thought I belonged in a CMU.

So I decided to contact lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, having known their history of strong advocacy on these issues. We brought a federal lawsuit on behalf of myself and other CMU prisoners to challenge policies, practices and our designation to the CMUs. The lawsuit, Aref v. Holder, was filed in April 2010, and challenges the constitutionality of various polices and practices at the CMUs, including the lack of meaningful process associated with designation to the units, and the lack of any meaningful way to “step down” from the units.  The lawsuit contends that this lack of transparency and process has allowed people to be sent to the CMUs based on, for example, their protected speech…

By way of discovery in the ongoing lawsuit, McGowan uncovered a memo by Leslie Smith, the chief of the Bureau of Prisons’ “Counter Terrorism Unit.” It catalogs what he was heard saying and shows speech, which the Bureau of Prisons did not approve, is why he was targeted. [cont’d.]

Environmental Activist, Prosecuted as If He Was Terrorist, Was Held in Isolation for Political Speech

Creative Commons-licensed photo of Daniel McGowan in 2006 (via Wikimedia)

An environmental activist, who was prosecuted by the Justice Department for engaging in acts the department considers to be terrorism, has found out through a lawsuit of which he is a plaintiff that he was transferred to a prison in Marion, Illinois, and held in isolation for his political speech.

Daniel McGowan, who had a role in arsons at two lumber companies in Oregon in 2001 that were believed to have been committed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), was sentenced to seven years in prison in June 2007. The government sought a “terrorism enhancement” when prosecuting him. (His case was profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary, If a Tree Falls.)

He was imprisoned for a year at FCI Sandstone in Minnesota. In May 2008, the government had him transferred from this prison, with much lower security, to a Communications Management Unit (CMU) (or what is known to some as a “terrorism unit”) in Marion. In the CMU, he was barred from physical contact with his wife and family members. His phone access was severely restricted with only one to two fifteen minute calls allowed per week. He was not allowed to have contact with prisoners in the general population.

McGowan was transferred out of the CMU in 2010. His wife was able to visit and see him in the general visitation room. However, on February 24, 2011, McGowan was transferred to a CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana. In both transfers to the CMU, virtually no justification was given for why he needed to be moved.

Now, McGowan is in a halfway house finishing out his sentence. He writes in an article at Huffington Post that when he arrived at Marion he was “confused” about where he was and why:

…I was given a single sheet of paper called a “Notice of Transfer.”  It included a few sentences about my conviction, much of which was incorrect, by way of explanation for my CMU designation.  I was provided no other information about why the BOP believed I needed to be sent to this isolation unit.  Frustrated, I filed administrative grievances to try to get the information corrected, and find out how this decision had been made.  When that did not work, I filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.  I got nowhere.  The BOP would not fix the information, and wouldn’t explain why they thought I belonged in a CMU.

So I decided to contact lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, having known their history of strong advocacy on these issues. We brought a federal lawsuit on behalf of myself and other CMU prisoners to challenge policies, practices and our designation to the CMUs. The lawsuit, Aref v. Holder, was filed in April 2010, and challenges the constitutionality of various polices and practices at the CMUs, including the lack of meaningful process associated with designation to the units, and the lack of any meaningful way to “step down” from the units.  The lawsuit contends that this lack of transparency and process has allowed people to be sent to the CMUs based on, for example, their protected speech…

By way of discovery in the ongoing lawsuit, McGowan uncovered a memo by Leslie Smith, the chief of the Bureau of Prisons’ “Counter Terrorism Unit.” It catalogs what he was heard saying and shows speech, which the Bureau of Prisons did not approve, is why he was targeted.

…While incarcerated and through social correspondence and articles written for radical publications, inmate McGowan has attempted to unite the radical environmental and animal liberation movements. [REDACTED]

In a letter published on the Portland Independent Media, inmate McGowan described the cooperation with government authorities by his co-defendants and complained about support provided to these cooperating defendants, from the environmental community, for persons who he claimed were responsible for the, “betrayal of (their) friends and allies.”…

The Bureau of Prisons paid close attention to statements he made about “errors” the movement had committed in the past when engaged in direct action:

…On direct action, inmate McGowan stated such tactics may not be the best option, but often have the most desired effect and detailed his support for such actions by members of the community. Regarding direct action, inmate McGowan stated: “We need to have serious conversations about whether militancy is truly effective in all situations. Certainly, direct action is a wonderful tool, but from my experience, it may not be the most effective one at all times or in all situations.” “In some instances, direct action is the most effective tactic.” “Actions that are understood by the public and seen as logical can have a positive impact on pre-existing campaigns and struggles.” “Despite the fact that my particular case is over, it’s imperative that we discuss tactics and strategies in a way that people can actually hear and listen to what each other is saying.”…

It is all benign and none of it should justify further penalty in prison. (more…)