Yassin Aref, the Albany imam sent to federal prison after being convicted of material support for terrorism, is part of a case heard in court this week involving inmates challenging confinement in special prison units.
Aref and pizzeria owner Mohammed Hossain were caught up in a massive 2004 FBI sting - the two, who have insisted that it was more of a "frame-up" than a sting, are serving 15-year federal prison sentences for their involvement in a missile plot. In 2014 Aref was denied the right to file an appeal asking for a new trial.
Aref's latest court battle took place this week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit - the case is Aref v. Holder, as in Eric Holder, with six other federal prisoners joining Aref in a challenge of "Communication Management Units" run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The experimental prison units in Indiana and Illinois are described as more punitive than other areas of the jails.
Aref alleges that inmates placed in isolation units at the jails are disproportionately Muslim. Activists argue the CMUs isolate inmates - keeping them under constant surveillance, imposing severe restrictions on prisoners’ communications, both within prison walls and with the outside world.
According to a 2011 NPR story "'Guantanamo North': Inside Secretive U.S. Prisons," terrorism experts say all the restrictions in the special units are thought to minimize radicalization inside U.S. prisons.
Alexis Agathocleous, is the Deputy Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The population is over 60 percent Muslim. It's a tenfold overrepresentation of Muslim prisoners over the rest of the prison population, which obviously raises the specter of religious profiling."
Daniel McGowan is one of the defendants in the case. He spent four years in a CMU. "I was in one CMU for 26 months and the other for 21 months. During that time, any of my visits that were social in nature and not legal, had to be in a small room with a phone through glass. So it was monitored by these people that run the CMU and there was just no contact, not even the kind of normal hug and kiss that you were allowed at the beginning and the end of a normal visit."
Originally filed in 2010, the case was dismissed by a federal judge in 2015 who ruled the units did not impose any significant hardship on inmates. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, filed an appeal in May 2015.
Again, Alexis Agathocleous: "What's so concerning to us is in the litigation we're involved in is that people are selected out of thousands and thousands of prisoners, somewhat arbitrarily without proper de-process protections and they're sent to the CMU without a proper explanation of why, without being given the information they need to establish that they don't belong in a CMU, and without meaningful ability to appeal that decision. They're not reviewed for many many months, and when they are, that review is illusory. It's just near impossible for someone to demonstrate or to prove that they do not belong in the CMU and should be transferred back to general population."
CCR senior staff attorney Rachel Meeropol: "This case has been a long effort to hold the Bureau of Prisons accountable. The Bureau insists they need unfettered discretion to place prisoners in these restrictive units without explaining why or allowing any prisoner, the public, the court, to rebut the factual basis for placement. But this case doesn't actually challenge the Bureau of Prisons right to identify prisoners who actually require additional monitoring and monitor those prisoners' communications. Rather we are just seeking due process, that the Bureau explain to the prisoners why they are being single douyt for this harsh treatment and give them some opportunity to rebut the factual basis for that placement."
Federal authorities declined to comment on a still-open case.
The court will make a decision in the coming months.