You're in the Hole: A Crackdown on Dissident Prisoners

By Cusac, Anne-Marie | The Progressive, December 2001 | Go to article overview

You're in the Hole: A Crackdown on Dissident Prisoners


Cusac, Anne-Marie, The Progressive


It was September 19, 2001. Elizabeth McAlister had not heard from her husband, Philip Berrigan, in more than a week. Such silence on Berrigan's part was "most unusual," she says. Convinced that something was wrong, she telephoned the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio, where the seventy-seven-year-old peace activist is serving a sentence of a year and a day for hammering on a military aircraft while on probation for a similar action in another state.

"It took ten phone calls to the prison to get them to admit to me that he was in segregation," she says. McAlister also learned that Berrigan was being denied all phone calls and visits, even from family members. "I was not told why or for how long."

So McAlister telephoned the office of her Senator, Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski. Mikulski's office called the prison and, according to McAlister, was told "that Phil was put in segregation on September 11, 2001, as a direct consequence of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, [and] that this was done `for his protection.'"

But that explanation did not ring true. "If Philip is in segregation `for his protection,' why the punitive denial of visits from his family?" McAlister wrote to Mikulski.

On September 20, Mikulski wrote her own letter--to Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "I would appreciate being advised of Mr. Berrigan's status and an explanation as to the reasoning for that status," the Senator said.

The reason Mikulski received differed markedly from the information her own office had obtained several days earlier. The October 1 letter, from Michael B. Cooksey, Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said that Berrigan had been placed in administrative detention "for security reasons, pending a review of his case." It added, "The Warden may occasionally restrict certain privileges afforded inmates, such as visiting and telephone calls, to ensure the orderly running of the institution and to protect the public."

The letter also informed Mikulski that Berrigan's "case has been reviewed, and he was released to general population on September 21, 2001. Additionally, his visiting and telephone restrictions have been lifted."

In a letter to The Progressive dated October 25, Berrigan describes his experience. "On September 11, I watched appalled as the second tower of the WTC came down. The guards called me out, took me to the lieutenant's office, shackled and handcuffed me, and took me to solitary. I inquired several times as to why. One guard grunted, `Security!' During twelve days in segregation, no further daylight was provided. One lieutenant came to announce, `No phone, no visitors!' And no stamps. I was locked down ten days before mailing out letters. The result? Limbo-incommunicado."

It was "perhaps Ashcroft's idea. Lock up all the naysayers," he says.

Berrigan's hunch about Attorney General John Ashcroft may have been right. On October 31, the Department of Justice published new rules, "effective upon publication," that "impose special administrative measures with respect to specified inmates." The document, entitled "National Security: Prevention of Acts of Violence and Terrorism," was signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft on October 26 and published in the Federal Register.

Under the new rules, the Department of Justice, "based on information from the head of a federal law enforcement or intelligence agency," will select certain prisoners for "special administrative measures." These "may include housing the inmate in administrative detention" (another term for isolation) and denying that inmate "correspondence, visiting, interviews with representatives of the news media, and use of the telephone, as is reasonably necessary to prevent the disclosure of classified information."

Prior to these new rules, the amount of time an inmate could be held under such conditions was limited to 120 days, although the Department of Justice had the authority to renew the stay in isolation. …

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