Wed, Dec 14, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Terrorist pen pals offer a glimpse into US supermax prisons

By Scott Shane  /  NT Times News Service, Washington

It is the other Guantanamo, an archipelago of US federal prisons that stretches across the country, hidden away on back roads. Today, it houses far more men convicted in terrorism cases than the shrunken population of the prison in Cuba that has generated so much debate.

An aggressive prosecution strategy, aimed at prevention as much as punishment, has sent away scores of people who federal investigators saw as a threat. The inmates serve long sentences, often in restrictive, Muslim-majority units, under intensive monitoring by prison officers. Their world is spare.

Among them is Ismail Royer, serving 20 years for helping friends go to an extremist training camp in Pakistan. In a letter from the highest-security prison in the US, Royer describes his remarkable neighbors at twice-a-week outdoor exercise sessions, each prisoner alone in his own wire cage under the Colorado sky.

“That’s really the only interaction I have with other inmates,” he wrote from the federal supermax — short for super maximum security — 160km south of Denver.

There is Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, Royer wrote. Terry Nichols, who conspired to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building. Ahmed Ressam, the would-be “millennium bomber,” who plotted to attack Los Angeles International Airport. And Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

In recent weeks, the US Congress has reignited an old debate, with some saying that only military justice is appropriate for terrorist suspects. However, military tribunals have proved excruciatingly slow and imprisonment at Guantanamo hugely costly — US$800,000 per inmate a year, compared with US$25,000 in federal prison.

Meanwhile, the criminal justice system has absorbed the surge of terrorism cases since 2001 without calamity and without the international criticism that Guantanamo has attracted for holding prisoners without trial.

By contrast with the record at Guantanamo, where the US Department of Defense says that about 25 percent of those released are known or suspected of subsequently joining militant groups, it appears extraordinarily rare for the federal prison inmates with past terrorist ties to plot violence after their release. Both the administration of US President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress often cite the threat of homegrown terrorism.

However, the US Federal Bureau of Prisons has proved remarkably resistant to outside scrutiny of the inmates it houses, who might offer a unique window on the problem.

“There’s a huge national debate about how dangerous these people are,” said Gary LaFree, director of a national terrorism study center at the University of Maryland, who was lead author of the proposal. “I just think, as a citizen, somebody ought to be studying this.”

The bureau would not make any officials available for an interview with the New York Times, and wardens at three prisons refused to permit a reporter to visit inmates. However, e-mails and letters from inmates give a rare, if narrow, look at their hidden world.

Consider the case of Randall Todd Royer, 38, a Missouri-born Muslim convert who goes by Ismail. Before Sept. 11, 2001, he was a young Islamic activist with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, meeting with members of Congress and visiting the White House while former US president Bill Clinton was in office.

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