The Justice Department is defending its refusal not to release certain information federal authorities used to place inmates in a restrictive prison setting that limits communication and bans physical contact with the outside world.
A Justice Department lawyer, Nicholas Cartier, urged a federal judge in Washington yesterday to allow the government to keep sensitive law enforcement information from three inmates who are challenging their transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' so-called "communications management unit."
Cartier said the information, which the authorities reviewed before making a placement determination about the inmates, is protected by the deliberative process and law enforcement privileges. He argued that the plaintiffs are speculating that federal officials are hiding "illegal or nefarious" reasons for the assignment to the special prison units.
The suit against the Justice Department, filed in April 2010 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges federal officials failed to provide adequate notice and justification about the transfers to the communications units. Lawyers for the prisoners describe the communication restrictions as part of an "experimental" prison unit.
Ricardo Urbina, a Washington federal district court judge, in March 2011 declined to throw out the suit, teeing up a discovery dispute that is now pending before a magistrate judge.
The prisoners, represented by Weil, Gotshal & Manges and the Center for Constitutional Rights, are demanding access to more information about their detention. The prisoners also want to know more about the transfers of other inmates into the communication management units.
"We just want to know how these decisions were made," said Weil litigation associate Andrey Spektor, a member of the firm's appellate practice group.
Spektor in court criticized the government's "illusory" designation process, and he said transfer notices give vague, general reasons using terms such as the "recruitment" and "radicalization" of inmates. Redacted information could reveal, he said, whether the decision to place a certain inmate in the special unit was retaliatory or discriminatory.
DOJ lawyers insist the prisoners know why they are being held in the communications management units. The transfer notices, Cartier told Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson on Wednesday, identify terrorism-related convictions as the basis of the move. "They know why they're there," Cartier said.
The government also said records about other inmates confined in the communication management units are not relevant to the current litigation.
The plaintiffs' lawyers, who include Alexis Agathocleous of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said they want to assess the language in other transfer notices of more than 150 current or former inmates assigned to the communications management unit.
"The lack of process associated with CMU placement and retention has applied to all prisoners who at some point have been designated to these units," the prisoners' lawyers said in court papers filed in June.
Robinson, the judge, did not immediately rule yesterday. She did not indicate when she would issue a decision.