In 2006, animal-rights activist Andrew Stepanian was convicted of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and was sentenced to three years in prison. He spent the last five and a half months of his time inside a Communication Management Unit (CMU) in Marion, Illinois, one of two prisons in the country that primarily houses Muslim inmates. Christopher S. Stewart, author of New York’s “Little Gitmo” feature, spoke with Stepanian about the experience of being a “balancer,” as CMU guards call the few non-Muslim inmates who are “reportedly blended into the population … in order to address the criticism that CMUs were housing only Muslims.”
So how did you land in the CMU?
I was in general population for almost two thirds of the sentence. In May of 2008, my cell door opened at about 5 o’clock in the morning, and there was a SWAT team there. They shackled my feet together, then my hands to my feet, and then they put a black plastic box around the exterior of the cuffs. I have no violent infraction. I was teaching the GED program in the prison, and I didn’t have any disciplinary record. The officials overseeing this started apologizing repeatedly to me. They said, “We don’t have control over this, we’re really sorry.”
What happened next?
Then they put me on a plane with other inmates. The front of the plane had folks who had handcuffs on. The rest of us in the back, I don’t even know how to put it, it was like one of these Anthony Hopkins movies. We had so much stuff on us, it was like they thought we were MacGyver or something. I actually sat right next to Ali Chandia, who was being transferred from another low-security prison in upstate New York to the CMU. He was accused of sending paintballs to Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. He asked me if I was Palestinian. I said no. He asked me if I was Muslim. I said no. And then he turned to me and said, “Then why are you going to the CMU?” And that kind of set the page for the whole rest of my stay there. I was kind of an outsider.
You were a “balancer.” What exactly did that mean, and when did you come to this realization?
I was actually doing my laundry, and a guard comes up to me and says, “You’re not like all the other Muslim guys, you’re going to go home soon. Keep your head up, you’re only here to balance.”
Were other non-Muslims there?
There was a man by the name of Rich Scutari from a white-nationalist-type organization called the Order. He went to jail in the eighties. They brought Daniel McGowan, who is alleged to be in the group the Earth Liberation Front. He was a social-justice activist who organized a protest against the Republican National Convention and also worked for the Women’s Law Collective in New York City. They brought Edward Brown. He was a fascinating case, he was a tax protester from New Hampshire who refused to pay taxes at the time of the Iraq War and went into a standoff with federal officials. He refused to leave his house for about eight months. He was in the cell next to me.
Were there Muslims who didn’t have terrorism charges?
Yeah, there were a lot. If Marion were a basketball team, everyone there rode bench. They were never the star players, and the Feds were looking for the star players, so they were pressuring people on the bench to try and get the star players in. They were hoping somebody knew somebody.
What was the hardest part about being there for you?
The way it pulled me away from my family. I couldn’t have contact with my wife, who was my fiancée at the time. My mail was being shut down. They essentially take away your voice, and it’s an administrative black hole. These people can’t get out. There’s no procedure in place to challenge your designation there. I mean, once you’re there, you have a feeling like, “I’m never going to get out.” It makes you feel like you’ve essentially disappeared.
I’ve spoken to prisoners in general population prisons, and the topic of fear is constant. Was fear an everyday feeling in the CMU?
It was psychological. You were thrown into this pit, this black hole — there was no way you were climbing out. This is where it becomes the hardest part for the men with families. For a lot of men, part of their corrective process is being able to hold their child, even if it’s once a month, for an hour or two. The most high-security prisons that we have in this country still give an opportunity for a man to enter a room, hold his kid, say hi to his wife.
How did the isolation affect you?
When my then-fiancée came to visit, I knew I wouldn’t get to see her again for another four months or so. I only saw her for a few hours, and there’s a camera hanging above my head and a camera hanging above her head, and we’re speaking into microphones, and it’s all being recorded, and people are looking at us — we obviously can’t have any type of intimate conversation. And the moment that visit ends, it’s like your heart sinks into your stomach. I saw men who would come back to their cells at the CMU and just hold their head in their hands and start crying. This is not the typical thing that you’d expect to see in a prison. But men were broken down, completely.