Andy Stepanian.Photo: Myspace.
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.
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
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
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 fianc�e 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
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
How did the isolation affect you?
then-fianc�e 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,