Red Cross Workers Navigate Realm Between Humanitarian Rights, Legal Realities

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Story by Cassie Schoon, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Communications Volunteer

A core service of the American Red Cross and its partner National Societies is reconnecting families separated by conflict, disasters, migration or other humanitarian crises through our Restoring Family Links (RFL) Program. Part of this program, Red Cross Messages (RCMs), are often relayed across barriers like damaged communication networks, vast oceans, or infrastructures devastated by natural disasters. But in a few cases, the political and legal gray areas associated with conflict provide an even greater challenge for RFL volunteers seeking to transmit messages between family members. In today’s world of varied scales of conflict, the Red Cross occupies a unique space due to its adherence to neutrality and dedication to supporting humanitarian rights.

Local RFL workers Jaici Murcia and James Griffith have direct experience with this interesting role. Together, they have had to carefully navigate prison rules and post-9/11 regulations on inmates at the Federal Administrative Maximum Facility (ADMAX) prison in Florence, Colo, while working to deliver RCMs.

“One of the longstanding guidelines of International Humanitarian Law is that war prisoners have a right to receive communication from their families, and the Red Cross has historically fulfilled the role of the neutral party that delivers messages between POWs and their families,” explained Jaici Murcia, a former Pikes Peak volunteer and current regional disaster officer for the Red Cross of Colorado. “Today, in a world with an ongoing war on terror and stateless combatants, we face a less black-and-white definition of who prisoners of war are – and that can complicate our work.” Murcia ran into interesting challenges related to several RCMs intended for inmates at the maximum security prison south of Colorado Springs.

After speaking to one inmate’s lawyer, as well as with prison management and prison clergy, Murcia worked on a long-term solution in partnership with Mark Owens, the Africa and Middle East caseworker at National Headquarters. Owens presented prison management with documentation of an agreement between the Bureau of Prisons and the Red Cross, sanctioning RFL communication as a component of the Geneva Convention. “Every single time we deliver a message, we try to give the recipient an opportunity to reply,” Murcia said. “The goal is that we restore some sustainable form of communication for these individuals.”

Some cases take an extraordinary amount of diplomacy and may take years to resolve. James Griffith, an RFL worker and retired military chaplain, took up a case started during Jaici’s tenure at the Pikes Peak chapter. The message, which was sent to the Red Cross in July of 2011, was intended for a recipient who is under “Special Administrative Measures,” or SAMs, a status specific to inmates implicated in terrorism. Under SAMs, terror suspects awaiting trial - as well as convicted terrorists - are prohibited from communicating outside the prison, interacting with other inmates, or engaging in unmonitored communication with legal counsel. Due to these features of SAMs, such as extended periods of solitary confinement, the restrictions have faced opposition by organizations such as Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights. Eventually, the message Griffith and Jaici had worked so hard to deliver was relayed through the inmate’s legal counsel.

Prison administrators and national security agencies are focused on safety, and expressed concern that seemingly benign RCMs might actually be coded terrorism-related communications.

“Individuals transmitting [Red Cross Messages] have no expectation that their message is private – in fact, all messages are read, and International Humanitarian Law requires that these messages be purely family news in nature. We work with the prisons to deliver messages, and in some cases national security concerns may inhibit or slow down message delivery," Griffith said.

Griffith said he's succeeded in delivering about half of the RCMs he's relayed to ADMAX inmates, usually to those who are not under SAMs. The legal grey area surrounding SAMs is unique to today's modern era. "You really don't run into anything like this historically. Even during World War II, folks were able to receive Red Cross Messages when they were confined during the Nuremberg Trials," he said. "It's a pretty unusual set of circumstances."

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