Investigative journalist Will Potter is the only reporter who has been inside a Communications Management Unit, or CMU, within a US prison. These units were opened secretly, and radically alter how prisoners are treated — even preventing them from hugging their children. Potter, a TED Fellow, shows us who is imprisoned here, and how the government is trying to keep them hidden. “The message was clear,” he says. “Don’t talk about this place.” Find sources for this talk at willpotter.com/cmu
Father Daniel Berrigan once said that “writing about prisoners is a little like writing about the dead.” I think what he meant is that we treat prisoners as ghosts. They’re unseen and unheard. It’s easy to simply ignore them and it’s even easier when the government goes to great lengths to keep them hidden.
As a journalist, I think these stories of what people in power do when no one is watching, are precisely the stories that we need to tell. That’s why I began investigating the most secretive and experimental prison units in the United States, for so-called “second-tier” terrorists. The government calls these units Communications Management Units or CMUs. Prisoners and guards call them “Little Guantanamo.” They are islands unto themselves. But unlike Gitmo they exist right here, at home, floating within larger federal prisons.
There are 2 CMUs. One was opened inside the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the other is inside this prison, in Marion, Illinois. Neither of them underwent the formal review process that is required by law when they were opened. CMU prisoners have all been convicted of crimes. Some of their cases are questionable and some involve threats and violence. I’m not here to argue the guilt or innocence of any prisoner. I’m here because as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “When the prisons and gates slam shut, prisoners do not lose their human quality.”
Every prisoner I’ve interviewed has said there are three flecks of light in the darkness of prison: phone calls, letters and visits from family. CMUs aren’t solitary confinement, but they radically restrict all of these to levels that meet or exceed the most extreme prisons in the United States. Their phone calls can be limited to 45 minutes a month, compared to the 300 minutes other prisoners receive. Their letters can be limited to six pieces of paper. Their visits can be limited to four hours per month, compared to the 35 hours that people like Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph receive in the supermax. On top of that, CMU visits are non-contact which means prisoners are not allowed to even hug their family. As one CMU prisoner said, “We’re not being tortured here, except psychologically.”
The government won’t say who is imprisoned here. But through court documents, open records requests and interviews with current and former prisoners, some small windows into the CMUs have opened.
There’s an estimated 60 to 70 prisoners here, and they’re overwhelmingly Muslim. They include people like Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who violated the economic sanctions on Iraq by sending medical supplies for the children there. They’ve included people like Yassin Aref. Aref and his family fled to New York from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as refugees. He was arrested in 2004 as part of an FBI sting. Aref is an imam and he was asked to bear witness to a loan, which is a tradition in Islamic culture. It turned out that one of the people involved in the loan was trying to enlist someone else in a fake attack. Aref didn’t know. For that, he was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group.
The CMUs also include some non-Muslim prisoners. The guards call them “balancers,” meaning they help balance out the racial numbers, in hopes of deflecting law suits. These balancers include animal rights and environmental activists like Daniel McGowan.
McGowan was convicted of participating in two arsons in the name of defending the environment as part of the Earth Liberation Front. During his sentencing, he was afraid that he would be sent to a rumored secret prison for terrorists. The judge dismissed all those fears, saying that they weren’t supported by any facts. But that might be because the government hasn’t fully explained why some prisoners end up in a CMU, and who is responsible for these decisions. When McGowan was transferred, he was told it’s because he is a “domestic terrorist,” a term the FBI uses repeatedly when talking about environmental activists. Now, keep in mind there are about 400 prisoners in US prisons who are classified as terrorists, and only a handful of them are in the CMUs. In McGowan’s case, he was previously at a low-security prison and he had no communications violations.
So, why was he moved? Like other CMU prisoners, McGowan repeatedly asked for an answer, a hearing, or some opportunity for an appeal. This example from another prisoner shows how those requests are viewed. “Wants a transfer.” “Told him no.” At one point, the prison warden himself recommended McGowan’s transfer out of the CMU citing his good behavior, but the warden was overruled by the Bureau of Prison’s Counterterrorism Unit, working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI.
Later I found out that McGowan was really sent to a CMU not because of what he did, but what he has said. A memo from the Counterterrorism Unit cited McGowan’s “anti-government beliefs.” While imprisoned, he continued writing about environmental issues, saying that activists must reflect on their mistakes and listen to each other. Now, in fairness, if you’ve spent any time at all in Washington, D.C., you know this is really a radical concept for the government.
I actually asked to visit McGowan in the CMU. And I was approved. That came as quite a shock. First, because as I’ve discussed on this stage before, I learned that the FBI has been monitoring my work. Second, because it would make me the first and only journalist to visit a CMU. I had even learned through the Bureau of Prisons Counterterrorism Unit, that they had been monitoring my speeches about CMUs, like this one. So how could I possibly be approved to visit? A few days before I went out to the prison, I got an answer.
I was allowed to visit McGowan as a friend, not a journalist. Journalists are not allowed here. McGowan was told by CMU officials that if I asked any questions or published any story, that he would be punished for my reporting. When I arrived for our visit, the guards reminded me that they knew who I was and knew about my work. And they said that if I attempted to interview McGowan, the visit would be terminated. The Bureau of Prisons describes CMUs as “self-contained housing units.” But I think that’s an Orwellian way of describing black holes. When you visit a CMU, you go through all the security checkpoints that you would expect. But then the walk to the visitation room is silent. When a CMU prisoner has a visit, the rest of the prison is on lockdown. I was ushered into a small room, so small my outstretched arms could touch each wall. There was a grapefruit-sized orb in the ceiling for the visit to be live-monitored by the Counterterrorism Unit in West Virginia. The unit insists that all the visits have to be in English for CMU prisoners, which is an additional hardship for many of the Muslim families. There is a thick sheet of foggy, bulletproof glass and on the other side was Daniel McGowan. We spoke through these handsets attached to the wall and talked about books and movies. We did our best to find reasons to laugh. To fight boredom and amuse himself while in the CMU, McGowan had been spreading a rumor that I was secretly the president of a Twilight fan club in Washington, D.C.
For the record, I’m not.
But I kind of the hope the FBI now thinks that Bella and Edward are terrorist code names.
During our visit, McGowan spoke most and at length about his niece Lily, his wife Jenny and how torturous it feels to never be able to hug them, to never be able to hold their hands. Three months after our visit, McGowan was transferred out of the CMU and then, without warning, he was sent back again. I had published leaked CMU documents on my website and the Counterterrorism Unit said that McGowan had called his wife and asked her to mail them. He wanted to see what the government was saying about him, and for that he was sent back to the CMU. When he was finally released at the end of his sentence, his story got even more Kafkaesque. He wrote an article for the Huffington Post headlined, “Court Documents Prove I was Sent to a CMU for my Political Speech.”
The next day he was thrown back in jail for his political speech. His attorneys quickly secured his release, but the message was very clear: Don’t talk about this place.
Today, nine years after they were opened by the Bush administration, the government is codifying how and why CMUs were created. According to the Bureau of Prisons, they are for prisoners with “inspirational significance.” I think that is very nice way of saying these are political prisons for political prisoners.
Prisoners are sent to a CMU because of their race, their religion or their political beliefs.
Now, if you think that characterization is too strong, just look at some of the government’s own documents. When some of McGowan’s mail was rejected by the CMU, the sender was told it’s because the letters were intended “for political prisoners.” When another prisoner, animal rights activist Andy Stepanian, was sent to a CMU, it was because of his anti-government and anti-corporate views.
Now, I know all of this may be hard to believe, that it’s happening right now, and in the United States. But the unknown reality is that the US has a dark history of disproportionately punishing people because of their political beliefs. In the 1960s, before Marion was home to the CMU, it was home to the notorious Control Unit. Prisoners were locked down in solitary for 22 hours a day. The warden said the unit was to “control revolutionary attitudes.” In the 1980s, another experiment called the Lexington High Security Unit held women connected to the Weather Underground, Black Liberation and Puerto Rican independent struggles. The prison radically restricted communication and used sleep deprivation, and constant light for so-called “ideological conversion.” Those prisons were eventually shut down, but only through the campaigning of religious groups and human rights advocates, like Amnesty International.
Today, civil rights lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights are challenging CMUs in court for depriving prisoners of their due process rights and for retaliating against them for their protected political and religious speech. Many of these documents would have never come to light without this lawsuit.
The message of these groups and my message for you today is that we must bear witness to what is being done to these prisoners. Their treatment is a reflection of the values held beyond prison walls. This story is not just about prisoners. It is about us. It is about our own commitment to human rights. It is about whether we will choose to stop repeating the mistakes of our past. If we don’t listen to what Father Berrigan described as the stories of the dead, they will soon become the stories of ourselves.
Tom Rielly: I have a couple questions. When I was in high school, I learned about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, freedom of speech, due process and about 25 other laws and rights that seem to be violated by this. How could this possibly be happening?
Will Potter: I think that’s the number one question I get throughout all of my work, and the short answer is that people don’t know. I think the solution to any of these types of situations, any rights abuses, are really dependent on two things. They’re dependent on knowledge that it’s actually happening and then a means and efficacy to actually make a change. And unfortunately with these prisoners, one, people don’t know what’s happening at all and then they’re already disenfranchised populations who don’t have access to attorneys, not native English speakers. In some of these cases, they have great representation that I mentioned, but there’s just not a public awareness of what’s happening.
TR: Isn’t it guaranteed in prison that you have right to council or access to council?
WP: There’s a tendency in our culture to see when people have been convicted of a crime, no matter if that charge was bogus or legitimate, that whatever happens to them after that is warranted. And I think that’s a really damaging and dangerous narrative that we have, that allows these types of things to happen, as the general public just kind of turns a blind eye to it.
TR: All those documents on screen were all real documents, word for word, unchanged at all, right?
WP: Absolutely. I’ve actually uploaded all of them to my website. It’s willpotter.com/CMU and it’s a footnoted version of the talk, so you can see the documents for yourself without the little snippets. You can see the full version. I relied overwhelmingly on primary source documents or on primary interviews with former and current prisoners, with people that are dealing with this situation every day. And like I said, I’ve been there myself, as well.
Latest posts by Will Potter (see all)
- The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before - Oct 20, 2015