The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before | Will Potter
Articles Blog

The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before | Will Potter

October 14, 2019

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, DC, you know this is really a radical
concept for the government. (Laughter) 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, DC (Laughter) For the record, I’m not. (Laughter) But I kind of the hope the FBI
now thinks that Bella and Edward are terrorist code names. (Laughter) 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. Thank you. (Applause) (Applause ends) 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 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. TR: You’re doing courageous work. WP: Thank you very much. Thank you all. (Applause)

Only registered users can comment.

  1. So the "balancers" are White Americans who are labeled "domestic terrorists" basically. Any jewish criminals in these secret prisons? Probably not. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has committed morally-justified actions of arson and vandalism against corporations causing harm to animals, human life and nature. The ALF has not directly harmed anyone, but are labeled a "domestic terrorist" group by the real terrorist and hate groups like the FBI, SPLC and ADL. How many Americans does the FBI kill or imprison alone per year, nevermind all the other corporate govt agencies? How are they not domestic terrorists and extremists? They are just the enforcers of the jewish-masonic law codes.

  2. Hail the ALF! If they developed a racial-consciousness, they would make for great National Socialists. However, I appreciate what they have done for our animal friends and the sacrifices they have made behind the bars of the most corrupt, imperialistic and evil corporate government on the planet.

  3. Who punishes the punishers that are guilty of their crimes…Christ Jesus says to the acussors, he that is without sin, cast the first stone. Satan is so bold as to let you come into the prison, sticking his ugly head up, wanting you to see his boldness, taunting his opponent. Stroking his ego, control over others. Its evil, to control others minds is witchcraft. GREAT IS THEIR FALL, WOE UNTO THEM. Prison is abour control. Returning back to GOD THE MOST HIGH GOD, We're sure to repeat the same autrosities in life. My people parish for a lack of knowledge….

  4. sounds like " HITLERISM " WE seem no better than let's say, China, Russia, etc……….. WE are really NO better than these Countries !!
    we are force-fed u s – narrative, OMG !!

  5. 👏 applauding his speech. This changes nothing. But talking about prison within a prison kind of like All of north America 5 G will be a Prison for All in The Cities. Very Sad but True. 5g will be in My Opinion Start of The Complete Utter chaos and Frying of our Bodies. Prison by Radiation and Spy ware.

  6. Veterans are the biggest target..
    Never be for in the history of mankind Have so few given so much to so many then the American veteran.. Seems the fear us veteran's I don't understand why.
    We took a oath for life .I recall making out my will at 19 .
    Drafted to go to vietnam will they ever stop hating us.please understand I don't seek praze of a at a boy.I don't want to stand out in a crowd or feel alone in a crowd.I only want to feel a part of the crowd .peace to all
    Soon my era will for ever be forgotten .
    Freedom isn't free no even back here in the what we called the world not just home.

  7. Great speech by a liberal middle class wimp who has never had to mix with the pond-life which infects the shadows of the world.

  8. After Cheney got Americans to pass the "Patriot Act" it removed whatever we considered Constitutional Rights. All the government has to do is point their finger at anyone they desire to make disappear and simply say two words…"Domestic Terrorist". It is no longer necessary to have a warrant to arrest a person; you no longer have the right to hear the charges against you; you no longer have access to an attorney nor to a jury trial; they can forcibly take you away in the middle of the night and throw you into a secret interrogation facility where they can physically torture you to make you confess to whatever crime they say you committed whether you committed anything; they can keep you indefinitely and eventually just murder you when they are done with you so there will be no record of them having taken you…and no one will ever know what happened…you just disappear…this is what the Patriot Act did for Americans! This is the tyrannical government you have running this country…and all this was made possible by simply conducting a "false flag" operation where our own government murdered over 3000 innocent Americans to illegally get us into Iraq and Afghanistan! To test the public's reaction, our own government violated the Posse Comitatus Act by having active duty military personnel go through private citizen's homes with automatic weapons and in uniform without a search warrant after the infamous (false flag…) Boston Bombing incident. In fact, most of the conflicts our country has been involved in started with a false flag operation performed by our own country to get us into those conflicts. The US has been living under Martial Law for years now, we just haven't been informed yet…the only FREEDOM we Americans have now are those our government allows us to think we have…

  9. People. You are all complaining about the government and the prison system. It is very simple, dont commit crimes, dont associate with shady people, you will be fine. I'm all for small government, but I'm also for being safe in my neighborhood. Criminals should be in jail, especially those that are terrorists or have ties to terrorism.

  10. Obviously they out these ppl in these places so they can't inspire like minded ppl…. You don't need a gdam Ted talk to figure that out!! The fucking guy start 2 fires and they weren't little fires either!!!

  11. I wonder how many CIA are in the room along with the FBI and this counter terrorist group of assholes need to be liquidated they're just going after American citizens. They don't want you to fight back they don't want you to stand up for your rights against Boston present these people are nothing but war criminals and criminals Against Humanity wake up America shut these corrupt agencies down and start standing up for your civilian friends and families that these people Target for their torture camps just like the Nazis

  12. Stumbled upon this by accident, it braught back
    something a "septic " septic tank, yank was quacking on about one day in New Mexico,
    the genociding of the Native Americans,
    oh, and genociding the buffalo in order to
    achieve this "objective" along with several other
    unspeakable atrocities, and to listen to them going
    on about, hey, crimes against humanity, like butter
    wouldn't melt in their mouths, come on Britain, wake up, cos when this brexit shmexit goes down
    trump will be vectoring in like Mathew Hopkins,
    on peruvian rainbow flake, watch it happen, live on the BBC. Mark my words.

  13. Good on you, this is important.

    Especially considering that recent administrations and media appear to be trying criminalize freedom of speech for non-prisoners.

  14. If you have proof of a powerful congressman violating the law or peoples Rights you well be the one in prison. Just ask Snowden who tried to help Americans. Or assange and all the others in deep holes in prison. Thats how you know we live under a dictatorship a communist party. That is the USA today

  15. If you use terrorist type acts, you are basically a terrorist.

    This guy is dishonest, I guess this is what we should expect from a "journalist".

    I don't know if this guy was just removed from under a rock. But you do lose rights when you're incarcerated.

  16. Wtf???? What this means is that there is no difference between sssr or Russia if you want and the Great America. Except Stalin and Putin at least have balls to say what they are doing. Or in other words you know what you'll get there if u speak your mind but in your precious America you get lied about freedom of speech until that freedom of yours opposes some assho*** politician or or some of their sick games. And then you will be accused of any type of b***** terrorism or such and you my friend are history, there is simply no shortage of s**it they will throw on you and keep you locked out. This is opposing almost every human rights there are. It is sad and it makes me sick.

  17. "The things WE don't know about in our towns."

    This journalist should take my title and write a book on his journeys in government coverups.

  18. Aren't they using sleep deprivation on children held at the border? Children have said the lights are always on and it is difficult to sleep. The Trump administration is openly violating human rights at the border and conservative Christians don't care because they only care about family values re: their own families, not someone else's family. Trump administration regularly tries to stifle whistleblowers and complaints from human rights violations and his corruption. People would be surprised just how deeply seeded his corruption goes.

  19. I know most americans are very proud of their constitution, but I must say, watching videos like this, I do like the first sentence in the german one: Human dignity is inviolable. We have seen what can happen when you stop affording everyone – even the lowliest mass child molesterer or terrorist – to keep their human dignity, and what a slippery slope that can be. Not for the perpetrator, but for the society and what they deem acceptable in terms of treatment of others.

  20. You only wear white band can be considered a domestic terrorist as if he's fighting for the environment but if you killing and slaughtering people he's not a domestic terrorist it's good to be white so I've heard

  21. There are so many lies being told by this guy. I only have time to respond to one. This guy makes it out that Yassin Aref is some poor guy that that had no idea what was going on. Well read this article and judge for yourself.

  22. "Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won't kill, injure, kidnap, defraud or steal from others.

    Government is a guarantee that some will."

    ~Gustave de Molinari

  23. A big part of this is the deep state which is just a bunch of corrupt politicians that only care about personal gain.

  24. Murderers will earn sympathy once their victims return to life. Rapists will deserve sympathy once the experiences of their victims have been vanished from memory.

  25. Terrorist belong getting tortured in a dark hole somewhere. Also the amount of factual information you got incorrect is pretty disappointing since your on Tedx. It makes me wonder how many other things I have heard on Ted are just lies like yours

  26. If you don't think our government will punish you for going against them, just like communist countries and dictatorships, you're sadly mistaken. Ever wonder why people Federally charged with crimes don't get the in depth coverage and detailed reports on them like state trials? Or, why every state has an inmate locator where you can just look up anyone and where they are online, yet, Federal prisons won't even tell you who is in their prisons? How about the charges and indictments that are never really explained in detail? There's a reason why the majority of politicians have law degrees – it's what the government uses to control it's citizens.

  27. "The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home." – James Madison
    Our founding Fathers knew a thing or two, so keep that in mind when people tell you the Constitution is outdated, or the 2nd amendment needs to be altered. There's a reason they chose a Republic, with a Constitution, where the rights of an individual CAN NOT be taken by a majority.

  28. These prisons include people like Dr. so-and-so or send a medical supplies to children. Give me a break, yeah like they just sent a guy to a super Supermax prison for doing such. What a joke.

  29. I am not here to argue the guilt or innocence of an inmate just give you my version of the facts about cases I so choose to bolster my argument. I see what you did here and you can't fool me bucko.

  30. Every pot smoker is viewed as a domestic terrorist…….Nixon declared war on the hippies and the radical blacks…..Reagon hated pot smokers….hippies….blacks….Union members….we voted these nitwits in office…….and now have to piss in a cup to survive……we will legalize drugs and end the celling of America…..the majority of Americans who bother to vote ….vote for tyranny…..these yuppie Democrats and Republicans only care about power and money…..not a free America…..we are a corporate nation state…..

  31. When vice president Pence lies east state says had no when Trump lies he kind of cheaters imposters head back and forth on a uses his hands to stress the LIE

  32. ……a couple of minutes after saying your NOT arguing about guilt…you start talking about certain prisoners guilt….what a fraud

  33. Arson is not activism it is terrorism. McGowin was not sent to the CMU for political beliefs. He was sent to the CMU because he was a domestic terrorist who had committed two arsons, and had threatened to commit more acts of terrorism. There is a difference between a political activist and a political terrorist. McGowin is the latter.

  34. All of this evil can be attributed to one slave system that infiltrated America and runs it covertly……Zionism.

  35. 1:35: "I'm not here to argue the guilt or innocence of any prisoner."
    I'm only 3:41 in, and I gotta say, dude is, in fact, discussing guilt and innocence of prisoners.

    That's all. Just a thing I noticed. Continuing on.

  36. TWO AND A HALF MILLION VIEWS ON THIS VIDEO.. that means two and half million of us are made known of this . What can we do about it?

  37. While I am sure “some” of these prisoners have legitimate grievances, let’s try to remember WHY they are prisoners in the first place. What was their original crimes? If you’re gonna tell it, tell it all, not just the soft fluffy bleeding heart BS side of it.

  38. Shame that a country like US which talks about human rights is itself the worst enemy of human rights. Shame for those responsible for such human rights violations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *