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


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 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. TR: You’re doing courageous work. WP: Thank you very much. Thank you all. (Applause)

100 Replies to “The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before | Will Potter”

  1. you guys need the military to take control reinstate the constitution make arrests start by seizing dc the fed and secure nuclear weapons arrest all corrupt politicians and ceo s

  2. And, sorry, where would we keep the ISIS types? They lucky to be caught by us Americans. Alive first off, well fed.. while most other countries just executed them right away.

  3. One side of the coin. Get a balanced view. It’s all good guys, until someone looses a family member to terrorism.

  4. Y would u threaten me ive done nothing but help an jus tryto get a life ive stayed out of trouble im not an immagrant i keep teling u i lived her for my whole lifei dnt want trouble i dnt no wats happening ive been home staying away i havent evenseen the day in yrs i jus wanted to secure mu future so i dnt struggle ive been poor for ever a n i jus wanted to help thats it itsadvice youcan use ithow everu want u guys take my word more as a threat its jus to help u grow thats it i hoped wen i teach u guys to love again an u would see that lifes beautiful whats been goin on is jus not rite ive donenothing to any one im 31 im jus a kid but some thinh jus guided me on wat to do believe itor not i dntbelieve inghosts but it was jus thats it i realy not sure about the particular message i am not even sure totally how it happened but maybe its cuz i was over werked but its not to destroy any thing i jus wanted to tell some one i thought u guys could help jus to see things in a different mindset u can love again i feel theres so much anger i jus want peace its not fairive been so deprived of life i jus want to livei dnt no wat those areive never even looked at a law book every thing i didididnt no wat i was doin ive jus been surviving imever got to go to school but i always tryed i started collfe but was kicked out cuzi had no were to go

  5. DONT DO THE CRIME…AAAAAAAAAND THEY ORDER PEOPLE KILLED FROM THERE PRISON CELLS AND RUN THE DRUG OPERATIONS.. THERE THE WORST OF THE WORST…..THATS WHERE THEY BELONG. THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SO MANY DEATH'S AND SUFFERING AND YOU WANT SYMPATHY???? WHO YOU KIDDIN??????

  6. We are a doomed people. We have become what we fought against. We are indeed a sick Nation. Young men will you fight to sustain this? Vietnam Vet USN

  7. This could turn the prisoners and their family into terrorists if they weren't before! Be careful or we will create more hate!!!

  8. Shh Shh we are not aloud to talk or have a pinions on the government or corporations that is to say the big money of town who pays the politicians off.

  9. We are all PRISONERS.
    THE word GOVERNMENT derived from Latin , means
    TO CONTROL THE MIND
    GOVERNAR / TO CONTROL
    MENTE / MIND.
    WAKE UP !!!

  10. Good question – "how can this happen"? Well theoretically no law can be passed or action taken which contradicts the constitution, however since the egregiously misreported events of 9/11 a series of contraconstitutional laws have somehow been enacted which flatly disregard constitutional rights, go figure.

  11. You are a rare find.i also am for the rights of prisoners.i have heard of these secret prisons before from my dad.my dad was a prisoner.my dad was also a friend of whitey Bulger,who was driven to insanity by the LSD. Experiments he did in cooperation of the CIA

  12. When I was in prison we was told that the new unit was CMU was controlled management unit. I was sent to the unit and spent a year in there I will tell you that you have very little Communication with any prisoner or outside world. What I hated the most was the lights are on 7 days a week and 24 hours a day

  13. When you give one side of an argument you lead many to believe you are a liar. Lets not forget that many times criminals are convicted of lesser crimes because they pleaded them down from something much worse. They are there because they belong there.

  14. a spanish ad on an english speaking channel..such strange times. Race and religion? You know how many muslims are not in these prisons and I know white journalists who are being held as political prisoners. It's about going against the government. The government has become tyranical period. It's not just in two states..there are more.

  15. If only they would have put Jeffrey Epstein there he might still be alive today … But we can fix our mistakes by making sure Obama and the rest of these democrats And corrupt republicans that have attempted A coup against this country get lock up In one of these prisons.

  16. I think he is only able to tell us about this because the government wants us to know that they can throw us in jail whenever they want.

  17. Our justice system is a joke…you only understand how bad it is when your life begins to surround it. Solitary should be illegal unless one chooses to be alone…Its all a disgrace.

  18. Until we fix this huge divide of the haves and have nots, crime will continue to rise, after it had gotten pretty low. This is by design. Disgusting greed.

  19. The Patriot act is being passed while people watch the fake news witch hunt on trump. If he signs it, proves he is part of the deep state and needs to be impeached. If he is one of us he should rip it up in front of the world and set the stada5rd for freedom in this world.

  20. One question. If America is freedom then why do we have the highest number of prisoners in the world. There are people who is in prison that should not be in prison at all. This is a crime in its self.

  21. Look up Taqya in the Sahria laws. You don't know whom America's enemies are until you have studied them in depth. You can't study them because they are hiding in a disguise of reacism, regions, and cultures pretending to be innocent. I have lived it because I was naive like you…The speaker.

  22. They teach their beautiful little tiny children that Westerners, Chrisisns, Jewd, are the big SATAN and are to be killed. The Imams are not all innocent. They are not Angels or saints. They promote child marriages to 9 year olds, in some cases, countries like Yemen, Aman, they allow old men to marry 3 year olds. Some girls have died throughout their history from the rapes = internal ripping and bleefing. What about genital mutilations, multiple marriages?? They can lock their wives away for life just by saying she is insane or she tried o kill a family member….all so they can marry someone else without divorcing again and having to support her. Their auditoriums are like the he'll on Earth satanic holes that existed in Medieval times. This speaker is foolish.

  23. The government works hard to control the population, they’re keeping these people down because of what they bring to the table. They don’t won’t another MLK from another race standing up and being heard by the masses. The same way they are controlling mainstream media by dumbing down the people. Keeping Bernie Sanders from office… They can only control what they’re let control, for now.
    Thank you for your service and bringing the snake people to light (Bush family) sorry just irritated we’ve let them become who they are or maybe it’s a postponement of the inevitable

  24. Many jails and prisons have no contact visits, he makes it sound as if its unique to these 2 CMU's. And for a guy who claims he is not there to argue ones innocent or guilt he sure is doing a poor job. It's obvious what his SJW agenda is …make America the bad guys and these convicted criminals/terrorists the poor innocent, suffering muslim. GTFOH with your bias reporting. Oh, one thing this dumbass fails to mention is most prison cells you can touch wall to wall with outstretched arms and in non contact visits one uses a telephone to communicate from behind the "glass" partition so why are you trying to fool the audience as if it's, again, only these two CMU's when it is a common practice in not only the Federal prison system but also county jails. I'm not saying it's okay I know how awful conditions can be but I can't stand when someone takes center stage and deceives a room full of people in order to gain support for his own personal agenda! You are the perfect example of why we have lost faith in the CNN's, MSNBC's and most mainstream media outlets of America. Fake news at its finest or worse as those of us who know can clearly see right through him poker face and all! Again, I am not arguing the horrible conditions of some of these places just the underhanded tactics by which he is relaying his message!

  25. Aww poor guy can't hug his wife! Maybe he should have thought of that before risking innocent lives including firefighters by committing not one but two arsons!

  26. So these secret prisons aren’t a secret? I heard of these many years ago but I didn’t realize they were political prisons. Interesting, very interesting. Still no one is going to do anything about it

  27. This look like and is China, Russia, and North Korea. Eventually all Americans will be under this regime, mainly because we are letting the rogue system get away with making money off the backs of minorities. The US as governments are rogue and we the people need to stand up because systems are in place and more are being put in place to make sure they can go after the lower class people. You start at the bottom then work your way to the top. With the outsourcing and offshoring the jobs and automation, America will be no more. So get your head right and blame the right folks. Your president, big corporations and the elites.

  28. I’m not here to argue guilt or innocence…the argues guilt or innocence. I appreciate this guy’s passion but this is hot garbage

  29. The FBI is becoming the United States version Adolf Hitler's SS Gestapo police and so many other parts of the government and people in power are profiting off of this tyranny

  30. THE ONLY DOMESTIC TERRORISTS WE HAVE SEEN ( WACO, RUBY RIDGE, BUNDY RANCH , OKLAHOMA CITY – FRED P. MURRAH BUILDING GATHERING GULF WAR 1 VETERANS RECORDS AND THEN WITH THE CIA BLOWING UP THOSE RECORDS; THE STAGED PENTAGON CIA & FBI ATTACK ON U.S. ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 ) APPEARS TO BE THE S A M E DOMESTIC TERRORIST ORGANIZATION THAT ATTACKED PRESIDENT TRUMP ………… THE FBI.

  31. I wonder how many of these secret prisons generate profit for our corporate overlords. If it's not happening yet, you can bet it's coming.
    Land of the Free. Yeah, right.

  32. Most if not all county jails have a no touch policy on visitation. Matter of fact last 2 I been in no more in person contact all dome on a computer screen so you dont even get out of dorm rooms. That are over population and where ppl sleep on the floor

  33. You should be shot… There's a reason these people are there. It's not one person decision. There's no way a animal rights activist just for being exactly that is put there. They did something else. Most people have enough common sense to realize that.

  34. Lmao. Bleeding hearts like this fool is how we get the second London bridge attack. It's really easy to not try to burn , bomb buildings and not conspire to undermine the government.

  35. I have to laugh at all these so-called patriots inciting others to overthrow the government, as if it's their patriotic duty by misquoting Thomas Jefferson. Keep in mind these are the same idiots that keep electing the conservative politicians who are 'tough on crime' and 'tough on national security.' Trust you me, when 2020 elections roll around, these knuckleheads will cave into ther fears and will have NO PROBLEM, electing a fear monger race baitng polticians.

    Think of minorities as the canaries in the mine. Whatever happens to them and how America treats them eventually spreads to the idiot God fearing white conservative factions.

  36. The US prison system is a joke. The prisons are inhuman, the police are trained to betrigger-happy and the prison sentences are too long and lacks rehabilitation. It's the only thing worse than the Trump-administration. It is actually incredible how US prisons are allowed to be private.

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