Human Rights

Uncovering America's Secret Prisons

Investigative journalist and TED senior fellow Will Potter discusses the secret prisons that the ACLU says are violating inmates' rights.
Little Guantanamos. This is the phrase that some are using to describe prisons known as communications management units, CMUs, highly secretive and dubious of legality. And they're right here in the United States. And an estimated 70 people might be held there. CMUs, largely unknown to the general public and media, are rarely granted access. Well, one journalist was recently able to get inside one of them in Marion, Illinois. And he joins us now to share what he saw. Will Potter is an investigative journalist and TED senior fellow, and author of the book Green Is The New Red: An Insider's Account of Social Movements under Siege.
Watch: Interview with The Real News Network. Full transcript below:
PERIES: So Will, I guess on everyone's minds is how did you manage to get inside the prison? And of course, once you got inside, what did you see?
POTTER: Well, journalists are not allowed in CMUs. But I had been writing about one prisoner in particular for quite some time. From the day of his arrest I'd followed him all the way through the legal process, up through his conviction. And so I was able to able to visit Daniel McGowan, who's an environmentalist who is in the CMU, as a friend. And I was quite surprised by that, even, because I'd uncovered evidence that the counterterrorism unit had been monitoring my work and speeches about CMUs and writing about CMUs that I had done. But I quickly found out how that happened. And it's because Daniel was told that if I asked any questions or if I reported about our visit that he would be punished for my work. And when I arrived at the prison I was reminded of the fact that I was not allowed to ask him any questions. Nevertheless, it was an important insight into how CMUs operate, and an opportunity to see this from a perspective that other journalists have not been able to.
PERIES: And what does one have to do to be relegated to one of these prisons? How is the process determined?
POTTER: That's exactly the problem, is that we don't know. Even considering lawsuits that are pending right now, we still don't have clear answers to that question. All the prisoners I've talked to were transferred to the CMU without any warning. They were just notified in the middle of the night or early morning, and then sent off to this secretive unit without explanation. When they asked for some opportunity to appeal their designation, or some explanation for what has happened and why they're there, they were either ignored or answered in very simplistic terms, and not really elaborated. For some of them it was clearly because of their political beliefs. We found out through legal proceedings and open records requests that the government sent some people to CMUs because of their, quote, anti-government and anti-corporate views. For other prisoners I think it is quite clearly because of their race and religion. The majority of prisoners in CMUs are Muslim, and many of them have connections to very dubious terrorism prosecutions that involve FBI informants and potential entrapment, even. So that's really the breakdown of these prison units right now.
PERIES: And the communications management units, why are they called that?
POTTER: I think that's a really good point. As a writer and someone who is very careful about language, I admire the creativity and how benign that title is, of communications management unit. It sounds very straightforward. And it almost gives the perception that other prisoners do not have their communications managed. That's simply not the case, though. Every communication with every prisoner in a federal prison is monitored. It's received by prison officials. The letters are reviewed. Phone calls can be reviewed. All visitation is monitored. The question then is why are some prisoners singled out for much harsher treatment? And like I said, we don't have a good answer to that. But we've begun to see some of the government's rationale. And that really boils down to their political beliefs.
PERIES: And the other curious term behind all of this is the term 'inspirational significance'. What does that mean, and how are prisoners classified as such?
POTTER: So as I was saying, the CMUs were opened secretly, and in many people's opinion, illegally. They didn't go through any administrative oversight. And only until years later did we start seeing some language describing what these prison units are supposed to do. And the government described them as facilities for prisoners with, quote, inspirational significance. And I think that's a very, again, very benign and quite brilliant way of describing what I think in any other environment would be considered political prisons for political prisoners. People are sent to the CMU because of their race and their religion and their political beliefs. In Daniel McGowan's case, for instance, I think he clearly has inspirational significance in relation to the social movements that he advocates for on environmental issues, on conservation, on climate change and things like that. And all of this, his writings about this while imprisoned, ended up in counterterrorism unit files and were used as evidence of why he should be imprisoned in a CMU.
PERIES: And tell us a little bit more about his case. How did he end up in this classified prison?
POTTER: So Daniel McGowan, like all the other prisoners in CMUs, has been convicted of crimes. In his case he was convicted of participating in two arsons in the name of the Earth Liberation Front, which is a clandestine group which has used property destruction in the name of defending the environment. But like all the other prisoners in the CMUs, or I should say almost all the prisoners, he had no disciplinary violations, and he had no communications violations. He was previously at a low-security prison. In other words, he didn't have anything on his record prior to going to prison or after being incarcerated that would reflect this need for heightened security measures, which I think makes it even more clear of being singled out because of his political beliefs.
PERIES: And how did you manage to convince the prison authorities to allow you as a friend into the prison if he's under such surveillance, as far as his communications is concerned?
POTTER: I was--it didn't take any convincing on my part. I mean, I just submitted my request, just as any visitor would. It didn't take any convincing on Daniel's part, either, which is quite surprising. It was approved, really, without any fanfare until, like I said, McGowan was told that if I wrote anything about our visit he would be punished. And then when I arrived I was told they knew all about my work, they knew about interviews on Democracy Now! and in places like that, and that if I asked him any questions the visit would be immediately terminated.
PERIES: And how many of these kinds of prisons are there, and also answer whether--why these are in Indiana and Illinois.
POTTER: There are two CMUs that we know about. One is in Marion, Illinois and the other is in Terre Haute, Indiana. They both exist within larger federal prisons. So they are really prisons within prisons. They were opened, as I was saying before, without any oversight or accountability. There are similar facilities, such as in Carswell, the prison in Texas for women, but that are not being called communications management unit but seem to restrict prisoners in similar ways. And really, the story is still emerging on that, of how--what the government's plans are. If there will be additional CMUs. There's a move to make these facilities permanent now rather than experimental. And we don't know how that's going to play out.
PERIES: And the restrictive nature for the media is something that's written, or did you, did anyone tell you as a journalist you're not allowed to enter this prison? And if so, why?
POTTER: Yeah. It's communicated in several ways. It's through some of the procedural moves that I mentioned about going through the official process now to make these facilities permanent. It's also been communicated and exposed through a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is taking on the case of Daniel McGowan and others, and advocating for prisoners within the CMU. And as part of that they've obtained, must be thousands of pages of documents through the discovery process, which I was able to use in my presentation with TED to an extent as well. And also through direct communication to me, when I was there at the facility.
PERIES: Right. And you say many of these prisoners are Muslim. Is there any reason to believe that any of these prisoners, Muslim or otherwise, are any security threat to us in the U.S.?
POTTER: No, not at all. I mean, I think that really speaks to the discriminatory nature of these prison units, is that spectre and that fear, that outright racist stereotyping, is being used to create this fear of this community that frankly doesn't exist. The Muslim community that is imprisoned in the CMUs are not the Zacarias Moussaouis of the world. They're not the 9/11 hijackers, they're not anything like that. They're people like [Yasin Arif] who is an imam from upstate New York who was asked to bear witness to a loan, and it turned out one of the people that he was, that was involved in that loan, was an undercover FBI agent who was trying to entrap someone else in a fake attack. And Arif didn't know anything about it. So it was really a manufactured plot that Arif found himself wrapped up in, and as a result of that ended up eventually in the CMU. Those are the types of cases that we're talking about here.
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