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

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. "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

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. "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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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…..

  13. 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

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

  15. 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.

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

  17. 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.

  18. 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?

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. What do you think all the fema camps are for.. And the gulliteens?? What is walmart backwards? Mart law. Martial law!

  22. Bush is a war criminal and we should form a group to arrest and convict these traitors no matter what position they held or currently hold….and I'd secret service gets involved they get arrested as well and convicted….the people are tired of corrupt politicians getting away with treason against our constitution, just making up new laws like the Patriot act but it's really the terrorist act turning our constitution into a meaningless document and that is treason!!!!!!!!

  23. I encourage everyone to google a few of the people sited… His half-truths paint a twisted picture and in another time most if not all those men mentioned would of faced the most imaganative and brutal executions.

  24. The Netflix short film documentary show, Captive, visited, Siddique Hasan, in a Super Max in, Youngstown, Ohio. With a secret, hidden camera, they filmed their visit with him. Hasan, was punished for this by having all his outside communications with family & friends taken away, including letters & phone calls. He didn't even know they had filmed the visit. If you watch the short film, when they show the visit it says they "unofficially" filmed the visit. More like, illegally. It is the very first episode on the Netflix show, Captive, called, "Prison Riot U.S.A."

  25. When I lived in Russia I always know that KGB are stupid power hungry thugs. Now I live in USA , nothing changed.

  26. (Read this as if it were the guy on this video Will Potter) This father of 12 children who are now in this prison there for killing 200 Jews and Christians with a bomb last Christmas is doing FIVE years and he even said he was sorry. Another one raped 90 women in one year, but this poor man thought he was in his country, where it's allowed, he didn't know it was America and shame on our government for punishing him or any other Muslims. Sometimes at night I cry and rock back and forth knowing if I stand up and look in the mirror, it will remind me that, I, me, ok I'm going to say it, I'm white oh my god, I'm white and I hate the color of my skin. I also cry all day thinking that our rotten government only feeds the prisoners three meals a day but won't give them dessert AND DAMN I GET SO GOLLY DARN MAD that I cry even more. I wish Hillary were president and not the evil man TRUMP. He is so bad that he is the cause of so many jobs in America and he wants to make America great again. America was never great in the first place and it will never be, unless, unless we open the borders and welcome the world, and give them free money with open arms Like Mexico, and darn it just because Mexico had the highest record of murder per year, that's not enough reason. And look at France or the Swiss, They love the Muslims that are flooding there country and they are absolutely thrilled that now they hold the record for being NUMBER 1 for Rapes. Well, It's 2:35 and that's when I cry in the mirror as I'm trying on mothers outfits.

  27. whorish journalism at its finest. This is comedy at its finest. The pimp/journalist could not care less about anybody.He picked this out to get the money the attention the ted talks, mean while, ordinary people, by the thousands, get a raw deal.

  28. I love this question answer setting. Q: what is the speed limit on I 90 through south dakota?A: people like shiny red cars.There is the trouble right there he gets asked a question about a law and the answer is nothing to do with the law.He is just another tear jerker jerk, whoring the misfortunes of everybody with out actually saying anything.Does very body get to see a lawyer in jail?nope.

  29. @3:23 sorry, we as Americans in defense of our Great Republic, as it stands, simply cannot accept a non-American, possibly and most probably a terrorist, into our Great Republic. It simply cannot happen. These people need to understand that, and simply go away

  30. So…. his 2 examples out of a full sample size of 70 prisoners that he chose to put up as examples of people being put in overly strict security prisons where… a guy loaning money to terrorists, and an actual terrorist who committed multiple acts of terror… I mean if that's the best you can come up with out of 70 i doubt it gets any better from there. I've seen 3 different ted talks that reference acts of terror being planned and executed primarily by prisoners through the means of communication that are being limited by these CMUs, one of which being the 1993 terrorist bombing of the world trade centers. I'm kind of just… not seeing the lines connecting the dots here lol.


  32. Everything created by people in power is to silence people and carries an agenda to serve the people in charge.Now some would argue that some prisoners should have been executed.Well take a look at illegal government activities,you think anyone is going to touch Trump?If any common citizen had done what Trump has been involved with,they would have been in prison for life.

  33. All these "psychological tortures" are part of everyday life for most prisoners. Denial of food. Denial of medical care. Extreme climate control to encourage compliance. Destruction of mail and personal property. Most visits in prison are on a computer screen now. Prisons are a big business and the more prisoners can be restricted the more profitable it is.

  34. 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

  35. 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.

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

  37. 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


  39. 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

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