Will Potter: The secret US prisons you've never heard of before (1)
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
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.