Will Potter: The secret US prisons you've never heard of before (2)
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.
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.