The following is an annotated transcript of Will Potter’s TED talk about Communications Management Units:
Father Daniel Berrigan once said that “writing about prisoners is a little like writing about the dead.”[i]
I think what he meant was that we treat prisoners as ghosts, unseen and unheard. It’s easy to simply ignore them, and 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 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.”[ii]
The government calls these prisons Communications Management Units, or CMUs. Prisoners and guards call them Little Guantanamo.
They are islands unto themselves, but unlike Gitmo, they’re right here at home, floating within larger federal prisons.
There are two CMUs. One is inside the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The second is inside this prison in Marion, Illinois. [iii]
Neither underwent the formal review process required by law when they were opened.[iv]
CMU prisoners have all been convicted of crimes. Some 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 prison gates slam shut, prisoners do not lose their human quality.[v]
Every prisoner I’ve interviewed has said there are three flecks of light in the darkness of prison[vi]: phone calls, letters, and visits from family. CMUs are not solitary confinement, but they radically restrict all of these, to levels that meet or exceed the most extreme prisons in the country.
Their phone calls can be limited to 45 minutes per month, compared to the 300 minutes other prisoners receive.[vii]
Their letters can be limited to six pieces of paper. [viii]
Their visits can be restricted to 4 hours per month, compared[ix] to the Supermax where Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph can receive 35 hours.[x] On top of that, CMU visits are non-contact, meaning prisoners aren’t allowed to hug their family.
As one CMU prisoner has said: “We are not being tortured here, except psychologically.”[xi]
The government won’t say who is imprisoned here. [xii] [xiii] But through court documents, public records requests, and interviews with current and former prisoners, small windows into the CMUs have opened.
There’s an estimated 60-70 prisoners in CMUs, and they are overwhelmingly Muslim.[xiv]
They have included people like Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who violated the economic sanctions on Iraq by sending medical supplies for the children there. [xv]
And they’ve included people like Yassin Aref. Aref and his family fled to New York from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as refugees. [xvi]
He was arrested in 2004 as part of an FBI sting. Aref is an imam, and he thought he was being 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 an FBI informant trying to enlist someone else in a fake attack. Aref didn’t know. He was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group.
CMUs also include some non-Muslim prisoners. The guards refer to them as “balancers.”[xvii] Meaning, they help balance out the racial numbers, in hopes of deflecting lawsuits.
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, McGowan was afraid he would be sent to a rumored secret prison for terrorists. The judge dismissed him, saying those fears were not “supported by any facts.”[xviii]
That might be because the government hasn’t fully explained why some prisoners end up in a CMU, and who is accountable for that decision.
Prisoners are transferred out of general population and into a CMU without warning.
In U.S. prisons, there are about 400 prisoners labeled as terrorists[xxi], but only a handful are in CMUs. In McGowan’s case, he was previously at a low-security prison, and 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 appeal.
This example, from another prisoner, shows how those requests are viewed.
“Wants a transfer.” “Told him no.”[xxii]
At one point, the prison warden recommended McGowan’s transfer out of the CMU, saying he had great behavior. But the warden was overruled by the Bureau of Prisons’ Counter-Terrorism Unit working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI.[xxiii]
Later, we 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 Counter-Terrorism Unit cited McGowan’s “anti-government” beliefs. [xxiv]
While imprisoned, he continued writing about environmental issues.
He said that activists must reflect on their mistakes and listen to each other.
In fairness, if you’ve spent any time in Washington, you know that really is a radical concept.
I asked to visit McGowan in the CMU, and was approved. That came as quite a shock. First, because this makes me the first and only journalist to visit a CMU. And second, because as I’ve discussed on this stage before, I’ve learned that the FBI has been monitoring my work. [xxv]
I had even discovered that the Counter-Terrorism Unit has been monitoring my speeches about CMUs, like this one. [xxvi]
How could I, of all people, be approved to visit?
A few days before I went to the prison, I got an answer.
I was approved to see McGowan as a friend, not a journalist.[xxvii] Journalists aren’t allowed here. McGowan was told by CMU officials that if I asked any questions, or published any story, he would be punished for my reporting.
When I arrived for our visit, the guards reminded me that they knew about my work, and if I interviewed McGowan the visit would be terminated.
The Bureau of Prisons describes CMUs as “self-contained housing units.” But that’s an Orwellian way of describing black holes.[xxviii]
When you visit a CMU, you go through all the security checkpoints you’d 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, with a camera for the visit to be live-monitored by the Counter-Terrorism Unit in West Virginia. The unit says that all visits must be in English, which is an additional hardship for many of the Muslim families.
There was a thick sheet of foggy bullet-proof glass, and on the other side was Daniel McGowan.
We spoke through handsets attached to the wall. We talked about books and movies, and tried 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.[xxix] But I really hope the FBI now thinks “Bella” and “Edward” are terrorist code names.
McGowan spoke at length about his niece Lilly, his wife Jenny, and how torturous it feels to never be able to hug them, never be able to hold their hands.
Three months after our visit, McGowan was transferred out of the CMU. Then without warning, he was sent back.
I had published leaked CMU documents on my website[xxx], and the Counter-Terrorism Unit said McGowan had called his wife and asked her to mail them.[xxxi] He wanted to see what the government was saying about him. For that, he was sent back to the CMU[xxxii].
When he was finally released at the end of his sentence, things 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.”[xxxiii] The next day, he was thrown back in jail. For his political speech.[xxxiv]
His attorneys quickly secured his release, but the message was clear: don’t talk about this place.
Today, 9 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, CMUs are for prisoners with quote “inspirational significance.”[xxxv]
I think that’s a polite way of saying they are political prisons, for political prisoners.
Prisoners are sent to the CMU because of their race, religion, or political beliefs.
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 recipient was told it’s because the letters were for political prisoners.[xxxvi]
Another prisoner, animal rights activist Andy Stepanian, was sent to the CMU for his “anti-government” and anti-corporate views.[xxxvii]
I know it may be hard to believe that all this is happening right now, in the United States.
But the reality is that the U.S. has a dark history of disproportionately punishing people because of their political views. [xxxviii]
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.”[xxxix]
In the 1980s, another experiment called the Lexington High Security Unit held women connected to the weather underground, black liberation, and Puerto Rican independence struggles.[xl] The prison restricted communication, and used sleep deprivation and constant light for “ideological conversion.”[xli]
These prisons were eventually shut down, but only through the campaigning of religious groups and human rights advocates like Amnesty International.[xlii]
Today, civil rights lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights are challenging CMUs in court for depriving prisoners of their due process rights, and retaliating against their protected political and religious speech.[xliii]
Much of this evidence would never have come 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.
[i] From “Hell In a Very Small Space,” by Daniel Berrigan, featured in the Catholic Worker, September, 1978.
[ii] The Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, testified before the U.S. Congress in 2009 about prison oversight, and how prisoners classified as terrorists are treated. He said: “Then you have got a second tier where we do not have to have them as restricted, but we want to control their communications. They are housed in communication management units where we can target, again, communication, both written and verbal, and oversee visits more adequately than in our general population facilities. The third tier are folks that we are less concerned about, have the potential to radicalize, but we believe it is safer and allowable to house them in more of a general population type facility like you saw at Beaumont.” Available online.
[iii] The photograph is of Marion USP from Google Earth. The CMU is a unit within this larger federal prison, as identified to me by former prisoners.
[v] Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in Procunier v. Martinez (1974): “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.”
[vi] The Bureau of Prisons itself emphasizes how important phone calls and visits are for prisoners’ psychological well-being and their re-entry into society. Its program statement on the issue begins: “The Bureau of Prisons encourages visiting by family, friends, and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate and to develop closer relationship between the inmate and family members or others in the community.” Available online.
[vii] According to the Bureau of Prisons, “Telephone privileges are a supplemental means of maintaining community and family ties that will contribute to an inmate’s personal development.” Program statements detail that prisoners are allowed 300 minutes per month. Available online.
[ix] The example here is indicative of visitation procedures across federal prisons. The Center for Constitutional Rights has collected the institution supplements for many prisons as part of its lawsuit. Available online.
[xi] An intelligence summary from the Counter Terrorism Unit on August 25, 2008, detailed the comments of one of the CMU prisoners. Other statements included: “It’s like a place that fell from some hell, some evil created this place because it does not belong to anything that BOP has done in the past 300 years.” For these comments, the prisoner was placed in the Secure Housing Unit, “the hole,” that night. View the document.
[xii] Even in the lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the government has redacted the names of all CMU prisoners in discovery documents.
[xiii] In response to Freedom of Information Act requests about CMUs, the government released heavily-redacted documents, including pages of blacked-out prisoner names. Some public statements about the CMUs have been made. For instance, Attorney General Eric Holder testified before Congress that CMUs are among several programs for prisoners with “a history of or nexus to international terrorism.” View the document.
[xiv] The two-thirds estimate is based on legal filings by the Center for Constitutional Rights and an assessment of CMU prisoners by NPR: “‘Guantanamo North’: Inside Secretive U.S. Prisons.” Available online.
[xvii] I heard this repeatedly in interviews with both current and former prisoners. Other reporters have also verified the characterization. For instance, former CMU prisoner Andy Stepanian was featured in an interview with New York Magazine headlined “The Balancer.” Available online.
[xviii] I attended these court hearings, and they were chronicled in my book, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege.
[xix] McGowan received a Notice to Inmate of Transfer dated September 3, 2008, that said: “You have been identified as a member and leader in the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups considered domestic terrorist organizations.” View the document here.
[xxi] This is according to the deposition of David Schiavone, Senior Intelligence Analyst of the Bureau of Prisons. Other public statements by government officials have been higher.
[xxiii] The Joint Terrorism Task Force is clearly involved in prisoner designations here. For example, the warden at Marion also recommended that Aref be transferred out of the CMU. In response, the Counter Terrorism Unit cited communication with the task force (but the details of this were redacted). View the document here.
[xxv] For a detailed look at the legal battle to obtain additional records about this surveillance, read my feature article in Mother Jones, “Meet the Punk Rocker Who Can Liberate Your FBI File.” Available online.
[xxvii] This experience is detailed in chapter ten of my book Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, published by City Lights Books.
[xxviii] The slide was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
[xxix] No, really: I’m not.
[xxxv] This is according to a final rule published by the Bureau of Prisons in the Federal Register on January 22, 2015. “Inmates involved in such [terrorist-related] communication, and other persons involved or linked to terrorist-related activities, take on an exalted status with other like-minded individuals. Their communications acquire a special level of inspirational significance for those who are already predisposed to these views, causing a substantial risk that such recipients of their communications will be incited to unlawful terrorist-related activity.” Available online.
[xxxvi] On June 5, 2012, FCC Terre Haute rejected mail sent to Daniel McGowan in the CMU. The prison issued a notice to McGowan that said “Correspondence includes materials which contained updates for political prisoners.” View the document.
[xxxvii] A Counter Terrorism Unit memorandum about Andy Stepanian’s transfer to the CMU, dated March 27, 2008, noted his protest activity, advocacy of “direct action” and civil disobedience, and espoused anti-government belief. View the document.
[xxxviii] A historical primer on the topic is Dan Berger’s The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States, published by PM Press.
[xxxix] The warden of Marion at the time, Ralph Aron, once testified: “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and the society at large.” For a more detailed look at the Marion Control Units, see Cisco Lassiter’s article in Mother Jones, “Robo Prison: Political + Prisoner = Marion.” Available online.
[xl] Susan Rosenberg’s memoir, An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country, details her experiences in the Lexington High Security Unit.
[xli] This was the assessment of Dr. Richard Korn, a clinical psychologist who specializes in prisons. He issued a report on the facility in 1987 for the American Civil Liberties Union. Available online.
[xlii] The campaign to close these prison units are chronicled in Nancy Kurshan’s book, Out of Control: A 15-year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons. These headlines were obtained from FreedomArchives.org.