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  • 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 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(ELF).

  • 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 Counter-terrorism 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 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.

  • (Applause)

Father Daniel Berrigan once said that "writing about prisoners is a little like writing about the dead."

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【TED】Will Potter: The secret US prisons you've never heard of before (The secret US prisons you've never heard of before | Will Potter)

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    Max Lin posted on 2016/01/04
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