The secret US prisons you've never heard of before | Will Potter | Summary and Q&A

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November 9, 2015
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The secret US prisons you've never heard of before | Will Potter

TL;DR

This content sheds light on the secretive and experimental prison units in the United States known as Communications Management Units or CMUs, where prisoners are held under restricted and harsh conditions due to their race, religion, or political beliefs.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What are Communications Management Units (CMUs)?

Communications Management Units (CMUs) are prison units within larger federal prisons that are designed to house so-called "second-tier" terrorists. They are highly secretive and experimental, and prisoners and guards often refer to them as "Little Guantanamo."

Q: How are prisoners in CMUs treated?

CMU prisoners have severely restricted communication privileges. Their phone calls are limited to only 45 minutes per month, compared to the 300 minutes that other prisoners receive. They may only have six pieces of paper for letters, and visits are limited to four hours per month, with no physical contact allowed. CMUs do not technically qualify as solitary confinement, but the restrictions are similar to or even more extreme than those found in supermax prisons.

Q: Who is imprisoned in CMUs?

While the government does not disclose the identities of the prisoners in CMUs, it is estimated that there are 60 to 70 prisoners in total, and the majority of them are Muslim. Some non-Muslim prisoners, referred to as "balancers," are also held in CMUs to balance out racial numbers and potentially avoid lawsuits.

Q: What criteria are used to determine who is sent to a CMU?

The full criteria and decision-making process for sending prisoners to CMUs is not fully disclosed by the government. However, leaked documents and court cases suggest that individuals may be sent to CMUs based on their race, religion, or political beliefs. Some prisoners in CMUs have been targeted for their anti-government views or activism.

Q: Is there any legal challenge to CMUs?

Yes, civil rights lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights have been challenging CMUs in court. They argue that the treatment of prisoners in CMUs violates their due process rights and amounts to retaliation for protected political and religious speech. These legal challenges have been crucial in shedding light on the conditions within CMUs and advocating for change.

Summary

In this talk, journalist Will Potter discusses the secretive and experimental prison units in the United States known as Communications Management Units (CMUs). These units, also called "Little Guantanamo," restrict communication and visits for prisoners, often targeting Muslim and politically motivated individuals. Potter sheds light on the unjust treatment of these prisoners and emphasizes the importance of bearing witness and advocating for human rights.

Questions & Answers

Q: What are CMUs and how do they restrict communication for prisoners?

CMUs, or Communications Management Units, are prison units in the United States that radically restrict communication for prisoners. They limit phone calls, letters, and visits, often to levels that surpass even the most extreme prisons in the country. For example, CMU prisoners may only have 45 minutes of phone calls per month, while others receive 300 minutes. Their letters can be limited to six pieces of paper, and visits are restricted to four hours per month, compared to the 35 hours for other prisoners. CMU visits also have a non-contact policy, preventing prisoners from even hugging their families.

Q: Who are the prisoners in CMUs?

The government does not disclose the identities of CMU prisoners, but through court documents, open records requests, and interviews with current and former prisoners, some information has emerged. It is estimated that there are around 60 to 70 prisoners in CMUs, and they are predominantly Muslim. Examples of CMU prisoners include Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who violated economic sanctions on Iraq by sending medical supplies, and Yassin Aref, an imam who was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group. CMUs also include non-Muslim prisoners referred to as "balancers," who help balance out racial numbers to avoid lawsuits. These include activists like Daniel McGowan, involved in environmental causes.

Q: What factors determine a prisoner's placement in a CMU?

The government has not fully explained why certain prisoners are placed in CMUs or who is responsible for making these decisions. In some cases, prisoners like Daniel McGowan have been transferred to CMUs without clear reasons. McGowan had no communications violations and was previously in a low-security prison. The Bureau of Prisons' Counterterrorism Unit, working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI, overruled the recommendation for McGowan's transfer out of the CMU made by the prison warden. It appears that political beliefs, such as McGowan's "anti-government beliefs," played a role in his placement.

Q: How does the government justify the existence and purpose of CMUs?

According to the Bureau of Prisons, CMUs are intended for prisoners with "inspirational significance." This vague term essentially translates to political prisoners, as prisoners are sent to CMUs because of their race, religion, or political beliefs. The government's own documents, such as rejection letters for mail or reasons for placement, explicitly mention political prisoners and anti-government views. The creation and ongoing operation of CMUs reflect a long history of disproportionately punishing individuals based on their political beliefs in the United States.

Q: What efforts have been made to challenge CMUs and provide legal representation for prisoners?

Civil rights lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights are currently challenging CMUs in court. They argue that CMUs deprive prisoners of their due process rights and retaliate against them for protected speech related to politics and religion. The lawsuit has brought many government documents to light. These legal efforts and the work of religious groups, human rights advocates, and journalists like Will Potter are crucial in fighting for the rights of CMU prisoners and raising public awareness about the injustices happening within the prison system.

Q: How can this unjust treatment of prisoners in CMUs continue to happen?

One reason for the continuation of these injustices is a lack of public awareness. Many people are unaware of what goes on within the prison system, especially in these secretive and experimental units. Additionally, there is a prevailing narrative that once someone is convicted of a crime, any mistreatment afterward is perceived as justified. This mindset allows these violations of rights to persist, as the public remains apathetic or turns a blind eye to the injustices faced by prisoners.

Q: Is access to legal counsel guaranteed for prisoners in CMUs?

While access to legal counsel is a constitutional right, the reality is that prisoners in CMUs often face barriers to obtaining proper legal representation. These prisoners are already part of marginalized populations, lacking resources and sometimes not being fluent in English. There is also a societal tendency to overlook the rights of prisoners, creating an environment where access to legal counsel is not consistently upheld.

Q: Are all the presented documents and information authentic?

Yes, all the documents and information shared in the talk are real and unchanged. Will Potter relied on primary source documents, conducted interviews with prisoners, and has made the documents available on his website. He provides a footnoted version of the talk, allowing viewers to see the full documents and verify the information for themselves.

Q: How can individuals support the cause and make a change?

The first step towards making a change is becoming informed about the issue. By spreading awareness and sharing information about CMUs and the injustices faced by prisoners, individuals can help shed light on these hidden realities. Supporting organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and Amnesty International, which advocate for the rights of prisoners, is also important. Additionally, writing to elected officials, signing petitions, and engaging in public discussions can all contribute to effecting change in the criminal justice system.

Q: What is the message of this talk and why is it important?

The talk's message is twofold. First, it emphasizes the need for society to bear witness to the mistreatment of prisoners in CMUs. By paying attention to these stories, we can work towards a more just and humane prison system. The talk also highlights the broader significance of this issue, emphasizing that the treatment of prisoners is reflective of our own values. It is a call to action, urging individuals to confront and address the mistakes of the past to ensure a better future in terms of human rights and justice.

Takeaways

Will Potter's talk sheds light on the secretive CMUs in the United States and the unjust treatment of prisoners within them. CMUs restrict communication and visits for prisoners, disproportionately targeting Muslims and individuals with political beliefs. The ongoing operation of CMUs reflects the historical pattern of disproportionately punishing people for their political beliefs. Public awareness, legal challenges, and advocacy efforts are crucial in fighting for the rights of these prisoners and highlighting the need for a more just and humane prison system. This is not just a story about prisoners; it is a story about our commitment to human rights and whether we will learn from the mistakes of our past.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • CMUs (Communications Management Units) are secretive and experimental prison units in the United States, nicknamed "Little Guantanamo", which restrict communication and visits for prisoners labeled as "second-tier" terrorists

  • CMU prisoners are overwhelmingly Muslim and are disproportionately punished due to their race, religion, or political beliefs

  • Civil rights lawyers are challenging CMUs in court for violating prisoners' due process rights and retaliating against them for their protected political and religious speech

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