Going Inside America's Secret Prisons With Will Potter

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Why you should care

Because the prisons he investigates are known as America’s Little Guantanamos. 

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The first time Will Potter encountered the FBI was on his very own doorstep. He says a pair of agents knocked on his door and pressed him for information on his animal-activist friends — and threatened to put him on the domestic terrorism list if he didn’t cooperate. Potter says he didn’t snitch on his animal-activist friends. Ever since then, he adds, he’s felt something creepy, intangible and possibly imagined: a sense of being followed and watched.

The FBI did not respond to our request for comment or verify Potter’s version of the doorstep encounter. But today, Potter is an award-winning investigative journalist known for his reporting on government surveillance and secret prisons, right here in America. These “Communications Management Units” — an appropriately Orwellian name — sequester inmates within existing prison facilities. They’re intended to severely restrict and monitor inmates’ communication, from letters and phone calls to emails, with the outside world. Potter, a TED and Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow, says he’s the first journalist ever to venture inside one of these “Little Guantanamos.” Partly because of that, he’s “one of the most influential journalists in the field of surveillance,” says Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program at the University of Michigan. Potter will be a professor there this fall.

He watches the government and it watches him — classic countersurveillance.

In his TED talk, above, Potter describes how environmental activists, whistle blowers and other so-called domestic terrorists are jailed in these for their actions and, sometimes, their words. The first CMU was established in 2006, at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the confinement of prisoners of “inspirational significance,” not necessarily the worst terrorists or scariest bad guys. Potter was drawn in as he was covering the case of Daniel McGowan, a member of the Earth Liberation Front who in 2007 was convicted of arson, in part for burning down a lumber company, and sentenced to seven years. When McGowan was transferred to a CMU, Potter petitioned for a visit — as a friend and not a journalist, he says — and jumped down the rabbit hole. “We as Americans have these blinders on, thinking things like this either happen in other countries or in other periods of history in this country,” he says.

Potter got his first byline at 16, when he started covering suburban city council meetings and the crime beat for his local paper in Texas — his beeping pager forcing him to ditch small-town hangouts at the local Taco Bell. “I found myself with a lot of the other smartasses,” he says. That questioning culture had him hooked. But as he continued to pursue his journalism career, he teetered along the thin line between activism and journalism. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin — chosen for its intellectual environment, punk-music scene and the tacos — armed with a journalism degree and some experience working for the muckraking magazine the Texas Observer, Potter landed a reporting job at the Chicago Tribune.

Even the FBI agrees that his work is “well-written” and “compelling.”

But the big newspaper felt robotic and impersonal to him. He figured anyone could have written the obits and news briefs he scrawled on deadline. To feed the social justice-y part of his soul, Potter joined up with some animal activists and went door-to-door distributing leaflets. In the process, he says, they were arrested and released — and shortly thereafter, those FBI agents showed up at his apartment. “You read about the FBI’s treatment of social movements and think if anyone is knocking, you’re going to put two middle fingers in the air and walk off into the sunset,” he says. But it rattled him. It became the start of a “true obsession,” he says. He took a short break from journalism to work for the ACLU, monitoring the expansion of the Patriot Act and the world of the FBI.

Potter is intertwined in his work. He watches the government and it watches him — classic countersurveillance. According to memos Potter has received via FOIA requests, FBI agents read his books, follow his work and show up at his talks at prestigious universities like UC Berkeley and Georgetown. The never-ending ambiguity between the personal and the professional has made his work resonate with others, but it also pains him. Potter has suffered anxiety and “the D-word,” finding distraction in learning how to fix up vintage Honda motorcycles, doing CrossFit or jamming out at punk-rock shows. There’s this idea in journalism that depression isn’t something you should be worried about unless you’re a war photographer, Potter says. Yet he finds a way to make dark jokes and brings levity to the gravity of this “spooky” field, Eisendrath says.

To be sure, the seriousness is warranted. After all, he’s operating as an independent journalist without the backing of a major news organization and its legal department. It’s risky, Eisendrath says. But for Potter, his work confirms the power of education; when he writes and talks about his investigations, “the fear subsides,” he says. Even the FBI agrees that his work is “well-written” and “compelling.” Really. They said as much in the memos Potter acquired through his FOIA requests. Now when FBI agents show up to case his speaking events, he can crack a joke that maybe, just maybe, the agents aren’t free-speech spies at all — they’re fanboys.

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