Life Inside the Brutal U.S. Prison That Awaits Julian Assange

Gun Rights

Starting Tuesday, a U.K. court will review Julian Assange’s appeal against extradition to the United States. At the center of the extradition controversy is concern that Assange will be tortured and put in solitary confinement in what’s known as a CMU — communications management unit — in federal prison. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Martin Gottesfeld, a human rights activist who was formerly imprisoned in two of the nation’s CMUs. Gottesfeld shares his experience incarcerated in CMU facilities, where his access to visitors including his wife were severely restricted.

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Ryan Grim.

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Later today in the United Kingdom a court will be reviewing, over the span of two days, a high court decision made to extradite Julian Assange to the United States. This could be the final appeal, the final hearing that Julian Assange has before he’s sent over here to the United States.

At the center of the controversy over the extradition in the court proceedings has been whether or not Julian Assange will be tortured, will be mistreated, here in the United States, whether or not he will be put in solitary confinement and, specifically, in what’s known as a CMU, a “communications management unit.”

Now, the Department of Justice sort of pretended to make some kind of offering to the U.K. high court that they would not do this. But then, in the very next sentence of their pleading, they said, unless we decide that we actually would need to do this.

So, to talk today about what a CMU is, and why this has been the focus of human rights advocates who are concerned that he may actually wind up in one of these, we’re going to be joined by Martin Gottesfeld, who himself has spent a significant amount of time in an American CMU.

Marty, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

Martin Gottesfeld: I’m happy to be here, Ryan.

RG: And so, Marty, before we get to your experience in the CMU, let’s talk about how you wound up in prison in the first place, because I actually think that’s relevant to this conversation. Because it does appear like this is a place where a lot of people who are essentially political prisoners wind up.

MG: Yeah. And I was not the only one, although I do think my case is representative of the larger group, largely representative of the larger group.

So, the government alleges that I am a master hacker with Anonymous. The government also alleges that during a 2014 human rights and child custody matter, I launched one of the largest distributed denial of service —DDoS — attacks that the government had ever seen, to try to free Justina Pelletier, who is being held against her will and against her parents will in a Boston Children’s Hospital psych ward, and then in various residential facilities throughout the state.

The case reached the very highest levels of the political system, with people on both sides, parties on both sides of the aisle commenting on it. Mike Huckabee, Sean Hannity, others on the right, and then the Massachusetts HHS Secretary, uh, Polanowicz; he actually ended up getting involved from the left to eventually send Justina home, which is where most people felt she belonged the entire time.

And before that case, I had been involved — I don’t want to say with, but I guess kind of alongside — Anonymous, protesting the American troubled teen industry, which is also just a political lightning rod, and has been subject to congressional hearings, GAO reports, media exposés, for well over a decade, for the torture and death of American children for profit.

RG: And so, your journey in federal custody actually began in New York. Talk about that a little bit before we get to the CMU, because you actually wrote a piece for us about what it was like in the first jail you were in. And, if I recall correctly, wasn’t Chapo there too? 

MG: So, that wasn’t my first jail. I was arrested in Florida, and then I made a very long extended journey through the federal system to get back to the Northeast. And then I started writing for the Huffington Post, back when you were the D.C. bureau chief. And very shortly after I began writing for the Huffington Post and started a hunger strike seeking pledges from the 2016 election to curtail institutionalized abuse against children and political prosecutions, the Justice Department transferred me to MCC, New York, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York, and it’s 9 South SHU and 10 South Sam’s Unit.

And that is where Chapo was held at the time, and it’s also where Jeffrey Epstein later died. And the communications program they have in those units is kind of connected at the hip to the CMUs. It’s run by the same so-called counterterrorism unit inside the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department.

And yeah, I wrote a piece there for the Huffington Post — several pieces, actually — about that facility, calling on public officials to do something to reform the facility, because I foresaw, even in 2016, that people were going to die there. And then, sure enough, a few years later, Jeffrey Epstein died there.

RG: It was my sense that your willingness to write for us — both at The Huffington Post and then later at The Intercept — while you were behind bars was one of the things that led to you eventually getting moved to a full-on CMU. Do you think that that’s accurate? What do you think? What drove the decision making that got you stuck in that hole?

MG: Oh, I definitely think it was the journalism. Twelve days after my first Intercept article was when they transferred me to the CMU. And that Intercept article was about El Chapo, his confinement, the conditions of his confinement, the human rights violations, and that was what directly precipitated the move to the CMU.

And then, on top of that, when they transfer you to a CMU, there’s not really a lot of due process involved in that decision, and the courts have tolerated that, but they do have to give you this one-page paper with the supposed justification, right? And mine just basically said, you’re a member of Anonymous, Anonymous is this group that we have to watch. So, therefore, we’re putting you in a CMU.

The problem with that, of course, is that there were other guys in the federal prison system associated much more with Anonymous than I was who never were placed in the CMU. So, Jeremy Hammond was one… And I’m trying to remember the gentleman’s name, but he wrote for the Intercept a lot, but his articles didn’t really challenge federal judges, challenge federal prosecutorial discretion. He just kind of satirized the whole thing. And they were very good, but they didn’t really make people uncomfortable the way my writing made people uncomfortable. I named names.

RG: Right.

MG: And I named facilities. I named specific human rights violations, and that, I think, made them very uncomfortable.

And I can tell you, too, from how I was treated, and the other cases that were there, which I guess we’ll get into in a little while, it certainly seems that I was placed there to suppress my first amendment-protected conduct.

RG: Right. And so, where were you sent, and what’s the place like as you first get there?

MG: I spent time in both CMUs, there are two in the federal system. I was first sent to Terre Haute, Indiana, and that’s kind of the first, and that’s the harsher of the two CMUs. And then, later, I spent time in the CMU in Marion, Illinois.

When you first walk into the CMU, it’s a relatively small unit, there were only about 30 guys there when I first got there.

RG: This is the Terre Haute one.

MG: Yes, the Terre Haute one. It’s actually the old federal death house. So, they built a new federal death row elsewhere in the compound, and then they put the CMU in the old federal death house. So, like, I’ve been inside Timothy McVeigh’s cell. And there are guys who say they’ve seen the old electric chair in the basement, that they have not moved that.

And you can actually see the new death house. Like, we have a very small quote-unquote “outdoor rec area,” right? Where you can go and get fresh air. But they make sure that, within sharp view of that place, whenever you’re outside, you see the actual building, where in 2020 and 2021 they killed 14 people. 

RG: What is your cell like? Because this is the place that people assume we will send Julian Assange if the U.S. successfully extradites him.

MG: The cells are very small. They were built in a former era — the building itself dates to, like, the 1930s — and they were built, I think, for a single person, even back then. So the cells do not actually meet the minimum square footage that the Bureau of Prisons publishes in its own policies, in terms of the minimum needed for a human being.

And then what they did is they went in, and they retrofitted a bunk bed onto each one, so that they can double up, and they did do that in the time that I was there. It’s a sardine can, and it’s smaller than you would get elsewhere in the Bureau of Prisons. It’s a concrete and brick building without air conditioning so, in the summer, you just bake. And if there’s a lockdown, and you’re not out of your cell for three or four days, they’re just baking you, they’re just cooking you like a turkey.

RG: So, while you are there, there are two of you? How much room is [left] after the bunk beds are put in there?

MG: There’s less than 56 square feet in the whole cell, and a lot less if you don’t count the toilet, the actual bunk. Now, I spent time there both single-celled and with a cellmate, it depends on the number of guys they have in the unit. But when you’re a journalist like I am, you’re one of the first people they double.

When they try to double you up as a journalist, they doubled up… They doubled me up with a guy who was a known informant, who was actually in the law library as an informant, right? And when I reacted negatively to that, they acted like I was the one who was misbehaving, you know?

But, again, these are all political cases. So, to force you to bunk with an informant and risk violence, right? Because that’s something that’s a direct risk of violence. And the Bureau of Prisons does not care. They do not care.

RG: Yeah. In general, do people want to be doubled up or not? 

MG: No. People generally want the single cell. You have no modicum with privacy any other way.

RG: Right. So, you’re doubled up. How often can you get … If there’s not a lockdown, how often are you out of that cell?

MG: So, you’re out, actually, most of the day. They pop the doors around six, seven in the morning. During the weekday schedule you’d be out until just before four, and then there’d be a count, and you’d be released after the count anytime between like 4:30 and 5:30.

Sometimes the guards are lazy, right? And they don’t want to do the count right away, or they don’t want to unlock you right away after the count. So, even though the count’s done, you can be in your cell till 5:30, 6 o’clock. Then you’re out for dinner, and then you stay out until about nine o’clock.

On the weekends, there’s an additional count at 10 o’clock in the morning. And so, you lock in at like 9:45 and be out around 10:30, 11.

RG: And so, what’s the communication management part of it? Like, what’s different about Terre Haute or Marion, compared to a typical federal prison? When it comes to your ability to communicate with the public, with your attorneys, with your family, and so on?

MG: So, the unit is entirely self-contained. It’s part of a larger federal complex, but if you’re a regular prisoner in that complex, those times that you’re out, you’re not stuck in your housing unit. You can go to the athletic facilities, you can go to the sports fields. There’s a lot more to do.

In the CMU, when you’re out, you’re still kind of stuck in this sardine can. And the communications management … So, elsewhere in the federal prison system, you get between 300 and 500 minutes a month of phone time, and that’s kind of in flux now with the First Step Act and all that. And you get in-person contact visits; like, your family can come and hug you.

In the CMU, you get two 15-minute phone calls a week, max. You have no contact visits, you basically never leave the little unit until you’re either released or you’re transferred.

Those phone calls elsewhere in the Bureau, they say they monitor, but there’s so much call volume that they cannot really effectively monitor; they kind of keep recordings for a little while in case they have to go back and do something. But in the CMU, your phone calls are monitored in real time, and they can be cut off in real time. And so, several times I was speaking with journalists, and they would just cut the call off. And they would never provide any justification for that.

After NBC dropped the four-part docuseries on my case, they just deleted my wife from my contact information, never provided me any written justification for that, effectively banned me on the phone without providing any written justification whatsoever. And you get lawyers involved, and nothing really happens. The system is completely unwilling to check their discretion. The judges just don’t want to hear it.

The judges in Terre Haute get spun. They hear that this is the terrorist unit for Al-Qaeda guys, and that whatever they file is frivolous. And these judges are mostly former federal prosecutors. Like, you’re dead on arrival in court.

I have a federal habeas pending now that I’ve been released, but it’s been pending since July, fully briefed, right? And the judge won’t rule on it, just to give you an example. And federal habeas is supposed to jump to the front of the list, it’s the very first thing a federal judge is supposed to rule on. And in Terre Haute, it becomes the very last thing. Especially if it looks like you’ve got a case.

RG: Let’s talk a little bit about who goes out there, because I remember from more than ten years ago, there was a lawsuit, or there were complaints against the CMUs on religious grounds, where the argument was, you’re sticking all of the Muslims in these prisons, and you can’t do that, that is discrimination based on religion. The Bureau of Prison’s response to that was, oh, well, we’ve got a couple people convicted of ecoterrorism here and there. And so, they kind of just threw them into it, and said, well, look, it’s not all Muslims anymore, so you don’t have your case anymore.

When you were there, what’s the kind of demographic, and what’s the profile of the kinds of people that you’re with?

MG: At any given time, it’s between about 30 and 45 percent Muslims, most of them. It tends not to be the big cases that you would actually associate with a unit like that. It tends to be, like, some 20-year-old guy who got indoctrinated over the internet and was trying to fly to Syria, and they catch him at the airport, right? And he’s never actually hurt anybody. In some cases, these people were entrapped, right? And it tends to be those kinds of cases.

These are not really the serious terrorism cases that one would think they are, but these cases are worth a lot of money. The Bureau of Prisons gets a lot in their budget based on building these guys up as some international threat, even though they’ve never hurt anybody, and had no serious potential to hurt anybody. That’s the majority of the Muslim cases there. 

Then you have probably about 15 percent political cases. And then the rest… They actually started changing the demographic after I started complaining that there was a high concentration of political cases, so now they’re running through guys who get caught with a cell phone in federal prison. That was largely a reaction to my coverage.

It’s definitely not what the public is sold. And these CMUs, they cost millions of dollars, they hire dozens of so-called intelligence analysts to review the cases there. My understanding is that the qualifications of these so-called intelligence analysts wouldn’t meet the bar at the state department or anywhere else. A lot of cases, these are just former prison guards who have no special intelligence training that I’ve ever seen, right? But they do get these exorbitant salaries, once the Bureau of Prisons kind of designates them as intelligence analysts.

And the CMUs, they were started during Iraq and Afghanistan, and the idea there was that, by mining the communications of these jihadis, they would come up with actionable intel to use in the war effort. And the one thing that — to my knowledge anyway — the CMU has never, ever produced, is actionable intel to use in any war effort whatsoever.

RG: So, how often would you wind up in solitary? What’s that system there?

MG: So, I started doing the prerequisites to file a lawsuit that they didn’t like, and they called that extortion, and they threw me in solitary.

RG: How long, that first time?

MG: So, that was about a month and a half. And then they celled me up with that informant. And when I started talking to the media saying they celled me up with an informant, they threw me in solitary for another three, four months. Those are the two stints that I did in solitary in the CMU.

And the solitary cells in the CMU, by the way, are even worse than the regular cells. They’re insect infested, cockroaches everywhere. There are serious sewage issues. The water is not really drinkable. And so, they go out of their way to make those solitary cells very, very heinous, and it’s something that Julian, I’m sad to say, can expect to experience himself the first time he reaches out to a journalist, the first time someone tries to file a lawsuit to vindicate his First Amendment rights, you know? It’s hell.

RG: What kind of insect infestation? That sounds utterly terrifying.

MG: Spiders, cockroaches, various other insects that we couldn’t identify. I actually, at one point, got in — it took some effort — but I got in a North American field guide to insects and bugs, just so that we could identify all the various creepy crawlies, and so that we would know what’s potentially venomous and what’s not. Because they don’t provide any training, any safety. There’s nothing to tell you, don’t get stung by that one, don’t get stung by that one, right?

And there’s an insect there that’s called a “cow killer,” OK? And it’s called a cow killer …

RG: That doesn’t sound good.

MG: Yeah, it’s not because its sting is so venomous that it would actually kill a cow, but the sting is so painful that it can cause a stampede. So, one of these things stings one cow, the cow bucks because it’s in so much pain. This causes a stampede, and you end up with a herd of dead cows, right? And that insect was crawling around the rec yard out there. And, again, there’s no signage, no warning, no anything. If you don’t have the knowledge of the guys who are already there to say, hey, don’t get stunned by that guy, you might step right on it.

RG: What’s it like trying to sleep, knowing that the cell’s crawling with bugs?

MG: In my cell I always slept on the top bunk, even when I didn’t have a cellmate, because they’re just less likely to get at you up there. But yeah, I’ve woken up there with a cockroach staring at me, like, on my chest, just staring at me, and I’m like, oh hi. Had to brush him off the bed.

Guys wake up with spider bites, you know? Like, a big rash going all the way down the leg.

Yeah. Just, nothing is done. I filed remedies all the way up to Washington, in the Bureau of Prisons, saying, you guys got to do something about this. And they basically said, we don’t see any bugs, you guys are fine. And they just lie. I mean, they lie, in writing, on federal documents, they sign them … You know, if you see something, anything from the government talking about the conditions in the CMU, from my perspective, they’re just lying.

RG: And this is all related because — as people I’m sure have gathered by this point in the conversation — you’re the kind of person that is going to be a squeaky wheel. Like, they can do whatever they want to you, and you’re not going to stop pushing back and fighting for your rights. That is also the kind of person that they’re going to retaliate against constantly.

MG: Yeah. They’re trying to break you. That’s their goal. Really. I mean, they’ll never admit to it, but there’s a widely known thing among the CMU prisoners that, if you kind of go to them and you say, hey, look, I’ll stop, just get me out of here. And you drop all your lawsuits, and you stop complaining, that’s the one time they’ll let you out.

And no staff ever threatened me, but I’ve talked to a lot of guys who were threatened, who staff told them, if you don’t stop, we’re going to make sure you never see your kids again. If you don’t stop, we’re going to keep you here. Or, complaining is not the way to get out of this unit, right? That’s the one you hear the most, is that complaining is not the way to get out of this unit. 

RG: The way you got into it, and the way you stay in it.

MG: You stay in it. Yeah, exactly. I think that’s the implication.

RG: Right. And Julian Assange is not the kind of person, either, that is just going to just sit back and accept the fate that he’s dealt. He’s somebody that’s always been completely about transparency.

MG: I mean, the only reason they’re prosecuting Julian — let’s just be real here — is because he told the truth about some things that people in power found really embarrassing.

RG: Yes.

MG: Without that, there would be no prosecution. They’re, they’re, they’re grasping at straws to try to make a federal violation out of something that is arguably protected press conduct. And that’s why the Obama administration didn’t prosecute him in the first place. They had the so-called “New York Times problem.” If we prosecute him, how do we justify that we’re not prosecuting the New York Times?

So, I understand he’s become somewhat of a controversial figure because of a lot of the media narrative that has been run against him. But there was a time in this country ten years ago when he was widely perceived as a hero, and very little in terms of his conduct has changed since that time. 

So, his case, my case, many other cases that are at the periphery of prosecutorial discretion, right? Those are the kinds of cases that end up in the CMU. And we as a country, I think, have to ask ourselves an existential question of, can we tolerate these kinds of units?

Because you go to prison, and you’re supposed to keep your first amendment rights, right? There’s no valid, what they call penological reason. There’s nothing relevant to protection of the public, rehabilitation, any of what the supposed goals of prison are that says you shouldn’t be able to speak, you shouldn’t be able to speak to the media, you shouldn’t be able to file in court. But those are the things the CMU exists to curtail, right? That’s why those units are there.

And the actual stated purpose of the unit — keep the public safe, help fight the war on terror — again, the units never produced a single piece of actionable intel for that. And they’ve slept. They’ve missed more than a few of these things.

There was a shootout in Texas where the mass shooter was trying to get a female federal prisoner freed from the female-equivalent of these CMU’s. And there was no intelligence to say that he was going to do that, they didn’t stop that. She was in one of these units, supposedly to stop that very kind of mass killing. And these people missed it, and Americans died.

And had they not put her there in the first place, frankly, it wouldn’t have happened. I’m not saying that justifies the shooting, of course. But if you’re going to put people in these kinds of units to stop terrorist actions, and you’re going to take millions of dollars from taxpayers to do it, then you ought to at least stop the terrorist actions. And they’re not even doing that. They failed at that.

RG: Let’s even grant them, though, in some imaginary world, where they actually managed, at some point, to do that with somebody who was convicted of a charge of terrorism. How do they justify putting Julian Assange or you in a CMU, when there’s not even any claim that you’re even remotely connected, that either of you are remotely connected to terrorism?

MG: We actually had a district court ruling in my case. The federal judge, who’s not a pro-defendant judge, he’s known as a hanging judge, a very harsh sentencing judge, right? He was Aaron Swartz’s judge. And we actually had that judge rule that the government could not say, could not imply that anything I did was terrorism, right? Mine was an activism case. We actually had a ruling from the bench before the trial and sentence, right? That argument would literally be frivolous in my case, because a district court already decided the matter, and the government never appealed it to challenge it, right?

So, the thing is, they don’t really have to justify it at all. That’s, really, the scary thing. The relevant precedent in the Supreme Court is called Sandin v. Conner, OK? And the Supreme Court basically said, unless what the prison is doing is an atypical and significant hardship as compared to the normal hardships of prison life, then the prisoner has no due process to challenge his placement, wherever the system wants to put you.

So, what they do in the CMUs … You asked before, how often are you out of your cell? So, you’re out most of the time. The reason you’re out most of the time is not out of the goodness of their heart. It’s because they have to say we treat them just like any other prisoner. This is a general population unit, they actually try to maintain that the CNUs are a general population unit. But then you look elsewhere in what they say and in what they do, and it becomes very clear that this is not really a general population unit. But, so long as they keep lying and saying it’s general population, and as long as the federal courts continue to credit them that it’s a general population unit, they can really put whoever they want in these CMUs.

RG: And I guess when it comes to the definition of atypical, it’s in the eye of the judge and the prison. Because when I think about what you said about getting just, what, two 15-minute calls a month? That to me feels like an atypical and radical departure.

MG: Yeah. That’s mentioned with no-contact. I wasn’t able to hug my wife for four years.

RG: I feel naïve asking as if they’re going to give some rational answer to it, but what did they say to you when you would challenge them, and say, this is an atypical deviation from the rest of the federal prison system?

MG: No, they just say it’s a general population unit. You have all the same things everyone else on the compound has. It’s because we have to manage your communications to ensure public safety.

RG: They go back to the public safety argument.

MG: Yeah, even though we had a federal judge rule that mine was an activism case with no real public safety ramifications. And the government in my case failed to prove that anything that I did affected a single human individual. They put it before the jury, right? They asked the jury to find that something I did had affected, or even potentially affected a single human being, and the jury would not convict on that.

So, they got me for financial damage to multimillion- and multibillion-dollar institutions that tortured and crippled a human child, but that’s actually what I was convicted of. And when the government sought to convict me for actually being a potential danger to even one human person, they were not able to convict me of that. But they still sent me to a CMU.

RG: What was the time in solitary like for you? What are the phases that you go through?

MG: So the first time I was in solitary I was on a hunger strike, and that actually lasted 42 days; it was the second longest hunger strike I did in federal prison. The longest one, which we covered together at HuffPost, was a hundred days, and that was during the election.

So, after that hundred-day hunger strike, I had lost a lot of muscle mass. I prepared for that hundred-day hunger strike for six months. People ask me all the time, how do you do that, how do you survive a hundred days? And the answer is: you prepare ahead of time. I prepared for nine months to survive that.

So, the second time, I didn’t have that preparation. I had lost a lot of lean body mass. It was actually much more concerning from a health perspective the second time than the first time, but that colored my experience in CMU solitary quite a bit. Because it’s one thing to be in solitary, it’s another thing to be in solitary and reject, I think it was, 105 straight meals where I did not eat.

I was trying to fight my case at that point, I was still up on appeal, I was trying to change attorneys. Your legal calls are pretty much entirely at their discretion. They open your legal mail, they opened and read my legal mail right in front of me when I was in solitary the first time, even though they’re not supposed to do that. Legal mail is supposed to be kind of sacrosanct. Like, they can inspect it for contraband, they can like make sure no drugs fall out when they open the envelope, but they’re not supposed to read it.

But they went through my incoming legal mail, reviewing for content, and actually confiscated things; like, parts of my appellate brief they would not let me have. When I was trying to change lawyers, they made that very, very difficult, and it was something that, had I not had my lovely and talented wife Dana on the outside fighting for me — and that’s something most of these guys do not have, a spouse, a significant other — I wouldn’t have been able to do that.

So, they make it very, very hard to fight your case, and that adds a lot of stress, too. If you feel you have meritorious claims, you want to get these claims heard before the court.

So, the first time I’m in solitary in the CMU, I’m on a hunger strike, I’m trying to change attorneys, they’re interfering with my legal mail. I mean, they’re basically trying to drive you to kill yourself. To me, that seemed like what the goal was. Like, if I had hanged myself in that cell, they would’ve just wiped their hands of it, and they would all consider that, you know, a squeaky wheel, as you put it, had now been silenced.

RG: Right. Do you have books in solitary? Do you get to leave at all to go outdoors, but only by yourself? Like, how does that work?

MG: So, there are books. The Bureau provides, really, kind of shoddy, like, pulp fiction kind of stuff. Thankfully, in the CMU, since you have this concentration of political prisoners, and it’s really a very smart crowd in that unit compared to the rest of federal prisons. So, the books have been interspersed with books that other guys received from their families. So, you actually have really good reading material, it is one of the best libraries in the Bureau of Prisons, is the irony.

But it’s not that way because the Bureau provides good reading materials, it’s that way because they only allow you to keep so many books in your cell. So, you either can donate them or give them away, but what ends up happening is that the library gets filled with really interesting… And a lot of the classics, a lot of the Western canon. I’d say there’s a better selection there than there is in most public high school libraries. So, that’s one of the good things, I did get a lot of good reading.

RG: So, how much time did you spend in both of these CMUs?

MG: So, I was in Terre Haute from April 1st, 2019 through January 21st, 2021, then I was in Marion from January 21st, 2021 to, I think, November 10th, 2022. And then, again, in Terre Haute from November 10th, 2022 till, I think, June 9th of 2023.

RG: What was it like when you finally got out of there? 

MG: Words fail me, because you’re out in public again. Like, they just put you on a greyhound bus; when I was released, it’s like, they just drop you off at the bus station, and you’re out in public again, and you can talk to people.

RG: Like, 24 hours earlier, you’re just…

MG: Yeah, you’re completely cut off, isolated from the world. They blocked Dana, so I couldn’t talk to my wife for seven months, with no kind of process, no official anything ever handed to me to justify it. And you get out, and you get to the Greyhound station, and it’s just … Can I borrow your cell phone, I need to make a call real quick.

And they didn’t want me to leave with my legal work. So, I had 210 pounds of documents about the CMU, and about my case, between the two, right? And I still have them, but they would not allow my lawyer to come to the prison the day before I was released to pick up my legal documents, even though their own regulations kind of specify that they have to allow a prisoner to exchange legal documents with an attorney, and they knew I was being released. They were really hoping that they would make it logistically difficult for me to bring my legal documents with me, and that I would then trust them to mail these documents home. But, having spoken to guys who had been through the CMU program — and some of them, it’s like their 2nd, 3rd, 4th trip through the CMU program — I was not prepared to rely on the Bureau of Prisons to mail these very sensitive, very compromising legal documents home.

So, I actually had to carry, by hand, 210 pounds of legal documents to the Greyhound stop, and then Dana arranged for somebody to meet me there. And I put the legal documents in that person’s car, and then that person — you know, bless her heart — took them to UPS, and had them shipped home for me. And that’s the only way that I have these documents that show, in detail, the kind of thing that Julian can expect. And the writeups, the bogus disciplinary charges that I got for trying to speak to the media, trying to litigate, trying to tell people what’s going on, trying to help other guys who I feel are wrongfully incarcerated in the CMUs, [to] litigate.

And there’s one case in particular that I really want to mention, and that’s Donald Reynolds, Jr. His case is related to Operation Fast and Furious, which was when the Justice Department walked high-powered, fully-automatic, so-called cop-killing firearms to the Mexican drug cartels. You had mentioned Chapo earlier, right? And so, this was when the Justice Department was actually handing those cartels armor piercing firearms.

RG: Yeah. This became a scandal under the Eric Holder Attorney Generalship.

MG: Yeah. So, Donnie was a Black NRA member, firearms collector. He had a lot of historic weapons, like World War II-era firearms, and a lot of high-powered stuff. And they went to him, they asked him to become an informant for them, he refused. They buried him as a first-time nonviolent offender with a life-plus-75-year sentence; so, they actually hit Donnie off with a longer sentence than El Chapo received. And it looks to me and to others like Donnie is wholly innocent, and they basically just did this to keep him quiet.

And we actually had The American Conservative from the other side of the aisle do a months-long investigation into Donnie’s case. And The American Conservative ended up recommending clemency for Donnie, because of the prosecutorial irregularities. And then a different organization — similar name, The American Conservative Union — on the other side of the aisle, not really known for taking a pro-defendant, anti-law enforcement kind of stance, also recommended clemency for Donnie because of these prosecutorial irregularities.

RG: What charges did they end up hitting him with?

MG: Drug trafficking, and using firearms in pursuit of drug trafficking. But here’s the thing: they never found any drugs on Donnie. Never. They searched his house, they searched his parents’ house. They never found anything.

RG: And he was a player in this entire scandal. So, the thinking is, from your perspective, that holing him up somewhere is an effective way to do PR for this scandal. Is that what you’re thinking? Or what’s the rationale for why in particular they would go after him?

MG: I think that, in his case, you have a lot of what are called Brady violations, which are discovery violations. Donnie’s defense was entitled to information about Operation Fast and Furious to prepare his defense, which he never received. And if it comes out that this information was never turned over to his defense attorneys, well, then that’s a big issue. Because then his conviction is going to have to be overturned, and if they choose to continue to prosecute the case, he’s entitled to all this information about Fast and Furious, which the House committees were trying to obtain from the White House, and the Obama White House asserted executive privilege to quash those subpoenas.

Well, you can’t assert executive privilege to quash Brady, right? Donnie’s entitled to that information if they’re coming for his liberty, which they are. And Donnie had no idea that it was Fast and Furious. It took years for information to come out about Fast and Furious for Donnie to put it together that this was likely Fast and Furious.

And then, when these months-long investigations were done, lo and behold, the names involved in his case are some of the same names involved in Fast and Furious. The dates all line up, as one would expect them to line up. It’s really uncanny. So, there’s a piece at The American Conservative about it called “The Knoxville Kingpin Who Wasn’t,” and that has more of the details about it. 

But this is another great example of a CMU case, right? The Obama administration literally asserted executive privilege to stop any investigation into Fast and Furious. Here you have an innocent guy who is being held in a CMU to keep a lid on that, even to this day. And I’m convinced of that, and I think the facts do bear it out, but if people can read the investigation, then they can come to their own conclusions.

RG: What’s he like?

MG: Donnie’s a great guy, he’s a smart guy. He was a businessman. He ran four businesses before they locked him up, he was married before they locked him up, he’s a father. His father worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, had a security clearance. He’s a great friend to have, and he doesn’t deserve at all what’s happening to him, and I really hope someday the truth comes out.

Donnie is one of the many guys who helped keep me safe while I was there. He was also the unit barber, so he cut everyone’s hair. And he’s a funny guy, he’s got a great sense of humor. You’d think after they do all this to you, it’d be very hard to keep your head up, right? And Donnie maintains this sense of humor.

RG: How old is he now?

MG: He’s a few years older than I am, so he’s in his 40s, he’s in his early 40s.

RG: And looking at life.

MG: He’s doing life. He’s been locked up longer than I was. He’s been locked up since, like, 2011 … I might be off by a year or two there. And he’s been in the CMU practically the entire time.

RG: And you mentioned, keeping you safe. What is the violence like there? It’s a small place, and I don’t know if that makes it less or more violent.

MG: Yeah. Six months before I got there, one of the jihadis garroted to death one of the minimum security prisoners there, and stabbed another guy 11 times. And they just completely covered that up. There was a press release that there had been a death at the Terre Haute federal complex, but they did not mention that it was the CMU. There are multiple theories about what predicated that attack, but the one thing that everyone seems to agree, is that the Bureau of Prisons knew ahead of time that it was going to happen, and did nothing to stop it.

There is sectarian violence, but I’m a brown Jew, and they put me in a unit full of radical jihadi Muslims. Like, it’s hard to say that that itself wasn’t an assassination attempt. What they weren’t banking on, though, is that the government’s saying this whole time that I’m a member of Anonymous, right? And Anonymous has a fairly good reputation in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. So, you know, it didn’t work out the way they thought it would.

RG: So, you were cool.

MG: Yeah, I was cool. And I do a lot of legal work for guys. I’m like the resident jailhouse lawyer, anywhere I go. And so, that always keeps you safe. Like, if you’re headed to federal prison through no fault of your own, pick up a Black’s Law Dictionary and get good with the law, because you will become an indispensable person.

But the thing is, about prison, especially about that unit, is it’s never going to be one-on-one. Like, it’s him and his boys versus you and whoever’s going to get your back. And that’s also what is potentially so very dangerous about these units. These units are a powder keg just waiting for a spark to go off. And, in 2018, before I got there, they had that spark go off and, and one person died, and another person was stabbed 11 times. 

RG: And, since you got out, you mentioned all of that information that you were able to take with you. I know you’ve been in touch with Julian Assange’s legal team. I don’t know what you can say about that. How are they feeling about this upcoming hearing? And were they able to make use of any of the insider CMU knowledge that you were able to give them?

MG: So, in terms of their feeling about the hearing, I’m going to defer to them. You’re going to really have to speak to them on that matter.

They were limited. By the time I got out, the lower-court proceedings had already been concluded, and so, they were limited to that record on appeal. So I don’t know that they were able to actually use any of the documents that I got [over] to them, because it was just too late by the time those documents got there.

Now, if the case gets reversed, if he gets to go back to the lower courts, then I think, potentially, some of the documents that I have are really potentially useful. I don’t know what they’ve used and what they haven’t used. Presumably it’s a public docket and we can see.

But I think unfortunately, very unfortunately for Julian, my experience and my records in the legal sense will not really come to bear until the next CMU extradition case. And, at that point, all this stuff can be briefed in the district court, in the lower court, where it’ll become part of the record of the case, and be arguable on appeal, and on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

RG: I think one thing I just want to leave people with, you know, you’re no fool, you knew what kind of system you were getting into. And the prosecutors offered a plea deal that would’ve given a significant —  because I remember you and I talking about this at the time — would’ve given you a significantly shorter prison sentence. I don’t remember exactly the details now, but I remember you saying, it’s not about that. I am not ashamed of what I did. Like, I was standing up for Justine. I’m going to take this all the way to the jury, and if the jury finds me guilty, then so be it. 

That’s just an unusual amount of courage, I would say, to willingly stare down a much more extended sentence under brutal conditions. And I think that it’s a fact that that is unusual courage, because I think something like 95 percent of federal cases — some extraordinary number of federal cases — end in plea deals. 

MG: Yeah, it’s higher than 95. The trial system is so unfair in the federal system. I mean, it’s not a fair system. And I would invite anyone who finds that shocking, as I did initially… I get that it’s a shocking thing. This is America, you expect the courts to be fair.

Go do a little research on the federal system, look at cases like mine. They would not even let me plead defense of another, right? Like, they wouldn’t let my jury consider it, that I acted to defend a human life, right? They found that defense inconvenient, so they simply prevented the jury from hearing it.

RG: Yeah, I think any system that has a 95-plus percent success rate for the prosecution, you can pretty fairly say is tilted in their favor. And that’s why so many people take deals.

MG: Well, they want you to believe that these prosecutors are just that good, and they’re just that righteous.

RG: Absolute geniuses. Yes.

MG: Yeah. But, again, just look at it, and just look at the cases they’re bringing. Look at the case they’re bringing against Julian. Look at the case they brought against Barrett Brown or Jeremy Hammond.

RG: Now, Barrett Brown, that’s who you were trying to think of earlier.

MG: Yeah, yeah. But just look at the cases they bring, and look at the cases that they do not bring, right? You had the 2008 financial crisis, right? Who went to jail? The whistleblower. You have the Bush torture program, right? Who went to jail? The whistleblower.

RG: Right. And look at the war crimes that Julian Assange exposed, the only people to go to prison, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, right?

MG: Julian, yeah.

RG: Well, Marty, thank you for fighting, and thank you for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

MG: Thank you for having me, Ryan.

RG: That was Marty Gottesfeld, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Jose Olivares is our lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Legal Review by David Bralow and Elizabeth Sanchez. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief. And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

If you’d like to support our work, go to the intercept.com/give. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review, it helps people find the show. And, obviously, subscribe to Intercepted as well.

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Thanks for listening. See you soon.



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