The Bureau of Prisons’ contempt for the First Amendment has been on full display this week.

Journalist and activist Barrett Brown pled guilty to offenses stemming from YouTube videos he uploaded containing a threat directed at the FBI, emails from hackers he redacted and laptops found in a kitchen cabinet that he hid from authorities. He was sentenced to five years and three months in jail on January 22.

Free Barrett Brown announced on April 3 that Brown had his email access suspended for a “full year until April 2016” because he had contact with a journalist about “potential BOP wrongdoing.” Brown was provided no initial explanation for why he would lose access for a full year, which seemed to be in violation of a policy that states access is only to be removed for “thirty days pending an investigation of any potential misuse.” Nothing in writing was provided to Brown for the suspension either.

An “advisor” told him during the morning on April 3 that his email access was revoked because he was “using it for the wrong thing”—contacting members of the press. The same person claimed he was not “supposed to have” email but no order was ever issued to block Brown from having access. (Typically, only people like pedophiles or child molesters would be totally banned from having email access or computer privileges.)

Journalist Glenn Greenwald had apparently contacted Brown before his email access was suddenly revoked. The two were discussing stories he might contribute to The Intercept. One wonders if the BOP has a system for alerting officials when prominent, award-winning investigative journalists like Greenwald contact inmates in prison.

Suspending Brown’s email access for ninety days or even six months would be harsh but a full year is very, very severe. It also suggests that Brown is in for more punitive action by the federal facility in Fort Worth, where he is confined.

Officials seek to control and send a message to someone who has openly pledged to speak out about his confinement while he is in prison. Commissary, visiting and phone privileges is what officers will threaten to revoke next in order to silence him. If that does not work, officials can threaten him with solitary confinement in a secure housing unit (SHU).

Similarly, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou served 23 months in a federal facility in Loretto, Pennsylvania. BOP treated him as a “dangerous” prisoner and placed him under Central Inmate Monitoring after his first “Letter from Loretto” on his first days in prison was published by Firedoglake.

Documents Kiriakou obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which were actually marked “FOIA Exempt: Do Not Release to Inmate,” warned, “PUBLICITY—Inmate has broad access to the press. Attached are articles in which inmate has been mentioned.”

Central Inmate Monitoring by BOP is for prisoners who “present special needs for management.” A copy of the 2007 policy indicates inmates are given this designation “so that critical decisions about their cases are carefully reviewed.” It is supposed to make the “institution environment” more “safe” by ensuring “case management decisions” are “based on accurate information and sound correctional judgment.”

The institution felt it had to apply this designation to Kiriakou because of his ability to have letters from prison published by Firedoglake and covered by various media organizations. Prison officials had mail he received opened. Officers would damage mail he received from supporters. His emails were also delayed multiple days.

The BOP can no longer control Kiriakou’s access to email or letters in the mail from supporters because he was released to a halfway house and is finishing his sentence on house arrest. But Kiriakou still has had to get approval for any interview he wants to do with a reporter. (He had to submit a form so he could do this interview I produced in February.)

Kiriakou was also recently blocked from accepting a job offer from a think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), because he might comment on various issues, including prison reform.

The First Amendment gives any American the right to speak about the US government and various policy-related issues in public, regardless of whether they have committed federal offenses or not, but the BOP believes it should be able to limit the speech of inmates like Kiriakou because of what they did. They resent the fact that any American would want to listen to what Kiriakou has to say.

Remarkably, BOP’s decision to revoke Brown’s email access and the decision to block Kiriakou from accepting a job at a think comes in the same week that US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning joined Twitter.

Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth for offenses stemming from the release of documents to WikiLeaks. She is now dictating tweets from prison that will be posted to her account.

Her supporters were very public about how Manning had joined Twitter and soon she would be posting tweets from prison. Thus far, there has been any sign from the military that they are going to shut Manning down or retaliate because she is exercising her First Amendment right. In fact, so long as she is not being paid, she is able to contribute columns to The Guardian on issues related to warfare, secrecy and foreign policy.

All of which raises the question: Does the US military have more respect for the First Amendment than the Bureau of Prisons? Because certainly officers in the military seem to be less sensitive and more tolerant of high-profile inmates engaging in freedom of speech than the BOP.

Image from Bureau of Prisons’ own government website and as such is government work in the public domain. 

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."