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Imprisoned CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Put In Solitary After Officer Threatened Him

Imprisoned CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling has filed a complaint with the Bureau of Prisons after he was falsely accused of threatening a corrections officer and defying an order. He was put in solitary confinement for nearly three days, denied medication for his heart condition, and endured a cardiac-related episode not long after prison staff placed him in solitary confinement.

From the late afternoon on April 21 to the afternoon on April 24, he was in a solitary confinement unit. Officers at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado, later carried out a disciplinary hearing and took away his phone and commissary privileges for 30 days.

Sterling, who is African American, is currently on the last leg of a 42-month sentence. He stood up to the CIA and pursued a racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency in 2002. It was dismissed after the government invoked the “state secrets privilege” when it was before the Supreme Court in 2005. He also informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had knowledge of waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality related to “Operation Merlin”–a botched operation which involved passing flawed nuclear blueprints to the Iranians.

During a trial in January 2015, the government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, “State of War.” The former CIA officer was convicted of multiple Espionage Act offenses and other crimes.

Shadowproof obtained a copy of the complaint Sterling filed with the Bureau of Prisons regional director. The names of FCI Englewood staff were changed to pseudonyms in order to guard against any potential legal threats or harassment.

Sterling contends “Richard” threatened him with physical violence. “Based on Richard’s threats and that the staff at FCI Englewood have completely disregarded that I was threatened with physical violence by a staff member, I am in fear of my safety,” he adds.

According to the complaint, “On April 21, 2017 at approximately 4:30 pm, a bed-book count was called during routine count time (daily at 4:15pm). North side of the range (upper west, center range) was called first.”

“My cell is on the south side of the range. Prior to my side being called, I noticed that Richard (I only learned his name later when the incident report was handed to me) was walking ahead of the two COs actually conducting the bed-book count. I had never seen the bed-book count conducted in this manner with a CO counting ahead those actually performing the count.”

“Richard, walking ahead of the two CO’s completing the count, passed directly in front of me. He suddenly stops and returns to where I was standing for count,” according to Sterling. “He stated I messed up his count because I was not standing out far enough, and asked me to move. Upon his request, I stepped out farther, not saying a word. Richard then threatened me with physical violence by stating, ‘Do you want to go? Let’s go. You’re here, so you’re not so tough.'”

Sterling recalls, “I responded to his question/statement by stating that I stepped forward as requested. Richard repeated the threats of physical violence. I asked if he was threatening me and asked him his name. I was unable to see his name displayed on his top because he was wearing what appeared to be a hoodie. Richard did not respond.”

“The COs conducting the bed-book count had reached my cell, and I provided the requested name and registration number. After count for the range was cleared, I calmly approached Richard as he was exiting and stated that I was merely asking for his name. He did not answer, but stated that I was on Special Time. He did not explain what Special Time was. I returned to my cell.”

As Sterling further describes, Richard returned to his cell with another CO and said something about needing Sterling to come along to “finish this.”

“I responded that he threatened me and that I preferred to speak with a Lieutenant,” Sterling states. “I also explained that I was waiting until general count was cleared to go down to do so. I offered that we could go see the Lieutenant together. He threatened me with a ‘shot’ [infraction] and stated that he’s been doing this for 11 years. I again requested to speak to the Lieutenant. Richard and the other officer left.”

“A few minutes later, Richard returned with a different CO. That CO motioned for me to come out of my cell.”

“I stood and said that I had requested to speak with a Lieutenant. The CO responded that ‘no’ was not an option,” Sterling recounts. “I put up no resistance and headed for the exit with Richard and the CO behind me. I did not know if I was going to speak with a Lieutenant.”

“I entered the ‘compound shack’ where the Lieutenant’s office is located. Richard and the other CO remained behind me as I entered. The foyer area was dark, and I did not see a Lieutenant. Neither Richard nor the other CO motioned for me to head to the left hallway where the Lieutenant’s office is located.”

Sterling continues, “At this point, I again fear for my safety. I once again asked to speak with the Lieutenant. Still behind me, Richard stated, “that’s it” and ordered me to put my hands up towards the wall. I was handcuffed and then taken to the Special Handling Unit (SHU).

“The only time I saw a Lieutenant was when “Lt. Tatum” came to my cell to hand me the incident report. Lt. Tatum read me my rights (that I had a right to remain silent and that anything I said can be used against me). After reading the report, I stated what Richard reports is not true. I recounted the events for the Lieutenant including the threats of physical violence that Richard made. I also stated that I had requested to speak to a Lieutenant several times. I remained in the SHU over the weekend.”

On April 24, officers from Sterling’s unit held their Unit Disciplinary Committee (UDC) to determine how to punish Sterling. The two officers, “Landry” and “Peyton,” based their decision solely on the officer’s report.

Landry and Peyton contended Sterling “conducted the prohibited acts” because he “spoke during count and because they consider it demanding that I requested to see a Lieutenant more than once.” They ultimately indicated they had no choice but to believe the word of the CO, who Sterling says threatened him.

“This appeal is inclusive of the threats of physical violence made by a staff member to an inmate and the prohibited acts I was found guilty of,” Sterling concludes. “Richard instigated and provoked any and every response I made during the incident by threatening me with physical violence.”

“The staff at FCI Englewood are not willing to take the matter of a fellow staff member threatening an inmate with physical violence seriously. As such, I fear for my safety from reprisal by Richard and other staff members. In addition, by stating for the entire range to hear that I am not so tough, Richard has placed me in danger by broadcasting my status to other inmates. An inmate may feel encouraged to harm me due to Richard’s statements.”

Sterling requested the “prohibited acts and their sanctions be dismissed” and that an investigation into Richard and his “threatening statements” be conducted.

*

Previously, in September, the Bureau of Prisons accused Sterling of fabricating medical information related to his health, even as he endured pain and suffering as a result of chronic heart problems that could possibly result in death.

Sterling had symptoms of a heart attack, but the prison did not take his concerns about his health seriously. When he did see a doctor, the prison withheld some of his medical records, which were necessary to determining what kind of blood tests or additional examinations were necessary.

Sterling was sent to a low-security facility nearly 900 miles away from where his wife and family live in St. Louis. He started his sentence on June 16, 2015.

His wife, Holly, told Shadowproof her husband calls her from prison every morning. She spoke to him in the afternoon on April 21. On April 22, he did not call. When it was 24 hours after she last spoke to him, she called the prison.

According to Holly, the person she spoke to kept saying Sterling was fine. Holly told the prison he must not be fine because “he’s not talking to me.”

The facility would not let her speak to a case manager because that person was gone for the day. She received no answers. Nobody would tell her what happened with her husband, even though he just had a medical episode in the prison and was also undergoing discipline.

Holly contacted Sterling’s defense attorney, Ed MacMahon. When Holly still did not hear from Sterling on Sunday, he called the facility. They would not give Sterling’s defense attorney any information about Sterling’s condition or status in the facility.

Although Sterling’s case manager was not available, on Monday, she was able to speak to another person who works as a case manager for other prisoners. “This is not normal. Something is going on, and I want to know what the hell is going on with my husband, and don’t tell me you can’t tell me anything,” she declared.

The case manager said she could not tell Holly anything. “I lost it on him,” Holly recalled.

“There is something wrong with my husband. This is not like him. We have contact, and he has health issues that you haven’t take care of,” Holly stated. “I want to know if something is medically wrong with him. I want to know if somebody assaulted him. I want to know why the hell I haven’t heard from my husband since 3:36 pm on Friday.”

The case manager would provide no information, however, he insisted Sterling would call Holly tonight or tomorrow. Holly did not believe him, and the case manager said he would make sure Sterling gave her a call.

Holly asked if whatever happened will affect his good time credit. The case manager on the other end started laughing. To which, Holly screamed, “Don’t laugh at me.” He told her to calm down, and Holly told him this was not funny.

A couple hours later, Sterling called. He called from a regular number, not a restricted line, which he normally uses to contact her from prison.

While he has lost phone privileges, Sterling informed Holly that he may be able to call her before 10:30 am during the week because the case manager said he would let him talk to his wife.

To Holly, this seemed like a bit of an admission that the punishment was unjustified and unwarranted.

The case manager recognizes he can control Sterling. He can tell Sterling he may be able to call his wife on weekdays until his punishment ends. Sterling will never really know if the case manager will say yes or no when he asks to call his wife. It gives the case manager power over Sterling.

Holly emphasized concerns that the prison is “being medically neglectful again.”

“They threw him in the hole, and he needs to take two pills a day and they didn’t give him his medicine so then he ends up having an episode,” Holly said. “Actually, he was to get a refill for his medication, and he went on Tuesday to see if it was there and still wasn’t there. I don’t know if he has medication cause they continue to do this.”

“Jeffrey has had no disciplinary issues that he’s instigated or done something,” Holly added.

Sterling emphasized this to prison staff. He is supposed to get out of prison before the year is over. Why would he all of a sudden threaten a corrections officer and create problems for himself and others?

“I’m definitely extremely angry and upset. I think that the corrections officer’s actions are disgusting and inexcusable. He should not be allowed to treat anyone this way and get away with it and there’s no accountability on anybody in that facility,” Holly added.

“Jeffrey being told flat out that they’re going to believe the corrections officer, despite what Jeffrey says, is horrible. That’s basically reinforcing the belief that Jeffrey is a criminal through and through. That’s how they view these men and in their eyes, they’re always wrong.”

“He should be afraid for his safety because he has no recourse. We already know that him filing this grievance is going to go nowhere. We know that. Because just like the other grievances he’s filed regarding medical neglect, those went nowhere either,” Holly concluded.

The Joint Security Area in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Photo by zedirk on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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