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Reality Winner’s Sentence: Culmination Of An Effort To Break A Whistleblower’s Spirit

In Augusta, Georgia, former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner had her sentencing hearing on August 23. She was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act.

The sentence offered by the government in return for a guilty plea was extraordinary when compared to other leak prosecutions. However, it fit into the vicious nature of the prosecution, which Winner endured.

Winner has been in detention for over a year and more than 80 days. She mailed a copy of a classified report from the NSA on alleged Russian hacking of voter registration systems to the Intercept.

She was in the United States Air Force for six years. She is fluent in Dari, Farsi, and Pashto and worked as a language analyst. When she left the Air Force, she was employed as an NSA contractor at Fort Gordon.

Most officials would view this as commendable service, but prosecutors turned her service against her in order to have her held in detention before trial. Because she supposedly had an interest in volunteer work in the Middle East, they transformed her training and skills into evidence that she may try to flee the country instead of facing the charge against her.

The government made false claims about conversations Winner had with her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, and other family members at Lincolnton County Jail in Georgia, where she was incarcerated. The claims were used in a detention hearing to convince a judge to deny her bail.

First, prosecutors insisted Winner had said she “leaked documents.” They only knew of one document so they argued they needed time to figure out if there were any other files on her electronic devices. But that was a fabrication because she clearly only said “leaked document” in the recorded conversation, and they had to apologize.

The prosecutors concocted a narrative about $30,000 in Winner’s bank account, which she tried to move out to pay for her attorneys. She was concerned the government might freeze her account and then the money may not be available. Prosecutors insisted she wanted her account to have zero dollars so she would be able to obtain a free attorney. When it became clear that was not true, they apologized for that, too.

Yet, the damage was largely done. Several pretexts were crafted to persuade a judge and an appeals court that she was devious and a potential flight risk. They even succeeded in planting seeds that led the appeals court to agree it was plausible Winner “hated” America and did not have “any confidence in the government, which has accused her of serious criminal conduct.” That was a red flag to the appeals court.

According to her mother (and as described in a lengthy interview for “The View Up Here”), they tried to break her by forcing her to endure gratuitous strip searches.

A sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, was setup at the courthouse in Augusta for Winner to meet with her attorneys and work on her defense. However, because she was detained, she had to be “shackled 12 hours during the day.” She was shackled at her waist and could not even use her own two hands to drink from a water bottle.

When she wanted to use the bathroom, Winner-Davis said they would do a “complete strip search on her.” Any time she was “taken from the SCIF to return to jail,” they did a strip search on her.

Humiliating and degrading strip searches serve the purpose of domination—ensuring a prisoner recognizes who is in control. Yet, for women who suffer from any kind of mental health issues or have past histories of sexual abuse, it is hugely traumatizing to have to go through this routine.

Winner does suffer from depression and an eating disorder. Her mother shared during an interview for “The Donny Walker Show” that a psychologist was hired to help Winner. She went on medication.

Coping in prison with an eating disorder has been difficult because the jail does not accommodate her diet. She has had to depend on peanut butter and potato chips at times.

A local church donated fruits and vegetables to the jail in the past months. That has been her only source of fresh fruits or vegetables.

“It’s either she stays true to her diet and exercise,” Winner-Davis suggested. “Or she goes back to some very harmful behaviors that can be self-destructive.” She added, “Mental health issues are not something a person can choose to have or not have.”

As far as recreation, Winner was supposed to be allowed to go out regularly for yard call. The jail changed the wording of a guideline, which led staff to believe it was at their discretion whether they took inmates out for exercise or not. So, like other inmates, several times Winner has not been allowed outside.

She ran outside in socks or bare feet. That tore up her feet. Her mother contacted the captain, who agreed to allow her mother to ship running shoes from online that she could wear.

Mikaela Usanga was incarcerated in the same jail as Winner for a brief amount of time. She shared on “The Donny Walker Show” that Winner was assaulted by an inmate facing a state charge.

The state inmate heard Winner had something about how she was unwilling to tolerate her aggressive attitude. She did not come to the jail to make friends and did not choose to be in jail. That inmate punched Winner in the face.

Winner could not fight back because she is a federal inmate and could be charged with much harsher offenses than the state inmate if she defended herself. She curled up into the fetal position while the state inmate hit her and threw trash cans. It took a while for the guards to respond to the assault.

“If you’re a federal prisoner, you basically can’t look at somebody wrong. Because if you look at somebody wrong, you can get in so much trouble and get charged with who knows,” Usanga said.

Another way the authorities attempted to break her is by only allowing guests on her visitation list.

Winner-Davis attempted to figure out why her daughter had this restriction because nobody else in the jail has a visitation list. The jail blamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Marshals Service, but the federal authorities claimed they have nothing to do with that. All they care about is whether the visits are monitored and recorded.

Lincolnton County Jail only allows for visitors for incarcerated women on Saturday and Sunday between 8 and 9 am. The facility permits each inmate to have 30 minutes of visiting time, and they can only see one person at a time. So that means, when her mother and stepfather, Gary, have visited, they had to split the time—15 minutes each.

No contact is allowed. Winner’s mother has not hugged her since she was arrested and incarcerated. She has spoken to her over a phone through a glass pane.

“They’ve really kept her as isolated as possible,” Winner-Davis declared. “They’ve really kept the conditions as difficult as possible.”

Such treatment in prison is designed to break a person and convince them to accept a plea deal.

That, and the fact that her attorneys hit several obstacles in putting together her defense, ultimately forced her to accept a plea agreement that is rather harsh.

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling went to trial for a leak, and he was convicted of seven counts of violating the Espionage Act. His sentence was 42 months in prison.

John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, was initially charged with Espionage Act violations for a leak, and he accepted a plea agreement. The sentence recommended by prosecutors was 30 months in prison.

Despite the government’s aggressive prosecution, Winner has still managed to build a group of supporters. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised for her legal defense. She receives tons of mail from people.

Usanga recalled how Winner was kind and loving to her from the first day she was in jail. Winner gave her food, clothes, and healthcare necessities. She smiled and laughed and always seemed to try and stay positive.

Wherever Winner is incarcerated after her sentence is issued will likely be easier for her to handle. Federal facilities have less stringent rules for visitation. She should be able to have contact with her family.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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