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Despite COVID-19 Risks, Justice Department Opposes Compassionate Release For Reality Winner

The Justice Department opposes the release of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner from Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She requested compassionate release from prison on April 10.

U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine argues [PDF] Winner has not alleged a medical condition that qualifies her for compassionate release.

“Winner’s bulimia and depression were the basis of [the federal court’s] recommendation, which BOP accepted, to commit her to Carswell FMC. They are not, though, among the physical or mental conditions so serious that they qualify for compassionate release.”

“She has not provided any documentation demonstrating that her specific medical conditions, medications, and conditions of confinement at Carswell FMC are inclined to uniquely and adversely affect her to the point of justifying early release,” Christine added.

The Justice Department further maintains Winner has not presented evidence that Carswell is unable to adequately care for her. “As a federal medical center, Carswell is particularly well situated to treat Winner, should she become exposed.”

Billie Winner-Davis, the mother of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner does not believe the Bureau of Prisons is accurately reporting what is going on at the facility, where her daughter is imprisoned.

“I wonder how many staff and inmates have even been tested,” Billie Winner-Davis said. “I just cannot understand why my daughter cannot be released at this time to save her from possible sickness and death.”

When Winner urged a federal court in Georgia to protect her from the spread of the coronavirus, she asked that the court release her to home confinement with family. She also asked the court to quickly make a decision on the request, but the court declined to speed up the process.

Her mother reacted, “The court’s ruling that this is not a situation that warrants an expedited response is cruel in this pandemic situation, and [it] is also careless. I pray that nothing happens to my daughter while she is trapped inside, but if it does, I know who I will blame.”

Winner has served more than 34 months of a 63-month sentence at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

In 2018, she pled guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when she disclosed an NSA report to The Intercept. She believed the analyst report contained evidence of Russian hackers targeting United States voter registration systems during the 2016 election.

Carswell holds around 1,600 prisoners. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website says there are only two inmates confirmed to have the coronavirus, but that does not match up with what inmates within the facility have told reporters.

Shadowproof asked administrators at Carswell to confirm whether it is true that there are only two inmates with the coronavirus at the facility, and none have died. The inquiry for basic information was forwarded to the Bureau of Prisons, but days later, the BOP’s public information officer has not responded.

Winner’s attorneys maintain the First Step Act allows prisoners to petition courts for compassionate release “removing the BOP’s exclusive ‘gatekeeper’ role.” They invoke the 2018 law in their motion to the court [PDF].

“Reality asks this court to commute her sentence to home confinement so that she may carry out the balance of her term under the care of her family, and avoid the fate of so many others currently incarcerated in federal prison facilities — including FMC Carswell — that have contracted this contagious and deadly virus,” her attorneys wrote.

According to Winner’s legal team, the COVID-19 outbreak and “her history of respiratory illnesses as well as eating disorders place her at high risk should she contract the disease.” These circumstances present “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to reduce her sentence.

“Reality’s routines allow her to cope and hold the things she is unable to control together, which is monumental to her survival in any environment where she controls nothing, like prison,” her attorneys state. “The COVID-19 outbreak only adds another element to her life she cannot control and threatens her overall health.

“When paired with an unknown illness, Reality’s illness could spiral from a daily struggle that merely makes it difficult to get out of bed in the morning to a fully compromising situation from which she may never recover.”

The “modified lockdown” at Carswell, without exercise routines, imperils Winner’s health, according to her attorneys.

“Reality’s depleted mental and physical states—with no way to exercise any coping mechanism for the stress of her own underlying conditions and now the added stress of battling a novel virus present in her facility—make her particularly susceptible to COVID-19.”

Winner-Davis told Shadowproof she has reached out to Carswell prison staff about her concerns. “They have been positively responsive, which is a good thing.”

“I have seen a decline in her mental health. She is scared all of the time, and the complete lockdown has exacerbated her anxiety to an unmanageable level. She has asked for medication at this point but was denied as she will need to see the doctor, something that will take time.”

“She is cleaning non-stop and has exhibited self-destructive behaviors that have me extremely worried about her mental health,” Winner-Davis added.

Winner’s attorneys contend, “The best chance Reality has to weather this pandemic is to be released and be permitted to live with her family in rural Texas, where she can appropriately ‘shelter in place’ and avoid interacting with others.”

They believe Attorney General William Barr’s March 26 memo on prioritizing “home confinement as appropriate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic” directly applies to cases like Winner’s case.

Since Barr’s memo, the Bureau of Prisons says it has moved 566 inmates into home confinement.

Even if Winner was designated for home confinement, the BOP could keep her in a “14-day quarantine” before allowing her family to take her home.

Federal Judge Alison Nathan called [PDF] the BOP’s approach “Kafkaesque” and dangerous in a separate case involving Gerard Separta, who is incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution Butner in North Carolina and was cleared for compassionate release.

“The BOP has determined that Mr. Separta must remain in custody during the peak of the pandemic for what it labels a ’14-day quarantine,’ but his current confinement is neither a quarantine nor limited to 14 days. In fact, following inquiries from this court, the government revealed that Mr. Separta is housed with many other people in conditions that will inevitably permit the virus to spread,” Nathan declared.

“As of April 14, the BOP determined that Mr. Separta’s 14-day-clock must start over because one of the many people he is now housed with tested positive. Under the BOP’s policy, if any one of the individuals in Mr. Separta’s unit, most of whom have also been approved for home confinement, tests positive, the 14-day waiting period for all inmates in the unit starts anew [emphasis in quote].”

The BOP refuses to allow Separta to “self-quarantine in his residence for 14 days,” but fortunately, in Separata’s case, Nathan ordered the BOP to release him from custody immediately.

KERA, a Dallas radio station, spoke with an inmate at Carswell named Mendy Forbes. She was put into solitary confinement after speaking to the press. She spoke to KERA because she was afraid the facility was not taking proper action to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Officers moved between a unit across the hall from her unit that was put “under quarantine because of a suspected coronavirus case.”

Before she was moved, Forbes was housed in a unit with 250 women. There are only 120 chairs. “They sleep four to a cell and less than three feet apart. Everyone’s expected to wear the same disposable mask every day. The phones are in pretty heavy use, but Forbes hasn’t seen anyone sanitize them,” according to KERA.

Forbes is a “lawyer by training” and was helping elderly women, pregnant women, and women with chronic health conditions, file motions for release. They make up the bulk of the population at Carswell.

“We have people who should’ve already been gone. I have one lady who’s close to 70-years-old on a pacemaker where the case manager screwed up her paperwork months ago who should’ve been gone and she’s still sitting here,” Forbes shared.

Winner’s legal team asserts releasing her to home confinement will not create any disparity in sentencing. In fact, it may correct a disparity.

“Reality has served the majority of her mandatory sentence and is approximately two years away from release. Granting the motion would resolve the sentence disparities between her and similarly situated defendants because her prison term was more than many prior Espionage Act prosecutions,” her attorneys conclude.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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