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Judge Rejects Reality Winner’s Request For Release As COVID-19 Spreads At Women’s Prison

Federal Judge Randal Hall rejected NSA whistleblower Reality Winner’s request for release from a federal prison. Hall contended Winner is in a “medical prison, which is presumably better equipped than most to deal with any onset of COVID-19 in its inmates.”

“Winner has not carried the burden of demonstrating that her specific medical conditions under the particular conditions of confinement at [Federal Medical Center] Carswell place her at a risk substantial enough to justify early release,” Hall declared [PDF].

Repeating an argument put forward by the Justice Department, which opposed her request, Hall added, “The court would be remiss not to point out Winner’s incongruous complaint that she is at greater risk because of the preventative measures undertaken by the prison in response to COVID-19.”

Billie Winner-Davis, who is Reality’s mother, reacted, “I am extremely disappointed. I am overwhelmed with fear and sadness. I pray that nothing happens to her.”

On April 10, Winner urged a federal court in Georgia to protect her from the spread of the coronavirus. She asked the court to release her to home confinement with family because she has a history of bulimia, depression, and respiratory illnesses that make her vulnerable.

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

She has served more than 34 months of a 63-month sentence at FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

Carswell holds around 1,600 women, who are elderly, pregnant, or have chronic health conditions. The Bureau of Prisons claims only two inmates at the facility have tested positive for the coronavirus, but that does not match up with what women within the facility have told reporters.

On April 20, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram spoke to Marie Neba, who described in early April how phones are sanitized. When she spoke to the newspaper, “no more than two feet away, other inmates were talking and sending emails. They were not wearing masks.”

The lockdown means inmates like Neba spend “22 hours a day in a nine-person cell. The beds are three feet apart. One of the women in her cell,” according to Neba, “had a fever but was not tested for coronavirus.”

Neba has stage four breast cancer and diabetes and is “full of anxiety.” Her story is one story that undermines the assertion by the Justice Department and the judge that Carswell is uniquely capable of protecting prisoners from the coronavirus because the facility is a “medical hospital.”

The local newspaper further reported, “Inmates at Carswell say the prison has not conducted mass testing. In a letter sent to Warden Michael Carr by several inmates, they asked him to release all elderly and sick nonviolent offenders to home confinement and said a single case of coronavirus could have the effect of lighting a match on a book of matches. ‘If there was ever a time to show mercy and compassion, this is it,’ they wrote.”

Hall failed to consider the history of Carswell, which in 2005 was labeled by the ACLU of Texas as a “hospital of horrors” for women prisoners. The facility enabled sexual abuse and was responsible for systematic medical neglect.

Carswell did not go on lockdown until March 31. By then, Texas averaged 300 new cases per day and 38 deaths. In fact, the first cases of coronavirus in the state were documented in the first week of March.

There was a flu outbreak at Carswell in February. Winner-Davis visited her daughter and learned the facility was not providing prisoners with “enough soap,” and they showered in freezing water because the hot water was turned off.

The Appeal published a report on Carswell on April 21. Nancy Ferneau was at Carswell for 16 years and recalled how a woman had her breast removed “because she was misdiagnosed with cancer.” Another prisoner “died in the laundry room after complaints about her pacemaker were ignored by staff.”

“Doctors do not want to see you,” Ferneau asserted. “You only get to see the actual doctor once a year. To see a physician’s assistant or a nurse, a lot of times they use a number system and by the time you get your turn you get over what’s wrong with you.”

The Justice Department maintained as it outlined their opposition to Winner’s request that the Bureau of Prisons is taking a “careful evidence-based approach that not only provides an overall strategy but also allows BOP to respond to the specific challenges faced by particular facilities and inmates.” It described five phases of an “action plan” implemented by officials, but this obscures the reality of what is unfolding at facilities like Carswell.

One prisoner, Maria, told The Appeal, “We live in rooms with four other women, where if one of us is standing up the others have to be on their bed or definitely out of the room. The room is maybe 8 feet by 10 feet with four beds and four lockers stacked one on top of the other.”

Nicole, another prisoner, shared, “We are 300 in one unit and four to a little room so it is inevitable that we are around each other.” And masks were given to prisoners for the first time in April, yet they reused the same mask for two week.

Winner-Davis said Winner was issued a cloth mask that was supposed to last her seven days. She does not have access to a washing machine. The most she can do to make it last for a week is wash the mask with soap in a sink.

Amy Povah runs a nonprofit organization called CAN-DO. In an interview for The Appeal, she said, “If priority were given to any one federal facility in this country, it should be the Carswell medical facility, where women are medically compromised and extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus.”

“As someone who served nine years in federal prison, it was rare for anyone to escape the flu during flu season. It takes off like a fire in a dry barn due to our close proximity to one another and inability to practice social distancing or have access to medications and vitamins such as zinc, fresh citrus or vegetables, etc,” Povah added.

Moreover, the “services” provided at Carswell do not make the facility a safe place for vulnerable people like Winner. Prisons often fail to provide adequate health care, which during a pandemic may result in deadly consequences for prisoners. But the Justice Department, as well as Judge Hall, would have the public incorrectly believe Carswell can protect prisoners because it is a “medical hospital.” 

To this idea that Winner is contradicting herself by arguing she is at “greater risk” due to preventative measures, both the judge and Justice Department are perpetuating ignorance. They are fully capable of assessing the lockdown measures put in place. Any assessment would conclude that the restrictions on recreation and increased time spent in cells would amount to cruel or unusual treatment under most scenarios.

If Hall and the Justice Department truly cared about the well-being of prisoners during the pandemic, they would be doing more to release prisoners like Winner. Instead, they are clinging to the same callousness that defined their opposition to granting her bail before she accepted a plea agreement.

In November 2017, Hall criminalized Winner’s experience in the Air Force and treated Winner like she was a terrorist sympathizer and suggested she was interested in “matters of the Taliban” and “researched airline flights to Kurdistan and Erbil and work visas in Afghanistan,” like she wanted to join the militant group.

Hall insisted Winner’s skills as a linguist, who knows Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, “would enable her to live and sustain herself in many Middle Eastern countries,”

U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine, who signed off on the filing that opposed Winner’s request, celebrated her 63-month sentence to prison as the “longest received by a defendant for an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information to the media.”

Both Hall and the Justice Department are deeply prejudiced against Winner for leaking classified information, and as a result of their hostility, the court’s rejection of her request may have transformed her severe sentence into a death sentence if she contracts the coronavirus at Carswell.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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