Dissenter FeaturedLatest NewsThe Dissenter

In A Week, COVID-19 Infections Triple At Women’s Prison Where NSA Whistleblower Reality Winner Is Incarcerated

Editor’s Note

The following is the first edition of a newly launched newsletter, “The Dissenter,” which covers whistleblower stories and the obstacles they face. A subscription is $5/month. To subscribe, visit https://dissenter.substack.com/subscribe

At Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where NSA whistleblower Reality Winner is incarcerated, the number of COVID-19 infections have tripled in one week.

Her sister Brittany Winner said one of her bunkmates had “severe symptomatic COVID-19 and was removed.” Brittany Winner believes it is a “matter of time” before Reality Winner falls ill.

Reality Winner received one of the 733 tests administered at the facility, but as of July 14, she is still waiting for the results.

The rapidly intensifying facility outbreak comes as the 11th United States Court of Appeals deliberates over Winner’s request to reverse a district court ruling and release her into home confinement.

Reality Winner filed an appeal on May 12. Her attorneys warned, “The entire basis for Reality’s motion—and so many like hers—is that she cannot afford to wait until she is removed from FMC Carswell in a stretcher, or worse, before she is afforded relief.”

Two months later, the 11th Circuit still has not ruled on her appeal or scheduled a hearing on the increasingly dire circumstances she faces during the pandemic.

Reality 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 well over half of her 63-month sentence.

According to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), in the last two weeks, 134 inmates and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

Winner submitted a filing on July 13 with additional details on the outbreak that indicates how cases have spiked.

On June 29, according to the BOP, there were zero confirmed cases among prisoners. There were 45 confirmed cases on July 6. Three days later, there were 68 confirmed cases. One day later, there were 77 confirmed cases.

The BOP reported 113 cases among prisoners on July 11 and 127 cases among prisoners on July 12.

“Reality’s burden in the district court was to demonstrate that her circumstances–including, for instance, her underlying health issues coupled with her environment at FMC Carswell–meet the required test of being “extraordinary and compelling,” justifying her release,” declared Winner’s attorney Joe Whitley. “The exponentially growing harm at FMC Carswell is relevant to that inquiry and—combined with the other evidence in this record—justifies her release.”

Brittany Winner communicates with her sister regularly and said those in Reality Winner’s unit are “confined to their cells except at specific times to shower once per day or use the restroom.”

After her bunkmate contracted the virus, Reality Winner suggested it was “almost better in the cell with only three people now, as they have more space, but they still can’t all stand up at the same time because the space is so tight.”

In recent days, guards are “using the stairs and the hallways for personal exercise” while prisoners remain confined. Not only do they feel like they are being taunted, but Reality Winner and other prisoners are concerned their increased breath rate will exacerbate the spread of COVID-19.

“She hasn’t seen the sun in almost three weeks and hasn’t been given the time or space to exercise,” Brittany Winner shared. “Her sciatica is flaring up, and her anxiety is through the roof, as she isn’t allowed video chats with her family and some days is not allowed to use the phone or computer. She’s helpless and frustrated and trapped.”

The July 13 filing mentions it took “over a week for Reality’s counsel to be able to schedule a phone call with her to obtain more insights into her current circumstances,” which her attorney sees as an illustration of “BOP’s inadequate handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole.”

“It is apparent, in view of the spiking numbers at this facility, that her health is, as argued in the district court and in this Court, in serious jeopardy. Counsel fears what information will be learned that is not reflected in the BOP’s numbers alone when he does have the opportunity to speak to Reality,” Whitley added.

Local news reporting from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram paints an increasingly bleak picture. One prisoner named Sandra Shoulders suggested she is living in a “horror movie.”

“Every day, prison staff at FMC Carswell, a federal medical prison in Fort Worth, take about a dozen people out of [Shoulders’] unit to get tested for COVID-19. Some of them come back; others do not.”

The newspaper added, “When a woman tests positive for the virus, her mattress is dragged from the room she shares with three other people and stacked in what used to be the TV room. Every day, the mountain of mattresses grows. Shoulders tries to avoid walking past it.”

“Multiple women in the prison who did not want to be named out of fear of retaliation wrote the Star-Telegram to describe the conditions,” according to the newspaper. 

The women shared the following:

When an inmate tests positive, her belongings are not removed from the shared living space for hours. Inmates are responsible for cleaning the infected rooms but often do not have the proper PPE, two inmates wrote. One inmate who tested positive was allowed to use a shared bathroom, which was not cleaned for hours after she used it.

The inmates are primarily responsible for cleaning the showers, phones and computers the women share, Shoulders said, even though they have not all been tested and do not have the proper cleaning supplies.

One man named Steven, who withheld his last name because he is fearful of retaliation, told the Star-Telegram that his wife believes she will die at Carswell. “She thinks nobody in that place cares. And she watches people holding up signs at the men’s prison when that (outbreak) happened, and she’s saying, ‘Why does no one care about what’s happening here?’”

Reality Winner believes she is “suffering through this hell in a black hole, where nobody seems to know or care what’s happening to them.”

If a prisoner tests positive at Carswell, they are put in solitary confinement. The use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has grown by 500 percent during the pandemic.

A recent paper from researchers and physicians at Amend Correctional Culture at the University of California San Francisco highlighted the effect solitary confinement could have.

“Many advocates fear that use of isolation to curb transmission of COVID-19 in correctional facilities will complicate the emerging crisis, as incarcerated people become reluctant to report symptoms for fear of being moved to solitary confinement, those who do report symptoms will be forced to endure an experience known to cause psychological and physical harm, and system-wide unrest will be triggered in institutions where fears about being placed in medical isolation could run rampant,” the paper warned.

“Given the grave health risks that COVID-19 pose to correctional institutions and their surrounding communities,” the group of researchers and physicians recommends “corrections officials and advocates for incarcerated people and their families” persuade “governors, legislators, and the public that rapid decarceration, including of the sentenced population, is necessary and can be done safely.”

Winner’s request for compassionate release invokes the First Step Act and argues it allows her to bring a motion before a federal court that shows “extraordinary” and “compelling” reasons exist, which require the court to free her. If she is released, her case could be a model for other prisoners who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

But the 11th Circuit is notorious when it comes to appeals from prisoners. In June, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated, “The 11th Circuit is significantly out of step with other courts.”

The 11th Circuit, as the New York Times noted, requires that prisoners use a form that is so small one is lucky to fit 100 words. That submission can form the basis for rulings on appeals without “even an individualized response from the government.” 

“This stands in stark contrast to the practices of the other circuits, which often hear oral argument and read particularized government briefs, and which consider the statutory 30-day time limit to be optional,” Judge Charles R. Wilson declared in 2019.

Winner is not appealing her conviction, but there may be little difference. Absent a recognition of the health risks facing prisoners, and how the outbreak may fuel the spread in surrounding communities if decarceration does not happen, the 11th Circuit is likely to reject the notion she should be released.

There is a deep prejudice in the Justice Department and the courts against people like Winner who leak classified information. As a result of their hostility, they may transform her already harsh sentence into a death sentence if the press and public do not shame them into showing mercy.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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