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US Justice Department Tries To Stifle Alleged WikiLeaks Source’s Challenge To Cruel Confinement

*The following was originally published as part of The Dissenter newsletter.

The United States Justice Department is attempting to foil former CIA engineer Joshua Schulte’s challenge to his harsh confinement conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Jacob argued in a letter [PDF] to a federal judge, “The court lacks jurisdiction to resolve this petition in the context of this criminal case.”

Prosecutors maintain MCC Warden Marti Licon-Vitale should be the target of any habeas petition, or complaint, but Licon-Vitale cannot be named as a defendant.

Effectively, if accepted by the court, this means Schulte would have to pursue a civil lawsuit against prison administrators while at the same time preparing for the Justice Department to try him on Espionage Act charges that a jury deadlocked on last March. He already has public defenders and definitely could not afford to hire an attorney to argue his constitutional rights are being violated.

Schulte was accused of leaking the “Vault 7” files to WikiLeaks and charged with 13 offenses, including four counts of violating the Espionage Act in June 2018.

The files Schulte allegedly released brought scrutiny to the CIA’s hacking arsenal, which targeted smartphones and computers. A program called “Weeping Angel” that allowed the CIA to attack Samsung F8000 TVs and convert them into spying devices was exposed. They also showed how the CIA targeted Microsoft Windows, as well as Signal and WhatsApp users, with malware.

Lawyer Sabrina Shroff, according to Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press, opened Schulte’s trial by maintaining the CIA did not want these documents published and the CIA had no idea how they were leaked. They also do not know when, why, or who leaked the documents.

Shroff further suggested the CIA felt pressure to blame someone, and Schulte was an easy target. “All they know is WikiLeaks published the information on March 7, 2017.”

In October 2018, Attorney General William Barr imposed special administrative measures (SAMs) on Schulte. The complaint [PDF] alleges the prison has imposed additional “arbitrary punishment” that was not authorized.

“MCC’s treatment of pretrial detainees is truly abhorrent, unconscionable, cruel and unusual punishment,” the complaint declares. “SAMs inmates are locked in concrete boxes the size of parking spaces with purposefully obstructed views of outside. The cages are filthy and infested with rodents, rodent droppings, cockroaches, and mold.”

“There is no heating or air conditioning in the cages. There is no functioning plumbing. The lights burn brightly 24 hours per day, and the inmates are denied outside recreation, normal commissary, normal visitation, access to books and legal material, medical care, and dental care.”

The complaint adds, “All attorney-client privilege is also void to SAMs inmates as the prison confiscates, opens, and reads all legal mail. Inmates are forbidden from transferring legal material to and from their attorneys.”

Schulte is allegedly denied proper heating and air conditioning, and the cells in 10 South, the SAMs unit, lack insulation. This means he wears “four sets of clothing, five sets of socks, a sweatshirt and sweatpants, two blankets, three sets of socks on his hands, and still freezes when the temperature in his cell plummets below freezing and water literally freezes in his cell.”

The warden and MCC staff, the complaint argues, are “aware and indifferent to this barbaric torture.”

Schulte has not been outside in over two years because there is no outside recreation available to SAMs detainees. He cannot even see the world outside his cell because windows are blacked out.

“Despite Mr. Schulte’s congenital heart issues and ongoing cardiologist appointments, he has not seen a doctor since his trial in February 2020. Additionally, Mr. Schulte has not once seen a dentist at MCC.”

“When [10 South] inmates are moved, they must be shackled from head-to-toe like Hannibal,” the complaint states. Schulte is “handcuffed, belly-chained, and foot-cuffed,” even though he has never been accused of violence or committing disciplinary infractions.

The FBI intercepts Schulte’s mail in order to prevent the “alleged dissemination of classified information.” Yet, it is impossible for Schulte to “transmit classified information by receiving mail, especially court mail.”

Schulte’s lawyers contend, “The mail interception is arbitrarily imposed in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This court should modify SAMs and issue an order preventing the FBI from intercepting or reading any incoming mail to Mr. Schulte.”

All of the alleged violations of his constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment are practically impossible for Schulte to challenge through the “administrative remedy” process supposedly available to prisoners.

First, MCC did not reply “in a timely manner” so Schulte appealed to a regional office. That regional office claimed he failed to “file at the institutional level,” even though he was cleared to appeal because the MCC had not responded to his grievance within 20 days. This regional office also disqualified his complaint because it was not written in ballpoint pen. (Schulte is banned from using pens.)

Schulte appealed to the Central Office, which is next in the bureaucratic hierarchy. He received “similar denials.”

On top of that, the prison apparently has an “informal resolution process” that prisoners like Schulte are required to go through before they can formally complain. Schulte has 17 outstanding forms submitted through this process. He is not to be given a form that allows him to pursue an administrative remedy unless the prison replies to these forms.

The warden limits prisoners’ ability to formally file requests, and as a result, Schulte’s lawyers insist this is in violation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

Prisoners in 10 South are “often forced to urinate and defecate in plastic bags. During visitation, inmates are moved to a 6×6 ft. cage. Instead of taking the inmate back to his cage after visitation, as would be logical, [Solitary Housing Unit] lieutenants take the visitors back first.”

It can be anywhere from five to seven hours before the lieutenants return, which means prisoners must go to the bathroom in a plastic bag they were given.

Systematic abuse and mistreatment of SAMs prisoners played a decisive role in District Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision to deny the U.S. government’s extradition request against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He would likely be placed under the kind of restrictions Schulte has faced if the U.S. prevailed and brought him to the country for a trial on Espionage Act charges.

Even more troubling, Schulte already went to trial once. A jury did not convict, yet because the Justice Department is responsible for his SAMs designation—and they have not given up on their leak prosecution—the cruelty has not abated.

“It is barbaric and inhumane to lock human beings into boxes for years and years,” the complaint concludes. “It is a punishment worse than death, and there is no wonder that MCC inmates would rather kill themselves than continue to live in absolute oppression.”

“No matter what crime an individual is alleged to have committed, the United States Constitution grants all a presumption of innocence. Indeed, no American wants to be treated like a caged animal if accused of a crime—dependent, deserted, dehumanized, demoralized, and detained.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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