*The following report was originally published as part of The Dissenter Newsletter, a project of Shadowproof.
NSA whistleblower Reality Winner was released from federal prison to a halfway house in San Antonio on June 2. She was released one week later to home confinement with her family.
Prior to her release from Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, the facility confined Reality with five other women in a hospital-sized room for 23 days. Reality was informed it was a COVID-19 quarantine protocol.
Billie Winner-Davis, who is Reality’s mother, told The Dissenter that her daughter received both doses of the vaccine. She was past the two-week period necessary for the vaccine to become effective. Still, she was locked down with “very little contact with the outside world, no recreation, no commissary. You know, just contained to that one room for 23 days.”
All of the women in the room with Reality were on a release track, and according to Billie, she had no extra food. “They were only given the telephone every three to four days and only for like a fifteen minute period, and they all had to use it in that fifteen minute period. She wasn’t getting her mail.”
Meals were brought to the room, but for quite a few meals, the facility did not tailor her meal to meet dietary considerations that were well known to staff. Because Reality had no commissary access, she would go hungry.
“It was just another little period of hell for her, but at least she knew she could get through it because she knew she had to get through it in order to be released,” Billie declared. And, “There was no need for it.”
Reality Still Belongs To The Bureau of Prisons
Billie emphasized she still belongs to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). “She still is in federal custody. She’s allowed to be at home on home confinement, but she is pretty much confined. She’s on an ankle monitor. She’s not allowed to leave the residence. She’s not allowed to talk to anyone as far as giving interviews.”
Reality pled guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when she disclosed an NSA report to The Intercept. She believed the report contained evidence of Russian hackers targeting United States voter registration systems during the 2016 election.
FBI agents raided Reality’s home in Augusta, Georgia, in June 2017, and when they interrogated her, they did not advise her of her rights before interrogating her.
Reality told agents, “I felt really hopeless, and seeing that information that has been contested back and forth, back and forth in the public domain for so long, trying to figure out, like, with everything else that keeps getting released and keeps getting leaked—Why isn’t this getting, why isn’t this out there? Why can’t this be public?”
On August 23, 2018, Reality was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison.
Bobby Christine, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, boasted that Reality’s sentence was the “longest received by a defendant for an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information to the media. It appropriately satisfies the need for both punishment and deterrence in light of the nature and seriousness of the offense.”
Reality contracted COVID-19 in prison in July 2020 and survived one of the most severe outbreaks that occurred in the U.S. prison system. At one point, more than 500 women tested positive for the virus. (The facility holds around 1,600 women.)
While incarcerated during the pandemic, Reality sought compassionate release, but the request was denied by Judge Randal Hall, the same federal judge who made sure she remained in jail until her sentencing.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals later rejected her request for compassionate release as well.
Finally Taking Reality Away From Carswell
According to her mother, February 17, 2020, was the last face-to-face visit in prison prior to her release. Her family relied on the free video chat available through the BOP in order to see Reality for the last 15 months.
Billie recalled picking Reality up at the entry point of the prison and what it was like to have her back in her arms, actually knowing she could put her in a car and take her away from Carswell.
For the first time in almost exactly four years, Reality was able to wear normal clothes.
Reality was a contractor for Pluribus International in Augusta and a cryptologic language analyst in the 94th Intelligence Squadron in the U.S. Air Force. Instead of viewing her service in the Air Force as meritorious, a federal appeals court interpreted it in the most negative way possible to justify keeping her in pretrial confinement.
“Evidence in the record indicates that Ms. Winner—who is fluent in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto—has long wanted to live and work in the Middle East,” the appeals court stated. “She wanted the Air Force to deploy her to Afghanistan. She researched traveling, working, and living in places like Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. She researched flights to Kurdistan and Erbil. She researched buying a home in Jordan. And she researched how to obtain a work visa in Afghanistan.”
The mosaic the appeals court painted for the public made it seem like Reality was intent to join the Taliban in Afghanistan, even though she had been involved in helping the military kill “high value targets” who were considered terrorism suspects by the U.S. government. They even criminalized her desire to go to the Middle East to work for an aid organization confronting the refugee crisis fueled by U.S. wars in the region.
In January 2021, Reality alleged that a guard threatened her after she filed a sexual abuse claim under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Reality Earned This Release
The BOP expects Reality to obtain employment, but Billie said they are not sure about the programs or what is expected of Reality right now. “It’s too new because she’s still not allowed to leave the house.”
For comparison, John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and pled guilty to a separate but related charge, recalled his time in home confinement at the end of his 30-month sentence.
“I believed that I could step back into my life again and just pick up where I left off, and that wasn’t the case at all. It turned out to be far more stressful than I thought it was going to be. And it took me quite a long time before I felt like I was leading a normal life again,” Kiriakou shared.
Home confinement was “more difficult on a day-to-day basis than being in prison, and it’s because in prison you can go work out. You can go do laps in the yard. You can sorta get out and about in the sunshine,” Kiriakou added. “When you are in home confinement, you are a prisoner within the four walls of the house, and if you want to leave, you can’t unless it’s to go to work, to a job interview, to the doctor, to the halfway house, or to church. And you’ve got to constantly ask permission.”
The BOP makes prisoners fill out forms and constantly apply for jobs. Case managers, according to Kiriakou, demand to know when prisoners applied, how prisoners applied, and whether prisoners applied in person or online, etc. However, it is a “fake exercise.” Prisoners apply for jobs at Target, McDonald’s, or Safeway and never hear back.
Kiriakou was hired by a progressive think tank to work on prison reform, but the BOP rejected this as valid employment. So whatever Reality does for work has to be approved by BOP. They are likely to limit her options to a menial job for a minimum wage.
Support for Reality’s pardon campaign increased with President Joe Biden’s election. For the first time, her mother—and later, her sister—were invited on MSNBC to discuss her case and urge Biden to grant her clemency.
Reality’s case inspired the play, “Is This A Room,” which was directed by Tina Satter and based on the transcript from the FBI’s interrogation. It also was the subject of a documentary by director Sonia Kennebeck, “The United States vs. Reality Winner,” which premiered at SXSW in March.
Throughout extraordinarily tough circumstances, Billie has been Reality’s fiercest and most effective advocate.
“Her release date from the BOP is November 23, and up until that date, every single day she’s in jeopardy of them taking her back,” Billie declared.
“Following November 23, she still has three years of supervised release and so I still want to continue to ask for clemency because I want her sentence to be over. I want them to say, you’re done. You have served your time. You’re done. I feel like she deserves that.”
Despite all the work Billie did advocating for her daughter’s release, she does not believe this was some kind of victory.
“I don’t feel like we were able to achieve this for her because she did all of her time. She earned this release. Nobody gave this to her. She earned it,” Billie concluded.