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How NSA Whistleblower Reality Winner Came To Support Prison Abolition

This article was originally published as part of the Dissenter Newsletter. Become a monthly paid subscriber to help us continue our independent journalism.

Reality Winner is an NSA whistleblower who was harshly prosecuted under the Espionage Act, but she is also more than that. She is an advocate who has used the visibility gained from her case to promote an end to prisons in the United States.

I covered Reality’s detention and incarceration as a whistleblower extensively. What she endured further solidified her understanding of how prisons function. Yet according to Winner, she questioned the existence of the US prison system before she was arrested in June 2017.

This is the first time that I have spoken to Reality since she was transferred to Federal Medical Center Carswell in 2018. We discuss her incarceration during the COVID pandemic, rampant sexual abuse in Bureau of Prisons facilities, and why prison is one of the worst places for a person struggling with drug addiction or substance abuse problems.

Some of what Reality shares in the interview was reported previously by The Dissenter Newsletter, however, her stories from prison are much more detailed than what was described in earlier reports.

*Below is a transcript of the interview with NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, with minor edits to improve clarity.

GOSZTOLA: I’ve been following your commentary and how you follow issues in the US prison system, and I was really drawn to how your outspoken. You say, America’s incapable of a humane system detention. Just as there’s no humane form of slavery. Abolish it all. You think prison reform is a lot like asking for slavery reform. And you’ve been outspoken about abolishing prisons, and I was hoping to talk with you today about how you came to that view and if you could share some of what you experienced while you were incarcerated that maybe led to this awakening.

WINNER: Ironically enough, this realization actually started a month before my incarceration. I had watched the Netflix documentary “The 13th,” and leading up to the night I found myself in jail, that was actually the only thing that my family had ever heard about from me. I was like, you need to watch this. My sister watched it. We had many conversations about it.

For me, the first time I was indirectly or in the vicinity of a police killing was when I lived on the outskirts of Baltimore in 2014, when Freddie Gray was basically murdered. Or he died in police custody, but the negligence just made it a homicide. I remember I was working my mission in the Air Force the first night of the curfew. And so, it was kind of surreal.

Without going into my career as a linguist too much, I was essentially sitting in a combat position watching our war in Afghanistan, and we had the local news and we had CNN on and they were doing a live countdown to when the curfew would be enforced. And there were still people on the street, and there was a line of police officers in their military gear. That’s kind of the first time for me where I realized the same war, the same conflict that I had wanted to dedicate my life to in Afghanistan, was playing out 15 miles away from me on American streets, and that I in no way sympathized with the people in uniform.

That’s kind of where I had started in 2014, to pay attention to police brutality and the over-militarization of the American police. That’s where I started to understand it’s completely deregulated because it’s compartmentalized into different jurisdictions, and there is no one tracking at the federal level what every police force is doing.

It was incredibly ironic that I found myself in an extremely negligent county jail and [faced] the sexual exploitation in the jail and the constant negligence of basic needs and watching women go through medical emergencies.

I, myself, had a medical issue come up when I was in court. I fell while handcuffed and busted my face open and also had a contusion in my knee. And it resulted in a giant bubble that a month later was drained at a local clinic by a doctor that was really questionable. I mean, I’m glad he drained it because that bubble was huge and weird; but the fact that I waited a month for that, and it was a clearly visible thing that was going on. I was limping.

The transfer process—They told me, oh, it’s diesel therapy. It’s dehumanizing, but the conditions steadily got worse. Never say you’ve hit rock bottom because that floor can always break open and expose new rock underneath it. Every time I said I’ve been through the worst. I’m good.

Then Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, and we got put on lockdown for it. Their excuse was the BOP sent their riot task force to the streets to police civilians. And the BOP is not a police force. In no system should that have ever happened. We did not draw soldiers from Afghanistan to police Dallas, Texas. Why are we sending BOP guards to police civilians?

The only thing that makes sense is that it was punitive to us. We had little to no contact with our family, and it was a direct retaliation on the communities that were hurting the most from the murder. That’s how the system works. You always have to look at, what is the overall message to the American people when 80,000 inmates go quiet? It’s a direct message to those communities to stop rioting. It’s a direct message that police can murder people, and you are all going to be put in the SHU [solitary confinement].

It was demoralizing. It was about as bad a month later when we all had COVID, and we were blamed for it, even though none of the safety precautions that were given to us did any good. My unit had a 90 percent infection rate, and all they did was continue to shuffle us around. They locked us down so we could be quarantined from one unit to another.

But the day we got sick  there were inmates that were too sick to move, told to carry their stuff and go to another unit. There was no consideration for the fact that people were actively ill with a virus that in July 2020 nobody actively knew what this body does to the body. That’s how soon it was. That’s how early it was in the pandemic. Long COVID was not a household word at that time.

You have inmates who are catching COVID over and over again, their civil rights and civil liberties being violated over and over again in the name of safety and COVID control, when the moment they do get sick nothing is done for them. There’s no medical care.

The COVID Pandemic And Prison

GOSZTOLA: COVID is still an issue for prisoners. It wasn’t long ago that you put this out where you let people know, “Meanwhile, US federal and state prisons still have ZERO idea how to handle COVID without cruel and unusual lockdowns, which usually mean inmates deprived of fresh food&air, visitation, programs…All while waiting to be infected, the 4th or 5th time,” while being held in these facilities.

Connecting this back to your experiences, when you were released in the middle of 2021—just to give people some perspective—what was it like when you were leaving, despite the fact that we had elected Joe Biden and there was some movement when it came to dealing with the pandemic that was much better than Trump? And despite having vaccines available, how behind was the Bureau of Prisons?

WINNER: There was no change. That was kind of the biggest crush. From January 2021 to the time I left, little to no change. Little to no lifting of the lockdowns. I was still using my job as an excuse and my good standing with certain officers to get outside as much as possible. We had caught COVID in July 2020 and December 2020. So we actually had it twice in a six-month period.

Going into April 2021, one day nurses came into the unit and started setting up stations. They said we’re giving out the first dose. Get in line or pack your shit. People said, well, where are we going? There’s different units. We were in 2 North. People were asking if we were going downstairs to 1 North if we didn’t get vaccinated. And they said you’re not going to like where you’re going. Get the vaccine or pack your shit.

There was no conversation with your doctor about which version of the COVID vaccine is right for you. There was no discussion of the certain ingredients that certain individuals are allergic to. It was very authoritarian.

A counselor had come out at that time to saying if any of y’all are trying to go to halfway houses just know they’re not accepting you If you’re not vaccinated, which was not true. But basically that was when I was like, okay, I’m getting released in a month to a halfway house. I need this vaccine. I need record of this vaccine. So I got in line.

Obviously, it was the Pfizer vaccine because we got vaccinated twice. In 21 days, we got the second dose. That’s how we knew which version of the shot we got. So I got my two doses, and even though I had caught COVID twice and being vaccinated, 23 days before my release I had to go into a hospital room.

Carswell was built in a old military hospital. So when I say hospital room, I mean the main building of the prison is the old hospital. We eat in the old prison cafeteria. So the quarantine rooms—you can actually picture it. The old school hospital room built for two beds, and it had two little bathrooms on each side up by the front door. There were nine of us in that room for 23 days straight. And you [didn’t] leave that room for anything ever.

It was like you’re about to go home, and time stands still. There’s like ten different rooms like that—either people on one side of the hall are coming to the prison or people on our side of the hall are leaving. You have ten rooms of women demanding to use the phone. You have ten rooms of women demanding ice for drinking water. And you have one officer doing that for ten rooms for 12 hours at a time.

I have compassion so I understand it was a lot, but it was also a lot of disrespect. I know that there were times when I demanded a lieutenant. I knew the lieutenant that was working that day, and that’s why I demanded a lieutenant that day.

The smartass officer waited till the next day for the meanest the lieutenant, opens the door, says, “I got your lieutenant,” and in walks the fiercest lieutenant ever. I was like, I’m going home. I’m not going to lose face. I jump down, and go have a conversation with that lieutenant. That officer was just mad that I was even willing to be direct with that lieutenant. They thought I was going to be scared.

We didn’t even get really anything out of that. They had skipped us for three days on the phone. So imagine you’re trying to make plans with your family. Pick me up at this time on this day, and then you go quiet for three days straight. That’s not good. You can’t do that to us.

It was just a horrible situation. The first three days I only got a breakfast tray because even though I had a legal right to a non-flesh or a vegetarian tray the way it is they shipped up the styrofoam trays from the kitchen. If they didn’t put a vegetarian tray on the cart, I didn’t eat that meal.

What you could carry was in that room with you. So it wasn’t like I packed a bunch of commissary because I thought they were going to feed me. Every now and then an officer who knew me would call the kitchen and get a tray sent up. But it was three days at least until they actually regularly sent up meals for me to eat.

That’s what we were doing after we were vaccinated. That’s the kind of authoritarianism, the kind of blatant abuse, the kind of neglect. And once I got to the halfway house, they said you need to be quarantined again because we don’t know if you’re vaccinated.

I said okay, well, can I call the prison tomorrow and have them fax my vaccine [record]? Because once you’re vaccinated in the halfway house, you don’t go outside. You don’t eat with everybody else. You’re quarantined. You don’t get to go use the phone in the hallway because you’re quarantined.

I actually to this day have not seen that original vaccine record. I couldn’t get it from the prison. The halfway house, which is part of the Bureau of Prisons, could not get Federal Medical Center Carswell to send my vaccine record to them.

My attorney could not get it. My family physician could not get it. We’ve even called the regional office on this. Federal Medical Center Carswell is not giving out those records of vaccines given to me. So I don’t know what I got, but I had to be quarantined twice for it.  

Once I was released from the halfway house and had my ankle monitor cut off—you know, I didn’t know how Texas was going to be about it. Obviously, Texas we’re super chill, pretending like COVID doesn’t exist. But in most states, you would need a vaccine card to apply for a job.

So I went out and immediately got the Johnson & Johnson one-and-done, however, because that was within six months of my last dose, I was laid out for three days with some of the worst pain ever. But I was willing to do that because Carswell refused to give me a vaccine card for a vaccine they forced me to get in the first place.

I’ve had one of the worst COVID experiences—not so much COVID itself, the virus, but with authority and how they handled keeping people safe from a virus and keeping people vaccinated. Or giving people the option to vaccinate.

GOSZTOLA: While you were in the facility, they’re choosing to lock down people, but you all can see the guards and people who work at the facility coming out during this pandemic. Are you and your fellow prisoners aware that COVID could be coming in and out of the prison? Are you seeing sick people? Are you seeing that, oh, that guard is not here today, and oh, this other person they’re sick now?

WINNER: Right, so when the state of Texas first shut down, officers were talking about certain officers who turned their backyards into bars for their street, for their neighborhood. As federal employees, they never quarantined themselves before coming into work or not. When we had COVID, they actually setup tents outside for the kitchen workers so that the kitchens wouldn’t shut down.

I watched an officer do 12 hours on our unit while we were COVID positive walk straight to that tent after work. We watched our officers get sick, and they had COVID with us. Even though they were supposed to sign, every morning they came into work. They would get their temperature checked. I’m not symptomatic today. They were lying to come in because they thought they were going to get hazard pay. Everybody was going after that hazard pay, the bonus money, the overtime because of the lockdown and having less staff.

The same way we were lying on our temperature checks to make sure we stayed in our unit, where we felt safe, they were lying to come in to make extra money to keep their paycheck. So they all got sick with us.

I was already symptomatic, already coming back down, already feeling better. That was when they told me I’m not negative. So, originally, after they tested all of us on a Wednesday, that Sunday they pulled out—out of a unit of 170 women—they pulled out 15 of us that were supposedly negative for COVID. They said we’re going to put you guys in a COVID negative unit. We’re going to test you again however.

And then, six of us, including me, were called aside again from that group. So we sat in a room of people that were allegedly COVID negative. For fifteen minutes, we hadn’t seen these people in months.

Everyone’s looking at the officers and running over and hugging people. Then they called us aside after we’ve been in this room, and said, I don’t know why y’all are here. Y’all aren’t negative. So no one was giving us a piece of paper with our test results with positive or negative. They just told us six y’all aren’t negative for COVID. Go back to your unit.

We carried all of our stuff back up to the unit. Nobody knows what’s going on, and there was the officer that didn’t like me that day so I was being extra. And everybody is like, Winner, what happened? I’m like, we’re the COVID unit. We got COVID, like just making a joke of it. Because at that point everybody was sick. We knew it. Everybody started clapping. Yeah, Winner’s back.

I went back up into my room because I had to pack up everything again, and this officer comes. We had plastic curtains. It’s an airborne virus, and so we have one central AC unit pumping the same air into the rooms. But they gave us plastic curtains in the middle of summer that made the room hot as hell, and it was a disciplinary shot if we pulled those curtains aside to get air.

That officer came into the curtain after it was revealed that I had COVID, pulled down her mask, and said, oh, Winner, I just want to congratulate you for your positive test results. So you can tell how hard they were trying to not get COVID.

It was never about the virus. It was never about spreading a contagious disease. It was always about discipline. They had different masks than us. We couldn’t talk to our family as much. We couldn’t leave our room. We showered when they told us to shower. They handed us our food. It was all about breaking down and removing what freedoms we did have. And once they started lifting the lockdowns—they actually lifted the lockdowns and the quarantine for the prisons.

We didn’t get our programs back because so much of the staff had left or quit during COVID. So they actually didn’t have the staff or resources to go right back to the same programs they offered pre-COVID. So Federal Medical Center Carswell is still operating at 70 percent of the programs, of the resources for inmates that they were just before 2019—for no reason, other than sheer incompetency.

They got used to having everybody locked down, and I fear that that’s going to be the new BOP standard of operations.

Federal Medical Center Carswell (Photo from the US Bureau of Prisons and in the public domain.)

Rampant Sexual Abuse From BOP Employees

GOSZTOLA: Something that’s in the news because of a US Senate subcommittee report that I imagine was daily life for you and other prisoners at Carswell is the rampant sexual abuse that goes on in Bureau of Prisons facilities. We now have Senate staff spending many months to document the way in which this is basically just a feature of being incarcerated. Nineteen out of 29 facilities they found in the last ten years have had some employee accused or found guilty of crimes when it comes to sexual abuse.

I was hoping you could share what you observed or witness while you were at Carswell, as far as how you and all your fellow prisoners knew this was something you had to contend with as incarcerated individuals.

WINNER: It’s definitely known, and at Carswell, it wasn’t hidden very well. There was a certain lieutenant who was charged. He hasn’t been sentenced yet, but Lt. Luis Curiel actually got a woman pregnant. When I heard the initials of the victim, I said, oh, that wasn’t even his girlfriend because he had another little favorite. And they would just go on walks together, and she had a special prison assignment of cleaning his office when he was at work. Everybody knew it.

[Note: Curiel was sentenced September 21. Remarkably, as Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, he “pleaded guilty to raping two women” at Carswell and was sentenced to 18 months—“half the amount of time one of his victims is serving for drug possession.”]

So often it’s these lieutenants. They have the right to call inmates to the lieutenant’s office. Make it look like a disciplinary matter. They’re really the only people who have the right to have complete one-on-one privacy with inmates but also not have staff who are in a place to complain about it.

As far as actual staff members committing assaults on the units with witnesses, there was one, and she touched me when I was in my bed for no reason. I reported it. So there’s the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). There’s posters everywhere you go in federal prisons. They’re by the phones. They’re by the phones. They’re by the water fountains. They’re on the walls randomly. They’re by the computers.

You’ve got five different ways of reporting it. You can do it by secure mail or you can do it on a phone call. Or you can do it on the computer system, and it goes straight to the DOJ IG. Okay, I did that, and I don’t know what happened

I did that in March 2020, and by December 2020, that same officer was working our unit. She was extremely abusive, like threatening violence on a regular night. For me, it wasn’t a threat. It was real because she put hands on me. She had been removed from a unit just before that for actually taking off her belt and trying to wrestle an inmate.

She came from Texas state prisons, where they regularly physically abuse prisons, and was trying to bring that culture and make it normal in a federal prison. Telling us that we didn’t deserve this treatment simply because we were charged under the federal system, that we deserved to be degraded the way that Texas state inmates are degraded. And that was what she tried to normalize in every unit that she was working in.

A woman came up to me after it was known that I had made a report against [the officer] and said she watches me when I shower, and then she later calls me to the office to tell me about my body. She was making very predatory remarks to us. It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore.

Unfortunately, it was that same lieutenant who knocked up a girl, who came to the unit to save us. Because we were actually waving at the cameras to get somebody from control to send somebody. She was going on a rant. We were locked down.

She had us in our cells, and she was in the center of the unit. And it was Stockholm syndrome. She was telling us, when y’all had COVID, who was the only officer that let y’all shower? Who was the only officer that let y’all use the phone to talk to your families? And most of us weren’t even in her unit.

She never came into our unit when we had COVID. You weren’t that officer. Every single officer who worked here gave us our basic rights. Stop acting like that. And she’s like, I’m the only person that cares about y’all getting out. It’s psychological abuse. It’s priming your victims to depend on you. They should not be allowed to talk to us like that, and the lieutenant is just standing there watching this.

People are gesturing to him, like please come talk to me. I need you to come talk to me, and he was just standing there. I lost it. I came up to the railing because I was one the second floor and just screamed across the whole unit, and I said you need to look at the PREA reports against this officer. And she turned, and she was just like I don’t have any PREA reports against me. I said there’s three women on this unit that have reported you for sexual assault. You do not need to be here. And I looked at the lieutenant again, and I said, where are the reports? And she’s like, you’re a liar. She’s just screaming insults.

Finally, I looked at her and said you touched me. I filed a report, and I looked again at the lieutenant. Where are the reports? That’s when the officer said, you keep lying, and I’m coming for your blood. Right after she said that, the lieutenant turned around and walked out of the unit, and we were left on our own with her until midnight.

Basically, in short what she did was she started upstairs and she started tearing up rooms, one at a time, all the way to midnight. Just tearing rooms apart one at a time. Because as an inmate you’re not allowed to sleep. If the officer doesn’t want you to sleep, you don’t have the right to sleep at night. And she starts at the room right next mine. She looks at the clock. It’s 11:55. Steps out, looks at me, and says, this isn’t over. I’m starting over tomorrow night.

The next night was New Year’s Eve, but I had spent all day trying to get SIS, the Special Investigative Service, and then the staff investigative and the captain to come talk to me. Only one person came and talked to me. I said this is what happened, and I would like to report a threat against my physical safety because she said she was coming for my blood. Ironically enough, she actually didn’t work our unit that night. She was actually pulled from our unit. And later on, a staff member had told me of something that had happened within the prison.

The captain allegedly had pulled [the officer] from our unit, said you can’t work our unit after what happened. She wasn’t working another unit. She was actually put on leave while they were investigating. So she had allegedly tried to call the captain on her work phone and leave a voicemail, but she left a voicemail on the wrong line and it was a different prison administrator. So the officers were talking shit about it. They don’t keep secrets either.

One [officer] had told me that she’s probably coming back to your unit because she thought she had left a voicemail on the captain’s phone saying, on a first-name basis, you know nothing happened. Please let me come back to work. I’m just alone at home with the kids. They’re driving me crazy. I don’t want to be home. Please let me come back to work. Saying they’re obviously closer than anyone imagined, and you need to prepare yourself.

Coincidentally enough, she did come back a lot more subdued. But it was only for two nights and the second night happened to be January 6 [in 2021]. She tried to start some kind of riot or fight in our unit. Again, it was sexually explicit.

We were on a COVID quarantine. We had active COVID cases in our unit, and she pulled two different inmates from different units who weren’t on COVID quarantine into our unit until she found the right inmate that went by the nickname that she was looking for. She convinced two other officers to send their inmates to a COVID quarantine unit.

And that inmate gets there and that inmate is not even properly dressed. She’s in pajamas, and the officer said, hey, your girl’s in the shower with another inmate. And just let this inmate walk around our unit to go to the showers. Obviously, if that’s the case, they’re looking for a fight. They’re looking for an altercation.

When that didn’t happen, when she found her girlfriend in the TV room and went back and told the officer, the officer said, naw, she’s lying. Her knees are wet. I mean, the level of foulness that was going on here. When the other inmate found out what was happening, she went at the officer and said I don’t know why you’re doing this to me. The moment she raised her voice this officer hit her body alarm, and there were six officers in our unit trying to figure out what’s going on.

Those of us who were standing in the computer line, right in the vicinity of what happened—we all raised our hands saying witness. You must record us as witnesses as to what just happened. So she was walked off our unit for the final time that night. It took something like that to get her off our unit, not the fact that I had said there’s sexual harassment and allegations against her, actively pending investigations in this unit.

Why was she working this unit? Because the BOP does not investigate their own.

GOSZTOLA: You’re all given these hotlines you can call if you’ve got complaints. Like you’ve just said you can directly complain to the Justice Department’s inspector general. What’s the fear like? How many people are afraid because they’re not going to do anything but also because officers might see they complained and they’ll face some kind of punishment for letting people know that an officer is a problem?

WINNER: First and foremost, when I brought it to the prison’s attention that I had filed the DOJ IG report, I was told, oh, you did that the wrong way. That goes to Washington, DC, and we would never have seen it. Which is ridiculous because that’s what we’re told to do. You can try to do it within the prison, but the safest way to not have retaliation is if you go through the centralized federal government so there’s a documentation. That way you can say I filed this. They put me in the SHU.

The second was when they did finally interview me—So they didn’t directly ask me but they said, do you feel like you’ve been victimized? Are you a victim right now? So that’s when you’re like, I guess not. The word victim means you are going to be separated and put in the SHU.

Drug Addiction, Substance Abuse in Prison

GOSZTOLA: While you were at Carswell I presume you got to see that US prisons are not places for people to be sent it in order to help them deal with their drug addiction or substance abuse problems. What can you share about that? There are a lot of people who might suggest that’s what you can do if someone is having those issues. Those facilities could help them take care of that.

WINNER: Yes, the worst place you can go if you have a drug addiction is a county jail, and then later on, a prison—either state of federal. Because there are drugs in both institutions. Even more than that, you are sitting in all these triggers of what caused the addiction in the first place.

You’re in a powerless environment. You are up front facing your depression, or whatever has triggered or started that addiction. It’s not treated as a medical condition. It’s treated as a moral issue. It’s treated as a character flaw. It’s treated as a, oh, well, if you just sit in this cell long enough and the methamphetamines are sweated out of your system, your addiction is over. Without going to the root cause of why people use to escape.

I went in, and I didn’t even have an alcohol habit. I had cut out all alcohol as a yoga teacher for two years before my arrest. During the George Floyd uprising, while we were on lockdown, people started passing me pills to get high. It went from there to K2, which is a liquid form of spice—it makes you hallucinate—to trying liquid meth on paper. Because the pressure was so much that people were actually giving it to me for free at first because they thought I was going to swing on an officer.

I was that tightly strung. I was that confrontational, and I was that unruly at times. I never had a physical addiction or craving to it, but when we were told we would be put on lockdown for COVID, and we would go into the same lockdown conditions as the George Floyd lockdown, my mental dependency on using to cope with being confined—I basically crept from one room to the other.

There were four officers in the unit, and I still managed to do it. I went to all the dealers and got 32 days worth of drugs, racked up like a 200 dollar bill to get myself through COVID itself and then the lockdown. It became a mental dependency for me because I was already on an SSRI.

At the start of the lockdown, I realized that I have seasonal depression, and if I can’t go outside and feel the changing of the seasons, I get manic depression. So I was already on an SSRI for that, and it wasn’t enough to cope with everything being taken away again for something that was outside of our control.

One of the things I feel the most guilty about is one of the girls that I used with, Zantana, was doing four years for trafficking fentanyl. Even before the lockdowns, this girl would pass out in chow at breakfast. She stayed high like every day of her prison experience, and everybody knew it. And not to say that the guards should have known it to punish her further. But that there was never an honest conversation with her about what rehabilitative services would help her kick this lifelong habit.

She got out shortly before I did in 2021, and before I even had my ankle monitor cut off in October 2021, she died of a fentanyl overdose. So you want to talk about what the prison system can offer addicts as far as rehabilitation goes, that’s a big failure right there.

They let her continue her habit in Carswell. She never had a disciplinary write-up, was never caught for being high, even though everybody knew she was high every day she was in that prison. Nobody said this is a psychological resource to deal with the root causes of your addiction. She slipped through the cracks and now she’s dead. Anybody who says that simply being pulled off the streets and put into confinement is a treatment for drug addiction—I mean, they’re wrong.

GOSZTOLA: When you left Carswell, you tried to stay in touch with some of the people you were incarcerated with. Did you try to communicate with some of the people you left because you cared about what they were going through in the facility?

WINNER: Yes, but one of the most inhumane things about this whole thing is you trust people with your life, and you do some of the hardest days of your life with them. When you get out, it is a crime to stay in contact with them. Maybe there were times when I thought it was worth it—letting people know, hey, I made it home. But beyond that, it’s a one-way track back to prison.

GOSZTOLA: I didn’t know that.

WINNER: When you are on federal release, or federal probation, it’s a violation to be in contact with any felon, whether they’re currently incarcerated, currently on probation, or they’ve already finished their time and just have felon status.

GOSZTOLA: Wait, so hypothetically, if someone was prosecuted under the Espionage Act like you and has this felony on their record, you can’t talk to them about your experience until after your probation ends?

WINNER: Correct. Well, and not even the Espionage Act. Anything.

GOSZTOLA: I know it would go for anything, but I also understand that although it’s a small universe of people if anybody wanted to reach out to you and give you support now that you’re no longer in prison you wouldn’t want to do that because it could send you back to prison.

WINNER: It’s kind of established that Terry Albury and me—We’ll connect in the future.

GOSZTOLA: That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of Jeffrey Sterling, who has gone through this who has their own experiences. John Kiriakou is actually in your documentary, but you can’t really talk to these people because they have felonies on their record.

WINNER: Mmm-hmm, I can’t talk with anybody whose been incarcerated in a way that’s meaningful. So there’s nobody that I’m legally allowed to talk to who has been through what I’ve been through.


In Part 2, which will be posted later, Reality Winner comments on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, President Donald Trump taking classified documents with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate, and upcoming Hollywood films that will bring her story to the silver screen.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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