The Odyssey of a Prison Journalist
Everything these days is online and social media is at an all time high. A virtual reality updated by the second. Communication is instantaneous, and with email, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook the means to post photos, give status reports and let the public know what is going on is easier than ever. But even in this technological advanced world, there are segments of our society that are denied the opportunity to connect with the public.
Prisoners are one of those segments and those incarcerated have fought a long battle to have their voices heard. Prisoner’s correspondence is restricted, they’re denied Internet access and their phone conversations are monitored. The breaks of being locked up you may think. but our country is founded on the First Amendment, freedom of speech and all that, but prison officials would have you believe that the First Amendment doesn’t extend to prison.
We detailed how lawmakers have sought to curb an inmate celebrity’s contact with the public and how prisoners access social media, but there is a darker side to all this that Gorilla Convict hasn’t explored. When a prisoner runs afoul of the prison establishment and tries to get the word out about the adverse conditions he might be facing in our nations correctional institutions, consequences can be rapid and unfair, trampling the idea of First Amendment rights and bringing to mind a kind of 1984ish Orwellian world view. Just look at Guantanamo Bay. But the same thing is happening in America’s prison system.
The case of journalist Barrett Brown, who is serving 63 months in the Bureau of Prisons for his links to the hacktivist collective Anonymous, is an example of the depths the BOP will go to keep individuals from reporting on conditions inside their prisons. Program Statement 1480.05, which details News Media Contacts in the federal system, allows prisoners to contact the news media, do interviews and correspond with reporters, but in truth this policy is not followed. “It’s there to make it look good,” a long time federal prison writer we’ll call Rob says. “In reality, they don’t want you to write.”
Barrett Brown had his email privileges suspended for a full year on April 3, just for contacting a member of the media and floating the idea of potential BOP misconduct. He was given no hearing, received no incident report or was given any explanation as to why his email privileges were taken away. He was told by staff that his email access was suspended because he was “using it for the wrong thing.” The BOP mindset is clear, despite what the program statement outlines. To them talking to the press or writing for publication is tantamount to causing trouble.
I have firsthand experience with the BOP and how they try to censor prison writers. I am not that far removed from an incarceration of 21 years and I fought the BOP tooth and nail for the right to write. I was locked up numerous times, transferred, had my email, phone, commissary and visiting privileges suspended and was continually harassed and retaliated against due to my writing for publication.
You see the Program Statements exist to outline what you are allowed to legally do while in BOP custody, but if you have any type of success or get any kind of attention from your writing or news media contacts the BOP will try to shut you down. Barrett Brown will be facing the same battle just like I did and even worse he will probably end up in a Communications Management Unit. He is in a low security prison in FCI Fort Worth now, but for how long? The BOP might already be planning on moving him. They will just roll him up one day, call him to R and D with no warning and whisk him off into the night. I’ve seen it done.
“If you are a problem to the BOP for whatever reason,” Rob says. “Be it the type of dude who files lawsuits and does legal stuff for other inmates, file administrative remedies, writes for publication, runs a legitimate business or has influence over other inmates, they got a place for you now and its a very cool place to do time.”
The segregation units, they call CMU’s are placed strategically around the country. The units are at USP Terre Haute in Indiana, USP Allenwood in Pennsylvania, and USP Marion in Illinois. They are effectively political prisons designed to silence the voices of prisoners whose beliefs or messages the government doesn’t like. Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist who served time in a CMU, told the Huffington Post that, “CMU prisoners are were there because of their religion or in retaliation for their speech, political views or perspectives not shared by the Department of Justice.”
The CMU’s are a recent advent by the BOP, a place where they can dump undesirables with extensive media or activist connections or those that like to file paperwork against prison authorities. Luckily, the CMUs came at the end of my bid when I was almost ready to go home. I am sure the BOP would have tried to lump me in with all the political dissidents, radical Muslims, lawsuit filers and prison writers that they currently house in the CMUs.
Prisoners in the CMU’s are locked down 24/7 and have all their correspondences limited. No phone calls, no emails, hardly any mail- its total social isolation. The BOP sends inmates there to bury them and silence them. Anyone that the BOP deems a threat to the secure and orderly running of an institutions will transferred there. CMU’s specialize in prison mail censorship and holding prisoners in limbo incommunicado.
Not only do prisoners housed there endure unspeakable punishments without the benefit of due process, there is no step down program, no time limit or even a way to get out of there. Staff s deliberately indifferent to any complaints. That is what Barrett Brown is facing if he decides to fight the BOP. He is in their custody and they are boss. You make the boos look bad and thats your ass. I experienced this sentiment firsthand.
I fought for my right to write in the BOP for 15 years. From the time when I first started writing for publication in 1999 to the day I left in 2014 it was a battle for me to establish a career as a writer and get the word out. I eventually agreed to stop getting my pieces published the last year I was in when I got locked up in the hole for the last time. I was too close to home and the SIS Lieutenant, which is like the the head FBI agent on the compound, threatened to get me sent to a CMU. He told me, “Ferranti, if you had more time we would do the paperwork to get you to a CMU.” Nice guy, right? But that is the mentality.
I knew that going to the CMU meant no correspondence, no phone calls, no visits, no email, no nothing. Extreme isolation and constant monitoring. I only had a year left to do and I decided to delay my journalistic career. I looked at it as an opportunity delayed, not lost and the deal I was offered was this, “Stop publishing your work and we’ll let you out to take the drug program so you can get a year off your sentence. Or keep fighting us and you can do the rest of your time at a CMU, forfeiting your chance to get a year off.”
It was an easy choice for me. Take the 10 month RDAP program and go to a halfway house for 6 months or do the rest of my time, 28 months in total in a CMU. I’d heard about the CMUs and I knew if they had been around earlier in my bid I probably would have ended up in one. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Essentially, I sacrificed my journalism pursuits for 10 months for the chance to get a year off. A fair trade in my book.
Barrett Brown might be forced to make the same decision, because when it comes down to it the BOP doesn’t care about bad press. They wouldn’t even give me a comment for this article. I contacted the BOP’s public affairs office several times to get a statement from them concerning Brown’s situation and the Communication Management Units and they didn’t even have the decency to return my call or answer my email.
Barrett Brown issued his own statement where he outlined what happened to him and detailed the “pattern of state retaliation to which he’s been accustomed to.” He can stir the hornets nest as much as he wants, but in the end, the only one who will get stung is him. Its unfortunate to say, but true. I know I was in the same situation as him. He is in their clutches, a ward of the federal court and they can transfer him wherever they want, put any type of security classification they deem necessary and make his like miserable as he finishes out his sentence.
He can file in court and probably eventually will be vindicated and win, because the law is the law, but in the short term he will lose. That is how the BOP operates. I was thrown in the hole numerous times with no explanation. Cut off from the world and my life for 30 to 60 days at at time. Written fictitious incident reports that never stuck, transferred, had my security level raised and was in general just harassed. All in the name of free speech. I was made to endure the punitive nature of the hole, just because I was writing for publication. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to Barrett Brown.