After more than seven years, the stack of dehumanizing and seemingly unconstitutional interactions between Daniel McGowan and the American prison system is now piled so high it is teetering over into a recursive mess of bleak and Kafkaesque absurdity.
Last Monday, McGowan published a piece on the Huffington Post that laid out much of his situation to date. After years in prison for his role in environmentally motivated property destruction that was prosecuted as acts of terrorism, he wrote, he was finishing up the remaining months of his sentence in a halfway house in Brooklyn.
The various perversions of the case that sent McGowan away are well documented in the documentary (streaming on Netflix!) If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. But, as McGowan wrote, less publicized is what happened to him a year into his prison term: Despite a flawless disciplinary record, McGowan was transferred to an experimental new Communications Management Unit, a supermax-like extreme-isolation facility some have dubbed a “Little Guantanamo.”
Why was McGowan transferred to a CMU? He never got a good answer to that question, even after a Freedom of Information Act request, so, along with other CMU inmates, he filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the CMUs and alleging that they are effectively political prisons designed to silence the voices of people whose message the government doesn’t like. As it turned out, McGowan was right: Bureau of Prisons memos discovered through the lawsuit appear to link his transfer to the CMU to the fact that he continued to write things the government found politically objectionable.
“While incarcerated and through social correspondence and articles written for radical publications, inmate McGowan has attempted to unite the radical environmental and animal liberation movements,” one memo states, before dilating on other political statements McGowan made in interviews and his own writing.
McGowan wrote about all of this in his Huffington Post piece last Monday. Two days later, the staff at the halfway house to which he had been assigned told him that his work permit had been revoked on order of the Bureau of Prisons. The next morning, federal marshals arrived and brought him to the Metropolitan Detention Center. Once there, he was presented with a document explaining that he had violated the terms of his release to the halfway house. Specifically, the incident report stated that McGowan had violated a prison regulation that stated “an inmate currently confined in an institution may not … act as a reporter or publish under a byline.”
That’s right: McGowan was sent back to jail for writing about how he’d been imprisoned in a CMU for writing things.
There’s more: The regulation that the Bureau of Prisons cited to justify returning him to jail had actually been declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 2007, and the Bureau of Prisons had finally taken it off the books in 2010. McGowan’s lawyers mentioned this to the bureau and to the lawyers representing the government in his lawsuit, and he was re-released to the halfway house on Friday.
But that’s not the end of it. Back at the halfway house, staff presented McGowan with a document and directed him to sign it. The document stated that “he is not permitted to have any contact with the media without approval from the BOP’s Residential Reentry Manager. Accordingly, Resident McGowan was advised that writing articles, appearing in any type of television or media outlets, news reports and or documentaries without prior BOP approval is strictly prohibited.”
It’s worth noting that McGowan hadn’t been asked to sign this document when he first arrived at the halfway house, nor, as far as his lawyers can tell, has anyone there been asked to sign it. In fact, there’s nothing in the Bureau of Prison’s published media policy that requires pre-approval before publishing anything.
“There is no national prohibition on publishing,” Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, confirmed this afternoon.
“I thought I had lost my ability to be surprised by what the Bureau of Prisons does years ago,” said Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who’s representing McGowan. “But restricting an individual’s freedom of speech in this manner is truly surprising. It’s beyond ironic that Daniel was retaliated against and returned to prison for publishing a blog about being retaliated against for speaking out in prison.”
Here’s the incident report explaining McGowan’s return to prison:
And here’s the statement McGowan was required to sign upon his return to the halfway house: