Daniel McGowan, the environmental activist and former member of the Earth Liberation Front who spent five and a half years in an extreme prison isolation unit, is suing the federal Bureau of Prisons for violating his right to free speech. McGowan, a New York native, was imprisoned in a highly restrictive Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana in 2007, after being convicted of burning down two Oregon lumber mills on behalf of the ELF in 2001, an action that was deemed an act of domestic terrorism. (McGowan says he left the ELF soon after the second arson). After his release in December 2012, he was sent back to New York to begin his probation at the Brooklyn Residential Reentry Center, a halfway house near his home in downtown Brooklyn. But in April 2013, when he wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post about his time in the CMU, the Bureau of Prisons and the “reentry manger” in charge of the Brooklyn RRC reacted very, very poorly.
In his blog post, McGowan wrote that court documents proved that he was sent to the CMU not because he posed a disciplinary problem or a danger to the staff — the ostensible reason CMUs exist — but because he continued writing about politics and environmental activism after he was imprisoned.
The post was published on April 1. On April 4, the staff at the Brooklyn RRC informed him that his work permit, which allowed him to travel back and forth to his job as a receptionist each day, had been revoked. Federal marshals arrived at the halfway house and took him to the Metropolitan Detention Center. He was given an orange jumpsuit and placed in solitary confinement. He was, he assumed, headed back to prison.
That didn’t happen, in large part because his attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights raised an unholy ruckus in the media and with the Bureau of Prisons.
“Needless to say, this is outrageous,” Rachel Meerpol, McGowan’s attorney, told the Huffington Post at the time. “I’ve never heard of a regulation limiting an individual from blogging or contacting the news media.”
McGowan was returned to the halfway house on April 5, where he was given a new rule: no blogging and no contact with the news media, unless he first got permission from the halfway house manager.
McGowan’s civil attorney, David B. Rankin, says he’s not aware of any formal rules for Bureau of Prisons halfway houses that say their occupants can’t speak to the media without permission. “I am not aware of any such rules, but even if they did exist they would be unconstitutional,” he says. “There was a BOP regulation saying that people needed to get approval before they published something under their own name, but this was changed years ago and at least one court found it unconstitutional.” He’s not aware of any other former inmate who was told he or she couldn’t write articles or give interviews.
McGowan is suing the BOP, his case manager, the manager of the Brooklyn RRC and the federal marshals who arrived to take him back to jail, alleging false arrest and imprisonment, assault and battery, negligence, intentional and negligent inflictment of emotional distress, negligent hiring, violation of his due process rights, and violation to his right to equal protection under the law.
A civil suit is McGowan’s last resort. In 2013, he tried filing an administrative claim with the BOP, seeking $200,000 in compensation. But it was rejected in March of this year; the BOP told him he wasn’t saying he’d been physically injured, making his claim invalid.
McGowan was also part of a Aref v. Holder, a Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging the legality of Communications Managment Units. But he was dropped from that lawsuit by the judge in July of 2013, under the logic that, having been released from prison, he no longer had standing to sue. The case has continued: the remaining plaintiffs are two Muslim men convicted on terrorism charges.
“I’m still disappointed that I am not a plaintiff on Aref v Holder,” he tells the Voice. “But I’m still a trial witness, should the case go to trial, and was deposed months ago as well. I do what I can to continue to shed light on the Communication Management Units.”
McGowan, who finally left the halfway house in June of 2013, still has another 21 months on probation. He’s also paying $1.9 million in restitution to the federal government.