Prosecutors Fight Early Release for Whistleblower Reality Winner

Fears of contracting COVID-19 in prison are not enough, Justice Department says


Concerns that she might get infected with COVID-19 shouldn't be treated as a reason to release Reality Winner from federal prison early, say Department of Justice prosecutors.

Winner was arrested in 2017 for leaking top-secret documents from the National Security Agency showing that the government believed that Russian operatives attempted to hack into United States voting systems during the 2016 election. In 2018 she agreed to a harsh 63-month prison term (the longest for a media leak) for her crime.

As coronavirus spreads through prisons, attempts to try to get some inmates released in order to reduce density and risk of infection have led to some erratic behavior from the Bureau of Prisons, and families are frustrated that the feds aren't appropriately getting more prisoners out into home confinement.

Under the specter of coronavirus, Winner requested a compassionate release earlier in April, pointing out that she has been suffering from depression and bulimia while incarcerated and claiming to be at greater risk of a bad reaction to the coronavirus due to underlying medical conditions. She is currently being held at Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

On Monday, U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine of the Southern District of Georgia (where Winner was arrested and convicted), filed a response opposing Winner's motion. Christine argues that Winner doesn't qualify for compassionate release for her underlying conditions and hasn't gone through the proper administrative procedures, which include having to wait up to 30 days for the Bureau of Prisons to respond to the request. Even in an environment where infections are spreading quickly, Christine is leaning on the slow speed of bureaucracy to justify keeping Winner imprisoned.

Furthermore, Christine argues that the prison Winner is in has taken appropriate measures to screen both staff and inmates and other recommended actions to reduce infection risk. He even uses the attorney general's directive to transfer more prisoners to home confinement as evidence that the prison system is handling things just fine, even though there's plenty of reporting out there which says otherwise.

Christine concludes:

Winner is not being treated any differently than any other inmate, and she has not shown that BOP cannot adequately address any potential medical issues she faces during this period. Because Winner has not demonstrated how COVID-19 specifically affects her, apart from pure speculation…her request for compassionate release based on COVID-19 fails.

If her request is rejected, her expected release date is Nov. 23, 2021.

There have been good reasons to oppose Winner's incarceration all along and it may seem opportunistic to use COVID-19 to echo these arguments, but there's really no criminal justice value in keeping Winner behind bars. She is never going to be in a position again to repeat her crime. She engaged in nothing violent or threatening. The information she leaked ultimately did become an important public story at a time were some were attempting to downplay Russia's attempts to manipulate the election. And even if Winner herself is not in any particular risk from COVID-19, removing her from the federal prison population will make it easier to manage inmates that the federal government simply shouldn't release because they are dangerous.