"Have you ever read Franz Kafka’s The Trial?"
That is the first thing that Patrick Shea, a member of jailed climate activist Tim DeChristopher’s legal defense team, says to me when I call him this morning to ask him about reports that DeChristopher has been pulled out of his minimum security camp at Herlong federal prison in California and thrown into isolated confinement in an 8 x 10-foot cell. His latest crime? Sending an email to a colleague with a "threat" to give back a $25,000 donation to his legal defense fund because DeChristopher, one of the most principled people I have ever encountered, discovered that his donor was exporting U.S. manufacturing jobs.
If you don’t know the backstory to DeChristopher’s imprisonment, you can read about it here. (Short version: He was sentenced to two years in prison last July for having nonviolently disrupted a federal auction of oil and gas leases in 2008.) This case was a sham before it took this latest turn. If there were any justice in the world, DeChristopher would have been pardoned before he ever set foot in jail. The fact that it is now possible he will serve out the rest of his sentence in a tiny cell with only one break a week to go outside is an outrage, and one that should have everyone who cares about justice and the abuse of political power in America marching in the streets.
According to Shea, a veteran lawyer and director of the federal Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration, this is what happened to DeChristopher: On March 5, he wrote an email to Dylan Schneider, the treasurer and volunteer coordinator at Peaceful Uprising, a climate activism group co-founded by DeChristopher. In the email (you can read the whole thing below), DeChristopher discusses the fact that an unnamed corporate donor who contributed to his legal defense fund is exporting U.S. manufacturing jobs and laying off workers. DeChristopher is not happy: "I feel like I have some influence and hence some responsibility to do something," he writes. "If they are saving money by screwing their workers, I can’t in good conscience accept some of that money." He then says that he plans to send a letter to the owner of the company that made the donation, explaining why it bothers him. He writes, "This letter will include a threat to wage a campaign against them if they don’t reverse course and keep the plants open."
Let's be clear about what DeChristopher is doing here: He's threatening to give back a $25,000 donation because the donor's company is exporting jobs, thus tainting the donation in his eyes. Is this the action of a dangerous criminal?
According to Shea, five days later, on March 9th, DeChristopher was pulled out of his minimum-security camp and told he was being moved to a cell in Herlong’s Special Housing Unit (SHU). "When Tim asked why," Shea explains, "he was told that a U.S. Congressman had called and told prison officials that he was threatening people outside of prison." With that, he hauled off to the SHU, where he has been ever since. He shares his 8 x 10 cell with another man and, according to Shea, has been allowed outside the tiny cell only four times for brief periods of exercise in what Shea describes as "a dog kennel."
I asked Shea how a letter to a colleague threatening to give back a donation could have caused DeChristopher this kind of trouble. "Prison officials have special software they use to scan emails," Shea says. "They picked up on the word 'threat.' If I had to guess what happened next, the content of the email was described by someone in the Bureau of Prisons to someone else, probably someone who had worked for the Bureau in Washington D.C., and the congressman was asked to call the Bureau and demand an investigation. Shortly thereafter, the congressional staff called back on behalf of a congressman and requested an investigation, and that was it. Tim was hauled off the SHU."
I asked Shea if he knew the name of the congressman who called. "I do not," he says. "I only know this because the prison official who hauled Tim out of the camp told him a congressman had called."
How is it that a call from a congressman – some oil-funded hack, no doubt – can get DeChristopher thrown in the hole? How can giving money back – money donated to your legal defense fund, no less! – be considered a threat? "Under federal rules, you are not allowed to organize political action from within the prison," Shea explains. Of course, all DeChristopher did was write a letter discussing the idea, but when you’re deemed an enemy of Big Oil and their cronies in D.C., that is enough. It’s the 21st century equivalent of being a Cold War Soviet spy.
The worst of it, Shea says, is that because DeChristopher is being held under investigation, he is in a Kafka-esque limbo – there are no time limits for when the investigation must start or end, and no appeals to his case are allowed until the investigation concludes.
"He is essentially a political prisoner," says Shea.
Moral outrage aside, DeChristopher’s treatment also brings up First Amendment issues: If you go to jail, do you lose the right of free speech? "Under these rules," Shea asks, "Would Martin Luther King’s 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' have been allowed? I think the answer is an obvious 'no.' And what does that say about the kind of country we’ve become?"
As for how DeChristopher is handling isolation, Shea sounds worried. "I saw Tim last Sunday," he says. "He’s sullen and angry." DeChristopher is allowed very little exercise or fresh air, Shea says, and his cell mate talks all the time and is driving him nuts. He is allowed five books – among them is a history of liberal religion in America. When he is released, he told Shea, he wants to attend Harvard Divinity School and become a Unitarian minister. But right now, that’s still a long way off. "I’ve been visiting prisoners for more than 30 years, and I get concerned when they get that beady-eyed look," Shea says. "And Tim has it."