Activist Tim DeChristopher outside of a Salt Lake City courtroom, courtesy of 350.org on Flickr
Last October, soon after Outside published a profile I wrote of Tim DeChristopher, the incarcerated climate activist who disrupted a December 2008 Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction, I received a worried note via the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ e-mail system. DeChristopher was concerned about the phrasing of a sentence toward the end of my story, which had quoted him referring to a Nevada prison he had stayed in briefly following his sentencing as a “shithole.” He wrote:
To be clear, the shithole was a private prison in Pahrump near Las Vegas, not Reno, and I was only there for two weeks. The place I'm currently in, Herlong, is near Reno, and is very comfortable. I just want to make sure that people don't think I'm still in a shithole. I also don't want the BOP to think I'm trashing Herlong in the media, which could have some extremely negative consequences for me, like the loss of outside communication or transfer to a worse facility.
This was DeChristopher’s only gripe with my piece, which I found surprising. (Profile subjects often take issue with a writer’s characterizations or reporting; most people don’t like to read too much about themselves.) I thought it was a nitpicky point, but Outside printed a correction and I didn’t hear from DeChristopher again. It turns out that his paranoia about the Bureau of Prisons was well-founded. On Friday, March 9, he was moved from Herlong’s minimum security satellite camp to “isolated confinement” in the prison’s special housing unit, where his e-mail was cut off and his phone, visitation, and exercise privileges were severely restricted. According to his supporters with the non-profit Peaceful Uprising, he was only let out of his cell four times during his stay in isolation. Contrary to some tweets and reports, DeChristopher was not in solitary confinement. He had a cellmate, an overly talkative non-violent tax offender.
The reason for the stay in isolation, according to DeChristopher’s lawyer, former BLM director Pat Shea: this e-mail, which DeChristopher sent to a fellow member of Peaceful Uprising on March 5. In the e-mail, DeChristopher instructed a friend to look into the business practices of an unnamed corporation that donated to his legal defense, and that DeChristopher thought was “exporting all their U.S. manufacturing jobs.” DeChristopher wrote that he planned to send a letter to the corporation that would “include a threat to wage a campaign against them if they don’t reverse course and keep the plants open.”
This e-mail appears to have worried the Bureau of Prisons enough that they notified the staff of an unnamed member of Congress, who filed a complaint that prompted an investigation and DeChristopher’s transfer. Peaceful Uprising and DeChristopher’s attorneys knew about his isolation since March 10, but kept quiet for two weeks while they looked into legal options. Yesterday they decided that their best hope was to make an impressive stink with a social media campaign and press barrage. It appears to have worked: last night DeChristopher was moved back to Herlong’s minimum security camp.
“The speculation is that the phone lines at the prison lit up and the warden reviewed the matter and ordered him moved back to the camp,” says Shea, who likened DeChristopher’s transfer to isolation to Kafka’s The Trial.
The prison’s public information officer, Eloisa DeBruler, wouldn’t confirm or deny that DeChristopher had been moved in and out of the special housing unit, but she did acknowledge “getting a lot of calls about Mr. DeChristopher.” However, she said “We don’t make decisions on inmates based on public opinion. It would be ridiculous to to say we’d make decisions based on people calling us.”
So, to recap: a non-violent first-time offender was held in isolation in California’s famously overcrowded prison system for more than two weeks because he threatened to return donated money to a corporation he suspected of cutting American jobs. A bunch of angry people called the prison to protest. In a remarkable coincidence of timing, the non-violent first-time offender was summarily removed from isolation and returned to minimum-security housing. DeChristopher has been told he can expect a release date of April 2013, but according to Shea, that timing could be affected by any ongoing investigation into the March 5 e-mail. The activist’s appeal, filed on grounds of selective prosecution, is scheduled to be heard May 10. As of this morning, DeChristopher is out of the hole, and his e-mail account appears to be active. According to one of his Peaceful Uprising colleagues, he’s “elated.”