In the days before Christmas, National Security Agency whistleblower Reality Winner’s family got together to decorate their homes and celebrate the birth of her sister’s new baby. For Winner, the young Air Force veteran, the holiday brought a different sort of gathering: Her federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, had yet another Covid-19 outbreak, prompting her unit to go into lockdown.
The restrictions meant that there were no religious services for the incarcerated women to attend. Likewise, Winner would miss out on much of her holiday mail. Letters from her supporters are the closest thing to a gift that Winner gets her hands on — her friend and advocate Wendy Meer Collins said they mean “everything” to her — but many letters were being rejected by her prison for what her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, said appeared to be objections as capricious as being typed rather than handwritten.
Leading up to the holiday season, Winner had even lost her phone privileges for a month after hugging a fellow incarcerated person on a day she was battling severe anxiety, a move that violated the prison’s unauthorized contact policy, according to her mother. Though the privileges were restored on Christmas Day, Winner spent much of the holiday season losing touch with the outside world.
The communication breakdowns marked a tough end of year for Winner. She lost a series of legal cases for compassionate release amid the coronavirus pandemic and seemed increasingly unlikely to be granted clemency by President Donald Trump. After all, the document she allegedly released to the public — for which she received the longest-ever Espionage Act sentence for a leak to the media — was about Russian interference in U.S. elections, a Trump bête noire. (The NSA report detailed phishing attacks by Russian military intelligence on local U.S. election officials and was published in a June 2017 article by The Intercept, whose parent company, First Look Media, contributed to Winner’s legal fund through the Press Freedom Defense Fund.)
Things could look up in the Biden administration — her allies were beginning a push for early release under the new government, with some signs of hope — but Winner was, for the moment, dealing with the vagaries of incarceration and missing the things she loved most.
The Winner family usually spends a whole day together in the kitchen to bake Christmas cookies, but during lockdown, she had to rely on meals delivered to her unit. The meals often weren’t plant-based, her mother said, defying Winner to choose between sustenance and keeping a diet she maintains for ethical and health reasons, stemming from an eating disorder that developed during her time working in the drone program.
“These people were out to harm. Reality Winner was out to help.”
As Winner endured especially poignant daily hardships, along with the hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned across America’s vast carceral state, Trump issued a flurry of pardons to his wealthy cronies and politically connected defendants. Some of the beneficiaries included former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, who was convicted of tax and bank fraud; the father-in-law of Trump’s daughter Ivanka, Charles Kushner, who served prison time for tax evasion and attempting to blackmail his own brother-in-law, a federal witness; and former Blackwater contractors imprisoned for massacring Iraqi civilians.
Collins, who leads a social media campaign to raise awareness of the whistleblower’s harsh sentence, said the pardons highlight the injustices reserved for the powerless: “These people were out to harm. Reality Winner was out to help.”
With a year of confinement left in her record-breaking sentence for whistleblowing and a series of recent defeats in the justice system, Winner’s supporters are reinvigorating her campaign for a pardon or clemency. And, in a recent boost, several influential parties have joined their ranks.
Seeking to get Winner into home confinement in the early weeks of the pandemic — something that would not only have brought peace of mind to her and her family but that also was in line with pandemic policy guidance to prisons from then-Attorney General William Barr — her defense team looked to the courts. When a federal judge declined to hear her bid for compassionate release in April, he ominously said that her prison, officially a medical facility, would be “presumably better equipped than most to deal with any onset of Covid-19 in its inmates.” Just four days after that statement, the prison recorded the first death of an incarcerated person from the disease.
Winner’s compassionate release appeal languished as the virus surged in her prison, claiming six incarcerated people’s lives and infecting hundreds of women, including Winner, by July. A three-judge appeals panel that included two Trump appointees heard her case, brought pro bono by attorney Baruch Weiss, and, earlier this month, upheld the lower court’s decision. But they equivocated on whether the nonviolent offender who had already served the lion’s share of her sentence really needed to spend the rest of the pandemic behind bars.
“[T]here will be occasions in which we affirm the district court even though we would have gone the other way had it been our call,” Judge Beverly Martin wrote, citing an applicable past ruling.
Alison Grinter, Winner’s Dallas-based attorney, saw some redemption in that hand-wringing statement. “I think that nobody’s really eager to say, ‘Here’s a woman that belongs in prison,’” Grinter said. “That’s cool, I guess, but not a lot of comfort to a woman who’s in prison.”
FMC Carswell, the facility where Winner is held, and the Bureau of Prisons did not respond to written questions from The Intercept about Winner’s food, access to religious services, mail delivery, and the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine in her prison. However, some people in federal detention reportedly began receiving the vaccine in late December, and Winner’s mother says some people at her facility are among the first vaccinations.
Even as courts have spurned her requests, a diverse array of political actors called on the incoming Biden administration to turn its pardon power on an Air Force veteran who been given the most severe punishment by the federal justice system for whistleblowing to the media, an act that the government acknowledges was done with the intent to send it to journalists, and therefore warn the American public, rather than for personal gain.
In December, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian, became the first sitting member of Congress to call for Winner to receive clemency, calling her punishment “unjust” because of the “the abusive application of the Espionage Act,” the World War I-era legislation used to prosecute her and similar defendants, even though they share information not with foreign adversaries but with the U.S. public.
Shortly after that, Republican J. William Leonard, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and former director of the Information Security Oversight Office — the “secrecy czar” responsible for overseeing classification procedures during the George W. Bush presidency — said that Winner should be Joe Biden’s first pardon when he takes office. In a Washington Post op-ed, he wrote that the public interest of Winner’s actions “far outweigh[s] any claims of damage” by the government.
“At a time when this sacred process of our democracy is being attacked by party partisans, the ability of local, state and federal government officials to attest to the security of our election process has a profound impact upon the well-being of our nation and its democratic institutions,” Leonard wrote. “Many of these same officials first became aware of the vulnerability of our elections only after Winner’s leak to the media.”
At least one incoming member of Biden’s Cabinet has expressed support for Winner. His nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, wrote about Winner on Twitter in 2018, asking: “Has everyone just forgotten this woman is languishing in jail?”
Marianne Williamson, a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, frequently calls for Winner’s release on social media. And, in an unexpected twist, former Trump confidant-turned-informant Michael Cohen has also become a supporter, telling Business Insider it would be part of his atonement for his former support of the president.
“We believe Reality did what she believed was right and acted in defense of her country, which is what our troops are trained to do.”
A military advocacy group, Military Families Speak Out, has also joined the fray, planning a letter-writing campaign around the inauguration to get her name on the president’s radar.
“We believe Reality did what she believed was right and acted in defense of her country, which is what our troops are trained to do,” Pat Alviso, Military Families Speak Out’s national coordinator, said in a statement. “Her continued imprisonment sends a message to all military families, and that is: When your loved one comes home, our government is not going to protect them or give them the slightest consideration they deserve.”
Collins, the advocate leading Winner’s social media campaign, thinks the time is right for a broad coalition to back Winner’s bid for clemency or a pardon, since even national security hawks can say that, after three-and-a-half years behind bars, the veteran has served enough time.
Looking ahead to the inauguration, Collins said, “Two weeks before, we’re going to hit it as hard as we’ve ever hit it.”
Grinter, the attorney, is optimistic that the administration will listen to her campaigners. “I believe that a pardon for Reality, or at the very least commutation for Reality, will be something that we’ll see before the spring.”
Even as she looks to the 46th president, Winner’s mother is still using all of the tools in her kit to also target the current one.
“I continue to come to write to the White House every single day, asking for her release,” Winner-Davis said. “Even though people tell me that Trump is not going to do this, I can’t stop asking. This is my daughter’s life.”