Thirsty, Cold, and Scooping Feces With Their Hands: Crisis in Reality Winner’s Texas Prison

“These women — they’re trapped. They can’t escape this. They can’t do something to better their situation at all.”

The exterior of Federal Medical Center Carswell, a prison in Fort Worth, Texas, seen in May 2019. Photo: Taylor Barnes

As millions of people across Texas suffered from power and water outages during extreme cold from a winter storm this week, women at the federal prison in Fort Worth where National Security Agency whistleblower Reality Winner is imprisoned faced alarming conditions. The detained women were forced to literally take matters into their own hands — in a disgusting way.

Winner told family and a friend that incarcerated women at her prison “took one for the team” and used their hands to scoop feces from overflowing toilets that hadn’t been flushed due to the prolonged water outage.

“Reality told me that the toilets stopped working because there wasn’t any water and things got disgusting really fast.”

“Reality told me that the toilets stopped working because there wasn’t any water and things got disgusting really fast,” said Brittany Winner, who spoke with her sister Reality by video chat. “Some inmates put on rubber gloves to scoop out the shit and throw it away to get rid of it because of the smell.”

Many of the women, like Winner, are at Federal Medical Center Carswell because they have chronic medical needs that the prison, a medical detention center, is tasked with treating. But the toilet incident was one of several unsanitary and unhealthy hardships that the women endured, according to advocates and a detailed press report, during a week of extreme weather that has left dozens dead nationwide. While the frigid prison was dealing with internal temperatures so cold that one incarcerated woman told a local reporter that her hands were blue and shaking, it was also still contending with an ongoing Covid-19 outbreak that has already taken the lives of six women incarcerated there.

In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said interruptions to service were minor. “Similar to many of those in the surrounding community and across the state of Texas dealing with heat and water issues during the recent winter storm, the Federal Medical Center (FMC) Carswell experienced minor power, heat, and hot water issues that affected the main supply channels,” Emery Nelson, a bureau public affairs official, said in an email. “However, back-up systems were in place and FMC Carswell maintained power, heat, and hot water until the main supply issues were resolved.” Nelson also said incarcerated people at Carswell “had access to potable water with no disruptions or shortages, to include hot water for showers, and the ability to flush toilets.”

A report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week said that the “medical portion of the prison” — the hospital facilities — appeared to maintain heat, but the newspaper also collected accounts from the housing units that matched those given by Winner’s advocates: shortages of hot water, loss of heat, and issues with waste management.

Suffering was widespread across Texas, where local authorities have raised alarm over people so desperate for warmth that they used cars and charcoal grills to heat their homes and suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. To Winner’s advocates, the crisis inside the prison felt like the latest unjust blow for an incarcerated person who, like many across the United States’s sprawling prison system, could have been released to home confinement long ago when the government made a halfhearted effort to reduce the federal prison population in the early days of the pandemic. Prosecutors involved in Winner’s case opposed the policy and successfully argued to keep the whistleblower behind bars, where she eventually was infected with Covid-19.

“These women — they’re trapped,” Reality’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, said of the sub-freezing temperatures in Fort Worth this week. “They can’t escape this. They can’t do something to better their situation at all.”

No Water, No Heat

Winner’s family and friends first heard from the whistleblower about winter storm conditions in her prison on Monday, when she told them that water had been intermittently off since Saturday afternoon. This meant the women detained inside not only couldn’t flush toilets, but that they also couldn’t wash their hands or drink from water fountains, Winner told them.

“She was so dehydrated and so thirsty,” Winner’s friend and advocate Wendy Meer Collins said. Collins added that Winner was so desperate to shower that she had given herself what she called a “birdbath” using ice cubes from a machine.

In addition to the water shortages, the furnace appeared to be off or insufficiently functioning for much of the week, even though the prison appeared to mostly maintain power, according to Winner’s advocates and the report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which said women put socks on their hands and guards wore winter coats and hats indoors to stay warm. The Bureau of Prisons said there was a “maintenance period” in the prison and that internal temperatures were “monitored” but did not specify what needed to be maintained nor when it was fixed.

During the days of sub-freezing temperatures, women at FMC Carswell needed to walk in ice and snow outdoors to go to the cafeteria to get meals, according to Winner-Davis and Collins. The women don’t even have the option to huddle together to stay warm, Collins said, as Winner has been punished in the past for hugging a fellow incarcerated person in violation of the prison’s unauthorized contact policy. (Despite saying that the prison had “maintained” heat, the Bureau of Prisons also told The Intercept that it distributed extra blankets to incarcerated women.)

By the time Winner spoke to her mother on Thursday morning, she told her that heat had been recently restored in their building.

The miserable week inside the cold prison spurred a new round of calls for relief from supporters who back the year-old clemency campaign for Winner, their eyes now on the new administration.

Winner, who blew the whistle on threats to election security, is currently serving the longest prison sentence of its kind under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law used in recent years to send journalists’ sources to prison, even as comparable defendants have simply gotten probation for “mishandling classified information.”


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The government itself acknowledges that Winner’s intent was to send the document she leaked to journalists and therefore warn the American public, rather than use it for personal gain. 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. (The Press Freedom Defense Fund, another First Look Media company, supported Winner’s legal defense.)

Her clemency campaign has drawn a diverse array of political supporters, including the President George W. Bush-era “secrecy czar” responsible for overseeing classification procedures, who wrote an op-ed calling for Winner to be Biden’s first pardon, as well as a prominent congressional Libertarian who said using the Espionage Act to prosecute her was unjust and abusive.

Winner was the first national security whistleblower prosecuted by the last administration, and Collins believes that a Democratic White House, whose voters are motivated by issues of election integrity and security, should signal a clear break with the 45th presidency and allow Winner to go home.

“This is Trump’s political prisoner, and it’s time to let her out,” Collins said. “She’s served more time than she ever should have anyway.”

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