Our Voices > Reform Debate

David v. Goliath: Fighting Back

May 26, 2024

By Pam Bailey

Federal prisons are purposefully built in remote, rural areas, and even further hidden from the rest of society by tall fences, coils of wire and thick, concrete walls. As I told my co-founder in a recent episode of the Voices Unlocked podcast, “When I came to visit you a couple of weeks ago, I got in the car to drive to the prison from my hotel. And it was like, as each minute went by, all of a sudden, there weren’t any businesses, there weren’t any homes. It got more and more rural and desolate-feeling with each twist and turn. I realized then why, when I went into a store the evening before, the cashier didn’t even know there was a prison in her town. This is why people are really unaware of what goes behind these walls. They don’t even have the opportunity to care about what’s happening in prison, because they don’t see you.”

Prison staff work in other ways to keep what goes on behind those walls secret. One of them is to obstruct and censor communication between “adults in custody” (the BOP’s new, politically correct term for prisoners) and those outside who want to expose their transgressions. And as a result, I recently filed a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons. 

FCI Cumberland, MD: the first threat

BOP staff started its passive-aggressive campaign against me in spring 2022, when an officer with the bureau’s investigative service threatened to send one of MTOC’s network members to the SHU and “mess with” his upcoming halfway house placement if he didn’t stop writing to me about an abusive CO. Feeling that he had no choice but to buckle, he removed me from his approved email list. (It wasn’t until he finally made it to the halfway house several months later that he was able to reach back out to me and explain.)

FCI Ray Brook, NY: the first mass ban

In August of that year, The Washington Post published an article on the misuse of Inmate Trust Fund money by the BOP, and I sent it to all the members of the More Than Our Crimes network. Within 24 hours, I received this notice for every individual with whom I was connected at the medium-security Ray Brook prison:

This message informs you that you have been blocked from communicating with the above-named federal prisoner because the Bureau has determined that such communication is detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, or might facilitate criminal activity. 
[This is the same message I receive every time a ban occurs]

As instructed, I wrote to the warden of the prison, asking what exactly I had done. The only response I received was that several of my network members had not associated my email address with my full legal name, as they are required to do. But…what did that have to do with my alleged “detrimental” impact on the security of the facility? No answer.

USP Big Sandy, KY: second mass ban and harassment

Four months later, in December 2022, my email was blocked again, this time at the high-security Big Sandy prison. Once again, I asked why, this time through legal counsel. And also once again, the answer (this time from the regional office, since the warden remained quiet) was vague, with no substantiation offered. In addition, one particular network member was unexpectedly taken to the SHU by six officers and interrogated about his phone calls with me. They warned him against any further conversations, calling me a “spider sitting in the middle of a web.” (No, this is not a James Bond movie!) 

Our network member was confined in the SHU for six more months, then transferred out. 

USP Beaumont, TX: third mass ban

In March 2023, another prison joined the campaign against me. This time, the banning of my email came immediately after I emailed a network member about my efforts to organize family members with loved ones in a federal prison in Florida. (I guess that idea didn’t go over well!) 

Hazelton, WV: fourth mass ban and harassment worsens

Last year, I began targeting the federal Hazelton complex, which has both a medium- and high-security prison. I held numerous conversations with Sen. Joe Manchin’s office, which resulted in a scathing letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and BOP Director Colette Peters, as well as a hotline for reporting complaints, set up by the U.S. attorney’s office. However, Hazelton staff blocked the prisoners from accessing the hotline. When I offered to submit abuse reports on their behalf, and two network members followed through, my email address was banned again and they were fired from their jobs, then transferred to other institutions. (Note that when I pitched this story to a local NPR affiliate and he tried to interview several of our network members, his email and his phone number were banned. He dropped the story.)

Enough is enough

Now, I’m fighting back. I was fortunate enough to find a pro bono attorney to assist, and my suit has been filed (case No. 24-cv-1219). Oral argument is scheduled for June. So far, the BOP’s lawyer has responded not by addressing any of my charges, but by going on a fishing expedition. He has staff spending taxpayer money to search all of my emails, looking for rules I have broken. The only one he has found so far is that after I sent a beautiful essay written by one man in prison about the power of forgiveness to the rest of our network, I passed on the response of another, wishing him “peace, light and love.” (It’s not clear, but this may have crossed the line by allowing communication between two adults in custody.)

It is time the BOP is forced to be transparent about its real motives. It should not be allowed to hide behind grandiose claims of “criminal activity” and “dangers to security.” And if it can’t justify its censorship, then the censorship has to stop. “Adults in custody” deserve to be heard.

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