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Prison Whistleblowers, Too, Are Vulnerable

Prison Whistleblowers, Too, Are Vulnerable

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

This week, White House counsel informed House Democrats that the White House will not cooperate with their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The letter states, in part, “You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a matter that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process.” As has become common for this administration, concerns about due process and fundamental fairness are misplaced. A more legitimate beneficiary of these concerns might be the whistleblower, who may find himself vulnerable.

It isn’t supposed to be this way. More than 240 years ago, at the dawn of the U.S., American officials recognized the need for whistleblower protections. America’s first whistleblower-protection law, which Congress passed on July 30, 1778, was prompted by a slave runner named Esek Hopkins. He was the commander in chief of the first U.S. Navy, but members of his crew came forward with information that he was torturing British prisoners of war. According to Allison Stanger, who has written a book on American whistleblowers, Hopkins was guilty not only of torture: He “repeatedly defied General George Washington’s orders for where and when to engage the British during the war when they conflicted with his self-interest,” she wrote in The Atlantic. “Rhode Island elites were addicted to the illegal slave trade, and that corruption was at odds with the ideals of the new republic and the state’s own laws.”

The first whistleblower protection law mandated that “America’s public servants were obligated to report wrongdoing in government whenever they encountered it,” Stanger writes. It also protected whistle-blowers from retaliation. “Despite being at war and strapped for resources, Congress paid [the whistleblowers’] legal fees,” which, in addition to provisions that ensured future whistleblowers legal counsel to fight libel charges and authorized all records in that case to be publicly released, indicated that “Congress clearly considered it crucial to support whistleblowers.”

But presidents, even those more respectful of rule of law than the current one, have not always treated whistleblowers in the same spirit. “I don’t think that [Edward] Snowden was a patriot,” President Barack Obama said in 2013 after the former National Security Agency contractor leaked revelations of mass surveillance to journalists. “Obama’s argument then—one that has been made many times since—was that Snowden had legal channels available to him to address his concerns, which would have protected the classified information in his leaks and, by extension, U.S. national security,” writes Mike Giglio in The Atlantic. “The idea that Snowden’s specific revelations could have been addressed in this way has always been a subject for debate. The broader notion that the U.S. intelligence community’s whistleblower system is inadequate, however, is a common one among whistleblower lawyers and advocates.”

“And the new controversy surrounding a whistleblower complaint involving President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader has highlighted one of the main problems: Too much power to decide the fate of such complaints lies in the hands of authorities, even when they may be implicated by the allegations,” Giglio adds. In other words, the people who are the subjects of the whistleblowing are often the ones that whistleblowers are supposed to approach first. “The very agency that is being accused of the misconduct sits as the prosecutor, judge, and jury, so to speak, on the whistle-blower’s retaliation case,” said David Colapinto, a founder and general counsel of the National Whistleblower Center.

Nowhere are whistleblowers more needed, and less supported, than in prisons and jails. Corrections facilities are some of the most paramilitary in structure and least transparent organizations in the country. Abuse is rampant. All this makes the need for whistleblowing high and the ease of doing so low.

In Arizona, a corrections officer who prompted a statewide investigation after leaking prison-security footage showing attacks on officers and inmates lost a week of pay and a chance at a promotion. Her disciplinary record was later cleared. Contreras told reporters that she leaked security footage as a last resort, after supervisors ignored her complaints.

In Florida, a 34-year-old corrections officer with less than four years on the job, was moved to blow the whistle after he was part of an “extraction team” that gouged a frail man’s eye out. That day, prisoner “Kelly Bradley crouched in the corner of his cell, cowering under a blanket, as five officers clad in riot gear barreled inside and jumped on him, pinning him face-down,” reported the Miami Herald in 2015. “As they cuffed Bradley’s wrists and ankles, one of the officers, William Hamilton Wilson, reached toward Bradley’s face and dug his index finger into the inmate’s eye — several times —until he ripped out Bradley’s right eyeball.”

When asked, no one on the team talked about what happened. “No one saw anything. No one heard anything. No one could explain how Bradley’s eyeball ended up on his cheek, dangling by a thread.” The captain in charge appared unfazed. He “told the officers to write up only what they individually did, leaving out the injury, then ordered the cell cleaned up to make room for the next [prisoner]. The officers’ gloves were discarded, and the gear was washed of blood.” A similar extraction, in 2014, left a different prisoner dead, and no one to blame for the death. Bradley’s beating would have had the same result if Pisciotta had not spoken out.

Wilson was arrested. “After testifying against Wilson, Pisciotta was fired and lost almost everything: his home, his friends, his pension and his career.” “I knew once I did the right thing, and I stepped forward…my career would be over,” Pisciotta testified during Wilson’s federal criminal trial. “It’s something you don’t do. You don’t go against other officers. Because my life has been a living hell ever since.’’

Wilson served five years in federal prison and was released in December. Six other officers were involved and four of them were promoted. “The average corrections officer lives every day with the absolute fear of speaking up, said Ron McAndrew, a former warden.” He would know: After he spoke up about an incident, his dog was poisoned and died.

“During her four years as the supervisor of a program for teen [prisoners] jailed at the Clemens Unit in Brazoria, an adult prison, Dominique Mitchell repeatedly alleged abuse and neglect,” reported the Dallas Morning News last year. “A mentally ill teenager was taunted by guards who told him to kill himself. Another teen had been in solitary for two years.” She was derided and isolated as a “snitch,” and eventually lost her job.

And earlier this year, the world got a disturbing glimpse into a brutal prison, St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama, because someone leaked photographs to the New York Times. One picture shows a cell where a desperate man used a razor blade to cut himself and write a plea for help in blood on the wall, with letters about the height of a cinder block: “I ask everyone for help,” it said. “Mental Health won’t help.”

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