Environmental activist Daniel McGowan is out of prison, but he’s not out of the woods. He was incarcerated for seven years for his alleged involvement in arson at an Oregon lumber company, then thrown back in prison for writing about how his beliefs got him branded a terrorist. He’s now been released, but only after being told he can’t publish his opinions or talk to the press.
McGowan is the central figure in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls, which details the lead-up to his prison sentence for arson credited to the Earth Liberation Front. He was released this past December to a halfway house in New York City.
McGowan spent more than two years of his sentence in a Communication Management Unit (CMU), where his contact with the outside world through letters and phone calls was highly restricted. In a piece published in The Huffington Post on April 1, McGowan explains how he ended up in the CMU: The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) didn’t like what he was writing about environmental activism from his cell. “In short, based on its disagreement with my political views, the government sent me to a prison unit from which it would be harder for me to be heard, serving as a punishment for my beliefs,” he writes. McGowan learned these details after filing a lawsuit on behalf of himself and other CMU prisoners. Through the lawsuit, the BOP was forced to reveal some damning internal memos. McGowan:
The following speech is listed in these memos to justify my designation to these ultra-restrictive units:
My attempts to “unite” environmental and animal liberation movements, and to “educate” new members of the movement about errors of the past; my writings about “whether militancy is truly effective in all situations”; a letter I wrote discussing bringing unity to the environmental movement by focusing on global issues; the fact that I was “publishing [my] points of view on the internet in an attempt to act as a spokesperson for the movement”; and the BOP’s belief that, through my writing, I have “continued to demonstrate [my] support for anarchist and radical environmental terrorist groups.”
On April 4, three days after McGowan’s post was published, the BOP responded by — what else? — throwing him back in prison for talking about what he wasn’t supposed to talk about.
He was issued an “incident report” indicating that his Huffington Post blog post violated a BOP regulation prohibiting inmates from “publishing under a byline.” The BOP regulation in question was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 2007, and eliminated by the BOP in 2010. On Friday, April 5, after we brought Daniel’s unjust detention to the BOP’s attention, he was released from [Metropolitan Detention Center], and the incident report was expunged.
McGowan’s attorneys described the situation as “difficult, disturbing and ridiculous.” But it didn’t end there. The Huffington Post reports:
Upon being released, McGowan was forced to sign a document stating that “writing articles, appearing in any type of television or media outlets, news reports and/or documentaries without prior BOP approval is strictly prohibited.” Violating that agreement, which he signed under duress, might mean going back to jail.
After HuffPo contacted BOP about the issue, the bureau backpedaled. “He’s not prohibited from doing that,” said Lamine N’Diaye, a BOP public information officer. She told HuffPo that if McGowan writes another blog post, “he’s not going to be punished.”
But the situation is chilling, and not just for McGowan. Regardless of what might have landed him in prison in the first place, we all still supposedly enjoy First Amendment protections of our political speech. At least for now — full Green Scare pending.
Get Grist in your inbox