Reality Winner, the former government contractor who revealed the first public evidence that Russian hackers targeted U.S. voting systems, has been in prison for three years, 10 months, and 23 days while serving the longest-ever sentence imposed by a federal court for leaking classified information to a media outlet.
Winner, 29, has a question for President Joe Biden about her case:
"Under the previous administration, I received more time than an actual Russian spy,” Winner stated, referring to Maria Butina, a Russian agent sentenced to 18 months. ”Is the Biden administration interested in correcting this glaring discrepancy in judicial outcomes?"
Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, provided her question to The Uprising. On Friday, I put Winner’s question to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who declined to comment.
I also asked Psaki whether Biden is considering Winner’s request for clemency. Billie, who has been a persistent advocate for her daughter, said that, at this point, she’s given up hope of a pardon and just wants to be released ahead of schedule. The White House declined to comment on that as well.
As is, Billie said Winner is set to be released on Nov. 23 with a chance she could be sent to a halfway house even sooner than that.
“I'm overjoyed. I'm scared to death though,” Billie said in a phone conversation earlier this month.
“You always think that the rug’s going to be pulled out from under you, like as you get to the finish line,” she explained. “You hate to even count the days because you're terrified that something will happen that will make it not happen, you know?”
Those anxieties are exacerbated by the harsh conditions Billie says her daughter is facing at FMC Carswell, a prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Winner was one of 500 women who tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility last year. According to Billie, Winner, who requested compassionate release during the outbreak, was mockingly “congratulated” by guards when she tested positive. Billie has also claimed the guards put onions in inmates’ food and said Winner has been blocked from receiving mail. Prison officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about these allegations.
Irrespective of the conditions of Winner’s confinement, outside observers have described her punishment as extreme due to the length of her sentence and the clear importance of the information she sought to make public. J. William Leonard, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, penned a Washington Post op-ed last December saying it would be the “right thing” for Biden to pardon Winner since her “actions have clearly been in the public interest.” MSNBC host Chris Hayes called Winner’s treatment “honestly insane” in a podcast last year. Prosecutors see the sentence as a deterrent to other potential leakers.
Before working as a contractor, Winner was an Air Force veteran who specialized in foreign languages, including Farsi and multiple Afghan dialects. Her contracting job involved translating documents from Iran and Afghanistan. The importance of the information Winner leaked and her intention in doing so was not factored in during her trial. As New York Magazine writer Kerry Howley reported in a definitive 2017 profile of Winner, prosecutors heavily focused on quirky writings and comments Winner made in calls with her family that were recorded while she was in jail awaiting trial.
Billie has tried to keep her daughters’ name in the headlines by offering herself up for a steady stream of interviews. Despite these efforts, she doesn’t believe Winner’s case has received nearly enough attention.
“I had the hope that there would be like a … knight in shining armor that would come to her rescue … because she did the right thing,” Billie said. “She gave us the truth and the truth needed to be out there, but as it unfolded, I saw that her name was never going to be connected to that.”
Billie’s efforts have included attempts to plead with two different presidents, Donald Trump, and now, Joe Biden. On the day of Winner was sentenced in August 2018, Trump tweeted that it was “so unfair.” However, Trump’s message was directed at his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who he was publicly feuding with at the time. Trump never brought up the case again and he didn’t include Winner among the spate of pardons he issued during his final months in office.
“He knew who Reality Winner was. … I really did have some hope that he might at the end … release her,” Billie said. “Because with Trump, you never knew what he was going to do. … I just, I kept my hopes up until the end and then all of the pardons that he did at the end, each one was like a slap in the face.”
Since Trump’s departure in January, Billie said she has received “no responses whatsoever” from Biden’s administration despite making calls, writing letters, having campaigns with supporters sending mail, and leaving “a daily message” on the White House website.
“I understand he's super busy,” she said of Biden. “They've got so much to tackle, I get that, with COVID and just everything. … But it's just, it is heartbreaking for me to not have any kind of answer whatsoever. … She's not asking for a pardon at this point. She has only applied a petition for clemency and that's what we're asking for. We're saying enough is enough.”
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