Human Rights

What?! Enviro Activist Re-Imprisoned for Writing a Blog Post

Daniel McGowan's wife claims he was jailed for exercising free speech.

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Federal officials sent environmental activist Daniel McGowan back to prison Thursday, just months after his release to a halfway house in December. McGowan’s wife, Jenny Synan says officials re-jailed her husband for writing a Huffington Post blog piece critical of a controversial prison program designed to restrict inmates’ communication to the outside world.

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“Synan told HuffPost that she asked a BOP official why her husband had been re-imprisoned after his release to a halfway house in December,” report HuffPost’s Matt Sledge and Ryan Grimm, “She said the official told her that the HuffPost article violated a term of his release that restricted him from interacting with the media.”

In 2001, McGowan was sentenced to seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to arson in connection with the animal rights group, Earth Liberation Front. Whilst serving his time, prison officials designated him to a division restricting his outside contact called a “Communication Management Unit.” McGowan sought to find out why he was quartered off, eventually obtaining memos explaining his CMU designation. It turns out prison officials frowned upon his continued in-prison activism and demonstrated  “support for anarchist and radical environmental terrorist groups." In a blog post for The Huffington Post, he criticizes the program for segregating prisoners based on their beliefs: 

It became quickly obvious to me that many CMU prisoners were there because of their religion or in retaliation for their speech. By my count, around two-thirds of the men are Muslim, many of whom have been caught up in the so-called "war on terror," others who just spoke out for their rights or allegedly took leadership positions in the Muslim community at other facilities. Some, like me, were prisoners who have political views and perspectives that are not shared by the Department of Justice.

Three days after McGowan wrote the preceding paragraph, he was rearrested. "He just posted his thing a few days ago about all this stuff -- about his political beliefs and speech -- and they do something to him because of his post about this. It's crazy," Syan said.

Assuming McGowan was rejailed for his blog post the question of whether the BOP acted legally might rest on whether writing for the Huffington Post constitutes as speaking to the media. In a statement to HuffPost, Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Chris Burke said, “inmates cannot do interviews without permission. So if there's some sort of a phone interview or a sit-in interview, those have to be pre-approved."

But HuffPost executive editor Stuart Whatley says a media interview and blog contribution represents a false equivalency.

"The HuffPost blog is a platform for contributors to share opinion, commentary and their thoughts on any topic of their choosing," Whatley said. "As our guidelines explicitly state, 'you can write about anything you want. Huffington Post does not select or approve your topics.'"

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.