On Saturday, I drove three and a half hours with Firedoglake editor-in-chief Jane Hamsher from Washington, DC, to the federal correctional institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, to visit former CIA officer and whistleblower John Kiriakou.
He has been imprisoned for nearly a year and in that time Firedoglake has been publishing “Letters from Loretto,” which have provided him a way to share his experiences inside the prison with the world (and also provided the prison with excuses for retaliating against him).
We arrived at the prison about noon. Though we had tried to go in as press, we did not get approved because it is a lengthy bureaucratic process that time did not allow for. The prison had only started processing our request a few days ago when we requested permission to interview Kiriakou. So, we instead went in as visitors, who Kiriakou had put on his visitors list.
The guard at the security station by the entrance to the facility took our personal information and began the process of allowing us to enter the facility. He noticed that Hamsher was wearing camouflage pants and told her she could not enter wearing them, so she went into the bathroom and turned the pants inside out. (Kiriakou had never known or heard of such a rule.)
I looked at the “Visitors Rules.” The facility could not have been more clear that they want all visitors to come in “conservative dress.” I could not find anywhere that it said specifically no camouflage pants. Visitors are apparently not supposed to wear “utility pants” or “fitness” clothing for whatever reason. It said in one part of the rules “nothing vulger.” (Yes, the word was spelled like that.)
The visitors room can probably seat fifty to seventy-five people. An officer seats us in plastic utilitarian chairs. The room is probably a little over half full with visitors and inmates filling rows of chairs, which face each other. The inmates sit on one side and visitors sit on the other.
I sit across from Hamsher while she asks if I have ever been to a federal prison. I answer no. Minutes later, we see Kiriakou come out of a door wearing teal colored inmate attire and hand some kind of a slip to a guard in a station watching over the visitors room. He shakes my hand, gives Hamsher a hug and then tells me a guard is going to ask me to move because I am sitting on the wrong side. I move and Kiriakou sits down.
Kiriakou does not waste a moment getting to the latest on his situation in prison. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP), he reports, has come back with an even worse deal for finishing the last part of his 30-month sentence. He says he is only going to get 86 days in a halfway house. (According to Kiriakou’s wife they recently released a guard who had assaulted a prisoner to a halfway house after serving only 6 months of his sentence.)
BOP, on top of that, is not going to allow him to be on house arrest so he can help his wife take care of his five children. He will have to live somewhere away from home and probably work some place like a Subway.
The BOP and Kiriakou had done some dealmaking. He had agreed to stop writing letters from prison that were published in the media (here at Firedoglake), no more interviews with the press and the withdraw of formal complaints against two officers in the prison. In return, he would get nine months in a halfway house. The BOP came back with five to six months. Kiriakou believed the prison had broken its promise to him so he refused to no longer be silent. The letters from prison resumed and so did press interviews.
Recent weeks have been intense for him with officers ordering his roommate Dave come down to talk to Special Investigative Service (SIS) to inform on Kiriakou. They wanted him to tell them how he was getting his letters out of the prison. This was typical stupidity because Kiriakou has broken no rules and mails the letters as inmates are expected to do. An officer also tried to pull his desk out from the wall of his housing unit in order to “stop” him from writing letters from prison. He boorishly struggled with the tools he was using and eventually did not succeed because Kiriakou complained and the prison decided to leave the desk alone.
It has been about a year since I last spoke to Kiriakou. I interviewed him just weeks before he was to report to prison in February. He explains that he never intended to do something like “Letters from Loretto.”
His first letter was to go out to the mailing list of supporters who followed updates at his defense website. But a letter was provided to Firedoglake and was published here. It was then picked up by numerous publications. He recalled how surprised he was to see outlets like The Economist, Playboy, the BBC, etc, each post something about the letter. That helped convince him to write regularly from prison.
Kiriakou is writing two books in prison. One is being written with Dave, who is a fellow CIA veteran. The book will detail how they have managed life in the prison and their shared experiences together. (The draft was actually taken by an officer who claimed it “made threats to staff” and then later returned when that could not be confirmed.)
He appears to be healthy. He says he has gained weight in prison. He mentions that the prison is supposed to give inmates 2200 calories a day. The facility will reach that calorie count by giving inmates cake or Pop-Tarts at each meal.
Kiriakou’s housing unit has six people in an 8 x 12 cell. He suggests that the prison does suffer from overcrowding. (According to the Open Society Foundations, “Federal prisons currently operate at between 35 to 40 percent above capacity.” That is about how overcrowded Kiriakou said FCI Loretto happens to be. Like most US prisons, some of that is a result of sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.)
A sizable percentage of the inmate population at Loretto are pedophiles. His last letter to mention pedophiles explicitly put the focus on BOP and how it fails to handle pedophiles appropriately by getting them the treatment they need. (Kiriakou noted he had suggested 30% of the population are pedophiles. The warden said that was incorrect. He laughably warned him that a pedophile was going to shank him if he didn’t watch it. Later, an officer told him the percentage was actually higher—closer to 40%.
Kiriakou has been following what has transpired with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and the release of stories based on documents Snowden provided to journalists. What he knows comes from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
When the Times published its editorial in support of Snowden, he cut it out and kept it. He has not disagreed with anything that has come from Snowden so far, however, he did laugh a little when there was outrage over spying on world leaders. As a former CIA agent he says that kind of intelligence gathering activity has always been routine.
It has pleased him to see that the public mostly accepts that Snowden is a whistleblower. As he advised Snowden in a letter from June 2013, he should not return home to the United States. He still contends Snowden would not receive a fair trial or be able to present what could be called a whistleblower defense.
Kiriakou will not turn down any press interviews. Any media can call the main number for FCI Loretto and ask for Jared Rardin, an executive assistant at the prison, and he will begin the weeks-long process of clearing reporters for an interview with him.
Those who gain access can come during normal business hours during the week. There is a small room inside of the visitors room with a table. Kiriakou said he has spoken to reporters for multiple hours, and the prison has even allowed journalists to have their audio recorders while conducting the interview.
BBC News came to interview him at the prison one morning. They were supposed to talk to him at 8:30 am, but they were an hour late. He learned that the woman they had sent to do the interview was told she could not enter the prison in her skirt. She had to drive to the nearest town and buy a pair of pants.
Kiriakou did not necessarily see himself as a political prisoner until recently. The manipulations of his sentence, where the BOP has decreased his time in the halfway house and refused to him give him any time on house arrest, convinced him that he is indeed a political prisoner. The prison is going to intimidate and harass him in many different ways, especially until he silences himself and quits telling the world what it is like in a low-security prison.
From the visit with Kiriakou, I realize how important it is for inmates to maintain contact with the outside world. They will hang on every word and, when they need help, they really need help.
He appreciates the hundreds of calls people are making to the BOP director, Charles Samuels. He also said he reads all the letters he receives each day, and is committed to responding to every one. And, when asked if he would do it all over again, he says he would. Government is dangerously unaccountable today and he has no regrets about speaking out against waterboarding by President George W. Bush’s administration in a manner that led him to become a target for the government, which he believes sought to find anything they could to put him in prison and eventually did.