When she was locked away in a military prison in June 1982, Joann Newak had no illusions about either military justice or military vindictiveness. Both were harsh. The 24-year-old Air Force lieutenant--once praised in evaluation reports for her integrity, ethics and morals--had been sentenced to six years at hard labor for offenses that would not have been prosecuted in a civilian court.
Off duty and off base, she used pot recreationally, had a brief relationship with a woman and believed that some diet pills in her possession were illegal amphetamines.
When I reported the case in columns last October and January, Newak wrote letters to me from the Fort Leavenworth, Kan., military prison, saying she believed the worst was behind her. She understood the trap she happened to be caught in.
The military, swamped with applications, had entered a new era of choosiness. By making an example of her, it was sending the message to gays, and others whose private behavior was suspect, to keep away. To those already in, a warning--love the wrong sex or smoke a joint, and you'll be jailed.
At worst, Newak's punishment should have been a dishonorable discharge. A minor reprimand would have been suitable. She wanted to serve her country.
A few days ago, the Air Force showed that it was determined to keep on flying high in the bullying of this young woman. It denied her parole. The Air Force Clemency and Parole Board required, as one condition for release, that Newak attend a community-based drug rehabilitation program. The board said the rehabilitation was "essential" for her "return to civilian life."
Newak declined. I'm not a drug addict, she said, I don't need to be treated as one. Had she less integrity and a fuzzier sense of justice, Newak would have gone along with her jailer's game. This was a moment to agree to anything that could get her out of prison. She said no.
Just as she had refused to accept an Air Force's Court of Military Review opinion against her--that her sentence was justified on national security grounds--she now rejected the lie that she was an addict in need of treatment. A drugless year in prison was ample proof that Newak was not an addict, which, as a mere occasional marijuana user, she never was in the first place.
Newak's determination to protect her integrity is no surprise. She is currently in federal court in Kansas to protect the privacy of her correspondence with her lawyer and the media. When Newak writes to me, the letters are stamped "reviewed." My replies are opened and read.
Sometimes my letters, apparently seen as dangerous to the stability of Fort Leavenworth prison, are returned. One rejection was made when I sent a running magazine to Newak. The censors didn't think this notorious drug addict should be reading about the latest on LSD (long slow distance). The magazine came back.
In federal court in Topeka last February, the Fort Leavenworth commandant defended this snooping by referring to a letter I had written last year. To the military, it must seem that I was conspiring with Newak to foment prison unrest. She told me that among other deprivations at Fort Leavenworth there were inadequate exercise facilities for the women inmates. I wrote back: "Start a little protest group there to get the women access to the running track, or at least some open spaces where you can put in a few miles each day. I have some friends who started a running program for prisoners and it does wonders for everybody."
The argument of the military is that Newak's mail must be opened and, if necessary, blocked because she is both a national security threat and a danger to the institutional security of the prison. All this borders on the comical, except that a young woman's life is being devastated by the Air Force's cruelty.
The military can't even get its story straight. An Air Force official recently wrote to Newak's congressman, Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pa.), that the opening of her mail had "no relation to the possibility of compromise of national security."
It's only raw harassment, which is the spike the Air Force first drove into Newak and now, through denial of parole and continued mail snooping, is driving deeper. Civilian lawyers involved with military courts say the treatment given Joann Newak is not unusual.
One concession has been made. Because of the national attention given to this case--from "CBS Evening News" to The Village Voice--Newak's sentence has been reduced from six years to three years. That is only partial justice. Until Newak is freed, and her record cleared, the Air Force's disgrace will continue.
1983, The Washington Post Co.