In 2008, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher attended a federal oil lease auction of Utah public lands. To protest the auction (which was later found to be improper) he broke the law: He made a number of fake bids, with no intention of paying. For this act of civil disobedience, he was prosecuted by the Obama administration and sentenced to two years in Herlong federal prison. That he was imprisoned is, for better or worse, to be expected, since law-breaking is essential to civil disobedience. But news Tuesday that DeChristopher may have been in isolation confinement since early March should alarm environmentalists and political activists everywhere.
According to a statement from Peaceful Uprising, a group DeChristopher co-founded, the activist is now being treated as follows:
In the past two weeks, he has been allowed out of his 8 X 10 cell (which he shares with one other inmate) four times, each time for less than an hour. The SHU could have been designed by Franz Kafka. Tim is allowed one book in his cell, and four in his property locker. His writing means are restricted to a thin ink cartridge which makes correspondence extremely difficult. He can still receive mail from the outside, but has no other form of communication other than 15 minutes of phone calls per month.
If true, that a civil disobedient could be subjected to these conditions is bad enough, but the explanation DeChristopher’s allies have provided for his transfer from a minimum security camp is more disturbing. According to the statement,
Tim was informed by Lieutenant Weirich that he was being moved to [isolation confinement] because an unidentified congressman had called from Washington D.C., complaining of an e-mail that Tim had sent to a friend. Tim was inquiring about the reported business practices of one of his legal fund contributors, threatening to return the money if their values no longer aligned with his own.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons would not confirm to the Associated Press DeChristopher’s status or the intervention of a lawmaker that DeChristopher’s group and his lawyer allege. Also, to give the prison the benefit of the doubt, it’s entirely possible that its officials would not be allowed to release the congressperson’s name. But the Federal Bureau of Prisons should offer a lot more clarity on where DeChristopher is being held. And, if he is in isolation confinement following the intervention of a congressperson, the lawmaker who made the call should step forward and take responsibility for his or her action, which looks like the cowardly bullying of a political activist.
It’s also worth noting that last month the Justice Department wrapped up proceedings against two companies who colluded on the bidding in a similar oil and gas auction. Unlike DeChristopher, though, the companies merely had to pay a fine, and no one in either company will face criminal prosecution for their lawbreaking. The stark difference in outcomes recalls an oft-repeated post-Citizens United quip: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”