Utah eco-activist Tim DeChristopher has been placed in a California prison's "isolated confinement" unit and cut off from email, a move his supporters and attorney allege amounts to political persecution.
Not exactly in solitary, DeChristopher now shares an 8-by-10-foot cell with another inmate, his Salt Lake City attorney said, and has limited access to the outside world.
Prison officials on Wednesday wouldn't discuss what happened, though they previously confirmed DeChristopher had been removed from standard housing in the Herlong, Calif., federal prison camp. His lawyer and backers say he's being penalized for an email he sent to a friend, which somehow came to the attention of an undisclosed congressman, who asked for his punishment.
In the email, attorney Pat Shea said, DeChristopher suggested "threatening" to return a legal defense fund contributor's money if a rumor he heard about them was true. The contributor was a company, Shea said, and DeChristopher had heard that it was moving manufacturing jobs overseas.
"He made the mistake of using the word 'threat,' " Shea said. "In the email, he says, 'I want to investigate this rumor and if it's true, I'd threaten to return their money or give it to the workers if they're protesting.' "
During his imprisonment but before his latest move DeChristopher also has written dispatches for online environmental publications and conducted at least one radio interview by phone with KRCL of Salt Lake City.
Shea said DeChristopher told him that the prison official who moved him notified him that a congressman had requested it while his threat is investigated. Shea said there's no clear time frame for such a probe.
Shea visited DeChristopher on Sunday and said his client fears he'll be isolated for the rest of his imprisonment about a year from now if he gets time off for good behavior. The defense team will present its appeal of DeChristopher's conviction before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on May 10, but Shea said he's unaware of any legal recourse regarding confinement terms.
Supporters at Peaceful Uprising, the Salt Lake City-based climate change and social-justice advocacy group DeChristopher co-founded, say his visiting hours have been curtailed to a single four-hour period each week, and his phone time cut to 15 minutes a month. He is allowed one book in his cell, they said, and may write letters with a small ink cartridge but not a full pen.
He also has been unavailable for media interviews since he was moved March 9.
DeChristopher was imprisoned about eight months ago, sentenced to two years by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson for his conviction stemming from bogus bids on Utah oil and gas leases. DeChristopher opposed a lease sale of federal lands at the end of the Bush administration as critics accused the government of rushing to develop sensitive lands near national parks.
The Obama administration later revoked the leases for further review, but has since resold some of them.
Two DeChristopher allies, both fellow congregants at Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church, traveled by train to Reno, Nev., and rented a car to visit him at the California prison this month without realizing he had been isolated the night before. Joan Gregory said she and Krista Bowers were escorted to the visitors' waiting room before being informed of his move.
"I'm outraged," Gregory said. "They never allowed us to see him."
She said she's hearing that prisoners often face restrictions because of innocuous personal contacts, and most don't have a network of admirers to raise a fuss about the limits. DeChrisopher, though, enjoys nationwide environmentalist support, and Peaceful Uprising is urging people to call the prison, the U.S. House committee that oversees prisons and their congressional representative.
Gregory noted that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, serves on the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
"I'm going to be calling every one of these people," Gregory said. "And when I'm through, I'll call them again."
Chaffetz welcomed the calls but said he doesn't have answers.
"Yeah, our phone's lighting up," he said Wednesday afternoon. "I don't know who this mysterious congressman is, but it isn't me."
If true, he said, a colleague's intervention would seem an overreach of authority.
"Normally, the legislative branch stays out of these types of matters, and I think that's right," Chaffetz said."I didn't prosecute [DeChristopher] and I don't determine where he sits in prison."
Peaceful Uprising organizer Henia Belalia said it's perplexing that an email questioning a donor's values would raise any backlash.
"It's absurd that that particular email would be grounds for an investigation," she said. Equally puzzling is why the prison officials who routinely read prisoner emails would pass along the information to a congressman. "We really don't understand why this is happening."
Eloisa DeBruler, public information officer at the prison in Herlong, declined to comment Wednesday. She said the Federal Bureau of Prisons generally does not comment about the reasons behind relocating inmates.
Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for inmates to be transferred during the course of their confinements, depending on space and security issues.
Melinda Rogers contributed to this report.
Tim DeChristopher's legal team has scheduled a 1:30 p.m. news conference for Thursday in front of the Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse, 350 S. Main Street, Salt Lake City, to discuss issues related to the eco-activist's confinement.His attorneys will argue their appeal of DeChristopher's conviction on May 10 before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.