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UU environmental activist isolated in prison

Move allegedly follows complaint from U.S. congressman over Tim DeChristopher email.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.2.12

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Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher, at his arraignment in 2009. (Steve Horton)

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, serving two years in federal prison in California for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases in 2008, was abruptly moved from a minimum security camp to a more restrictive “special housing unit” within that same prison complex on March 9, then was just as abruptly moved back to minimum security on March 29, apparently because of public pressure.

DeChristopher, a member of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, began serving his sentence last September. According to Henia Belalia of Peaceful Uprising, a group DeChristopher started after he was arrested, the prisoner was moved to the special unit after he had sent an email to a friend inquiring about the business practices of a person who had contributed to DeChristopher’s legal defense fund. In the email DeChristopher threatened to return the money if the donor’s values no longer aligned with his own.

According to a Peaceful Uprising press release March 28, DeChristopher said he was informed by a prison officer that he was being moved to the special unit because a congressman had called from Washington, D.C., complaining about the email that DeChristopher had sent.

Belalia said it was not clear how the congressman, who has not been identified, had knowledge of the email, which was personal correspondence between DeChristopher and a friend. She said, “This involves someone who donated to Tim’s defense fund, and it had nothing to do with the congressperson.”

Calling the move “political persecution,” Peaceful Uprising on March 28 asked DeChristopher’s supporters to put pressure on the Federal Bureau of Prisons; members of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security; and administrators of the Federal Correctional Institution Herlong, near Reno, Nev., where DeChristopher is being held, to have him returned to the minimum security camp within Herlong.

That pressure apparently worked. DeChristopher was moved back to minimum security the night of March 28. In the Special Housing Unit, DeChristopher shared an 8 x 10-foot cell with another inmate and, as of March 28, had been let out only four times in the previous 19 days, each time for less than an hour.

DeChristopher has requested a hearing on the matter from the Bureau of Prisons.

Joan Gregory, environmental justice chair at First Unitarian in Salt Lake City, said the congregation mobilized behind DeChristopher. “People made phone calls. Everyone got involved with this. Tim went to jail to protect future generations. This was such a huge injustice for Tim, for the climate justice movement, for all of us. I asked people to make the phone lines so hot they’d melt.”

She said that while in the special unit, DeChristopher was limited to 15 minutes of outside phone calls a month and had limited access to books and writing materials. According to the Peaceful Uprising website, DeChristopher would be eligible for release in February 2013 to house arrest. There is no indication how the current situation might affect that date. DeChristopher is also appealing his conviction. Oral arguments will be heard May 10 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver.

DeChristopher’s supporters held a rally March 29 outside the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. Initially organized to protest DeChristopher’s move into the special unit, it turned into a celebration of his return to the minimum security unit.

His minister, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of First Unitarian, spoke about DeChristopher’s placement in the special housing unit. “How can this happen in the sweet land of liberty? How in God’s name is this even possible? We are here today . . . to proclaim Tim’s humanity, his human right to justice as a citizen of the United States.”

In December 2008, DeChristopher posed as a bidder at a Bureau of Land Management auction in Salt Lake City, winning some 14 leases in eastern Utah, some of them near Arches National Park. A jury convicted DeChristopher on March 3, 2011 of two felony charges of misrepresenting himself and placing bogus bids at a federal lease auction. DeChristopher has said he placed the bids in an effort to fight climate change. He was not permitted to use that defense in court, however. He was sentenced July 26, 2011.


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