The Wall Street Journal reported last week that federal officials are worried that their rats and snitches are increasingly facing attacks in prison because of the free availability of court documents identifying them as informants. In response, the federal courts are considering ways to make the criminal judicial process more secret, raising concern among defense attorneys and civil liberties activists.
Federal judicial authorities say that in the past three years as many as 700 "witnesses and informants" have been threatened or injured, and 61 have been killed by other prisoners for testifying against or informing on fellow prisoners.
There is, of course, a huge incentive for turning rat. Prosecutors can cut years off an informant's sentence. Some informants don't go to prison at all. Others are sent to lower-security prisons for their sentences, or even to minimum-security work camps. Prosecutors, in turn, win 98.2 percent of their cases, according to ProPublica, almost all of which are a result of plea bargains. With rats lined up to testify, the defendant doesn't have a chance. The dirty little secret of the American court system is that very few defendants ever get to face their accusers in a court of law or be judged by a jury of their peers. It's a quaint idea, but it never happens.
It's not hard to figure out if a person has testified against you, even if you're incarcerated and have no ready access to the internet. Every federal prison in America, by law, has to have a law library. That law library, again by law, has to allow access to LexisNexis court records. But even if the detailed information about informants isn't in LexisNexis, a prisoner has only to ask somebody on the outside to access PACER, a pay-per-page portal run by the courts, to look at literally every filing from a case. That would include the names of informants, as well as a review of the information the informant provided.
I want to go on record here as saying that I do NOT condone violence against anybody. I do not believe that informants should be targeted for violence or for retribution in any way. But I understand it when that happens. Let me give you a personal example.
When I first went to prison in 2013 after blowing the whistle on the CIA's torture program, my attorneys warned me that the FBI and the Justice Department were likely furious with the (short) 30-month sentence I had received. They had initially sought 45 years in prison, but my knowledge of the CIA's dirty laundry and my willingness to testify on my own behalf forced the government to go to the negotiating table. The attorneys said the FBI and the Justice Department would do almost anything to charge me with something else using prison informants, and they would then seek to add years to my sentence. They said to trust no one. I was on full alert.
A few weeks later, a prisoner approached me in our housing unit and said, "Hey, John. There's a new guy here and he wants to meet you. He says he's the former spokesman for the Taliban in the U.S." I had vaguely recalled a New Jersey-based Afghan-American who had worked for the Taliban, and I remembered that he had gotten himself in trouble with a weapons charge. "No thanks," I said. "I'm not interested." The mandatory federal minimum for an illegal weapons charge is five years.
I was walking around the prison yard three or four days later when an obviously Afghan man walked toward me with his hand extended to greet me. I immediately put my hands up in the air, assuming, I believe correctly, that prison guards were in the distance to photograph me embracing the FBI's rat. I told him to buzz off, using language nowhere near that friendly. "Oh, come on, man," he responded. "We have a lot in common." "We have nothing in common," I said, walking away. "Don't be like that," he called. I turned around again. "You're a rat. You're obviously a rat. Don't ever speak to me again." He was "transferred" three or four days later, having been in my prison for only a week. Either he had either been placed there by the FBI to rat on me or he had the shortest federal sentence in the history of the country.
There's no easy solution to the problem of protecting rats. But that's not really the issue, anyway. The issue is that the government shouldn't have to rely on rats to make cases. The government should rely on evidence. Every defendant should have his or her day in court. Every defendant should have a realistic chance of a jury trial, not just a theoretical one. I guarantee you that the vast majority of rats would say literally anything about another prisoner to get their own sentence reduced. That's their only goal, after all. Where's the justice in that?
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