The story of El Chapo’s escape from prison in a laundry cart and his triumphant return to Sinaloa

A book cover shows a colorful painting of El Chapo beneath the title, in bold white letters
The cover of El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord

In early 2001, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug trafficker better known as El Chapo, decided he didn’t want to be in prison any longer.

El Chapo had been at Puente Grande, the maximum-security prison outside of the city of Guadalajara since 1995, locked up for his role in a bloody shootout in 1993 at the Guadalajara airport. And he’d been doing alright at Puente Grande, had enjoyed many of the same creature comforts during his years in Puente Grande as he had on the outside-good food, women, volleyball-and unlike his life on the outside, he even got to sleep in the same place every night. Much of this was thanks to his patronage of Dámaso López Nuñez, who’d taken over as deputy director of security in 1999 and had proved even more pliant than his predecessor in seeing to it that all of El Chapo’s needs were met. When Dámaso arrived, El Chapo immediately began to shower money and gifts on him: ten thousand dollars in cash here, a house there. When one of Dámaso’s children was injured in an accident, it was El Chapo who paid the child’s medical bills.

“When I needed anything, I would ask and he would give it to me,” Dámaso said years later.

Unfortunately for El Chapo, Dámaso had left Puente Grande in the fall of 2000, under a cloud of suspicion amid drastically belated efforts by the government to investigate corruption there. And on January 18, 2001 everything changed for El Chapo when the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled that the United States could extradite Mexican prisoners such as El Chapo, as long as the death penalty was taken off the table. His worst fear, an American prison cell, was suddenly much closer to reality.

A woman in a cramped shop holds up a shirt that reads "Who do you trust" with a picture of El Chapo.
A vendor in Sinaloa state, El Chapo’s birthplace in Mexico, shortly before he was sentenced in 2019.

So the next day he left, smuggled out the door tucked into a laundry cart, rolled to freedom by a guard known as El Chito. And nobody saw fit to stop him.

In the book Narcoland, journalist Anabel Hernandez argues that the laundry cart story was a tall tale cooked up in the wake of the escape to hide the real story: that El Chapo had simply walked out the door. Others have joined Hernandez in speculating that the laundry cart story was a fanciful tale ginned up to cover up a more mundane escape made possible by systemic corruption. (Years later, when El Chapo was finally put on trial at a U.S. federal court in Brooklyn, the laundry cart theory was retold repeatedly by multiple former accomplices.)

Regardless of whether El Chapo was rolled out, or walked out in a stolen guard uniform, it was his ability to buy the right people that allowed him to escape.

El Chapo was back. Within days, he was holding a series of meetings with his partners, including the man who in the ensuing years would become his most steadfast ally, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. At one of the first meetings at a lieutenant’s ranch, El Mayo made it clear that he was backing El Chapo to the hilt.

“I’m with you one hundred percent,” El Mayo said. “I’m going to help you with anything you need. And any kilo of coke that I receive from Co- lombia, I’m going to give you half. So for now, just take care of yourself, stay in hiding.”

Two police are seen standing in the back of a vehicle and facing a prison complex, seen in the distance.
Mexican federal police patrol the surroundings of the Puente Grande State prison.

But the question was where. El Chapo was travelling with a hard-to-conceal entourage of armed men, and his face was plastered across televisions and newspapers all over Mexico. Where could he lay low without attracting attention?

El Mayo had an idea.

“Let’s go to Sinaloa,” El Mayo said. “Let’s go back to your native lands.”

“El Cielo”

Perched atop a peak that looms over La Tuna, a ring of cypress trees sits like a crown, blowing faintly in the breeze. From below, across the valley, the trees are all you can see of “El Cielo,” or the Heavens, the home El Chapo built for himself.

It’s a sanctuary he never got to truly enjoy, but which he visited from time to time, sneaking back into his hometown to throw a party or visit his mother.

A man is seen wearing a grey winter coat and looking tentatively to the side.
El Chapo is pictured on July 10, 1993 at La Palma prison in Mexico after being apprehended.

It sits unoccupied now. With El Chapo serving a life sentence at a supermax federal prison in Colorado, it’s unlikely he’ll ever set foot here again. (But don’t tell his mother that-the family once threw out a television reporter who had the temerity to ask Doña Consuelo directly how she felt about her son spending the rest of his life in prison.)

If he were to get out of prison, however, he might want to head to this mountaintop retreat. Indeed when he escaped from Puente Grande prison in January 2001, it was to El Cielo that El Chapo returned, to plot his new empire-and to see his mom.

Things were looking good for him then. He was free, back in the mountains in which he had grown up and gotten his start, where much of the population loved and supported him, and where the remoteness and the rugged terrain provided a natural defense that allowed him to move about with relative ease.

He was moving coke again, and marijuana and heroin as well-there was always more money to be made in cocaine, but the local economy of his sanctuary still relied heavily on the production of those two trusty cash crops, the hills dotted with red poppy flowers and redolent stalks of cannabis.

By purchasing these drugs from local farmers, he could make a handsome profit, prop up local business, and buy an enduring base of support. Who’s going to turn on the guy who pays wholesale for their crops?

Among the farmers El Chapo bought from in those days was a man named José,* an affable father of three, born, raised, and still living in a small town just off the highway. (Names marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms.)

An elderly woman is seen seated in a car and looking out the window.
Maria Consuelo Loera, El Chapo’s mother, leaves the US embassy in Mexico City in 2019 after applying for a visa to visit her son.

Like El Chapo, José and his neighbors learned how to grow weed and opium from their fathers, using tried-and-true methods to grow the crops on little plots of land in the hills above their village. In the early 2000s, José was working an area of land roughly equal to the size of about five football fields. The area was under the protection-or the control-of El Chapo, to whom José and other growers paid a 30% tax in exchange for protection from the soldiers who might otherwise raid the area, burning crops and sending months of work up in smoke.

For several years after the escape from Puente Grande, José did not meet the man to whom he paid taxes. But that finally changed in 2005, when, short on funds, he decided he wanted to make a proposition. A friend agreed to make the introduction, and they drove together up the highway, onto the dirt road, and on to La Tuna. When El Chapo received them, José made his proposal: What if El Chapo covered the expense of planting, and then they split the eventual profit fifty-fifty?

El Chapo readily agreed; that’s just the kind of guy he was, José recalled.

“He was a very simple man, and very natural,” José said. “You just felt like talking to him, never found him to be aggressive.”

The relationship between trafficker-strongmen and the people who grow opium and weed is rarely an even one, and can sometimes be downright feudal: Growers rarely have much choice in whom they sell to, so the people buying are able to set the asking price. The exchange is one of constant negotiation, and often features a certain degree of coercion-whether through the direct threat or deliverance of violence, or through the local boss withdrawing his protection and opening the farmer up to the full fury of a state that is, technically, dedicated to wiping out the farmer’s livelihood.

A small white and red church is seen in a lush and hilly stretch of land.
A cemetery known for the many prominent narco-traffickers who are buried there sits on a hilltop in Santiago De Los Caballeros, in Mexico’s in Sinaloa state.

Until very recently, small-time, self-employed farmers like José formed the backbone of the opium and marijuana industries. (This status quo has been upended in recent years as widespread legalization of marijuana in the United States and the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl into the heroin supply have caused prices of both crops to plummet.)

As in any good capitalist system, farmers did most of the work, and were exposed to the most risk at the hand of the state. It pays well, better than most legal work; but by the time a stamp of heroin or a dime bag of weed has been sold on the streets of New York or Philadelphia, only about 1% of the total profits find their way back to the farmer.

The real profits, the billions of dollars that flow from the street sales to the money launderers to the front companies and bank accounts of traffickers, don’t trickle all the way down to little villages nestled in the mountains of Sinaloa or Guerrerro, or to the streets of the border towns through which the drugs pass on their way north. But it’s on the heads of these small-timers that most of the violence of the drug war falls.

Origin stories of the drug trade in Sinaloa often highlight the region’s legacy of upheaval, banditry, and rebellion. But early drug-trafficking clans of Sinaloa were hardly treated as outlaws.

The Mexican sociologist Luís Astorga writes that early Mexican drug traffickers emerged from within the state power structure, rather than as actors outside of it. They came along at a time when that power structure itself was just taking shape, and managed to negotiate for themselves a cozy little cubby within it, one that worked for the state, for the wealthy elite, and for the drug traffickers and cultivators. To a more limited extent, it also worked well for the poor peasants living in areas like Sinaloa.

There is a proud tradition of independence and autonomy in the Sierra, and the drug trade allowed the people of the Golden Triangle to continue to fend mostly for themselves without posing a true threat. The drug traffickers who came before El Chapo acted as local power brokers, playing a key role as unofficial intermediaries between the government and the people of the Sierra. The government allowed them to get rich trafficking drugs as long as the traffickers kept a relative peace in rural areas and made sure the local peasants showed up to vote for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

A man faces the camera wearing a black button-down short.
The author Noah Hurowitz

José and others in the highlands of Sinaloa talk of those years right after El Chapo’s escape as something of a Golden Age, when you knew who ran things and you could look the boss in the eye, make a deal with him, and then have a pleasant chat. As this went on, El Chapo would often pay José, who played in a band in his spare time, to perform at his parties. It felt good to hang out with a guy like El Chapo, José said, to be in the presence of someone regarded in these parts as a great man.

“He is a legend, truly, a legend,” José said. “It was a privilege to speak with him, to have a friendship with him like I did.”

Even if José was giving the sanitized-for-gringo-reporters version, many people in the mountains of Badiraguato knew only this side of El Chapo, the magnanimous local chieftain. This area of Sinaloa was, for many years, spared the violence that the drug trade-and the war on drugs-wreaked on other areas of Mexico. And when violence did arrive, it usually came in the form of the heavy hand of the state, rather than the cruelty of narco hit men.

But even as El Chapo was spreading his goodwill around his hometown and surrounding villages, he and his allies were inflicting violence elsewhere. For when El Chapo arrived back in La Tuna in 2001 and began to rebuild his empire, he was a man hell-bent on revenge.

* * *

Excerpted from El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord, published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Noah Hurowitz.

Noah Hurowitz is a journalist based in New York City. He covered the trial of El Chapo for Rolling Stone.

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Reality Winner, the ex-NSA contractor convicted of leaking a report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, has been released from prison

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Reality Winner exits a courthouse in Augusta, Georgia, on June 8, 2017.

  • Reality Winner, a former US intelligence contractor, has been released from prison.
  • Winner was convicted in 2018 of leaking an intel report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
  • She’s now at a residential-reentry facility in San Antonio.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Reality Winner, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, has been released from prison, her attorney announced on Monday.

Winner was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018. She’d been convicted of leaking a report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election to The Intercept, a nonprofit publication.

Winner’s attorney, Alison Grinter Allen, said on Twitter that Winner had been released into the residential-reentry program through good behavior.

“Her release is not a product of the pardon or compassionate release process,” Allen said, “but rather the time earned from exemplary behavior while incarcerated.” Allen added that Winner had asked for privacy as she worked to “heal the trauma of incarceration and build back the years lost.”

Federal Bureau of Prisons records showed that Winner was at a residential-reentry facility in San Antonio and that she was set to be released from the program on November 23.

Federal authorities arrested Winner and charged her with Espionage Act violations after The Intercept published a report around Winner’s leaked files in 2017.

An affidavit said The Intercept had sent a member of the federal government a copy of the report Winner provided. The copy showed that the pages had been “folded and/or creased,” meaning someone had printed it before removing it from a classified space, the affidavit said.

Investigators discovered that only six people in the agency had printed the report. They later found that Winner had not only printed it but had contact with The Intercept.

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I’m an incarcerated person. I know for a fact that Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict isn’t ‘accountability,’ it’s just punishment

derek chauvin verdict reactions
Two women embrace in Minneapolis, Minnesota after a jury announced their verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

  • When Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, many people heralded the concept of “accountability.”
  • As an incarcerated person who has strived to better myself, we need to learn the difference between accountability and simple punishment.
  • Christopher Blackwell is a writer who is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

“Accountability” is a word that’s often thrown around with little to no understanding of its true meaning and purpose. This has never been more true than with the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin and the dialogue around it.

When NBA superstar LeBron James responded to the conviction with one word, “ACCOUNTABILITY,” it got over 228,000 likes and over 30,000 retweets, it showed that people have lost touch with what accountability actually means.

Yes, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, as he should have been, but this is not accountability, this is just punishment. The criminal justice system conflates these two concepts, but we cannot follow suit.

Worth a thousands words

The false equivalency between punishment and accountability has been dished-out to society through our dysfunctional justice system. We’ve been led to believe that punishment will solve all our problems, but it won’t. What makes an arbitrary number of years spent in prison equivalent to accountability? How does that right the harm that was caused?

We need to understand what accountability actually is. When used properly, true accountability can bring growth and healing, and this is what we should all strive for when harm occurs. True accountability allows us to learn from the pain we caused and break the cycle of our harmful ways. I know, because when I was 22 years old, I took a human life during a drug robbery. This led me to receive a 38 year-long prison sentence. When I first received my sentence I thought, “I deserve this. I took a life, and now I have to pay the price.” This was what I had been taught growing up in a dysfunctional system that never had my or my community’s best interest at heart.

Years went by before I realized that being accountable for my actions had nothing to do with the prison sentence I received. Being accountable was about me doing deep personal work that would help me see I needed to own the harm I had caused, and most importantly, I had to stop making excuses for my actions and acknowledge that only I was responsible for the damage.. Of course, there are mitigating factors and circumstances that lead us to live certain lifestyles – especially criminal lifestyles – nevertheless, our actions are our own and must be acknowledged as such.

When I took an individual’s life, it didn’t matter what my intentions were – whether it was an accident or self defense or a rash moment of confusion – I had chosen to do a robbery and during that robbery I had taken a human life. I needed to be accountable for that harm. I could serve a hundred life sentences, but that wouldn’t make me accountable, nor would it do anything for those I’ve harmed.

When doing the work to hold myself accountable, I found that the extremely broken criminal justice system doesn’t offer accountability, or even a path towards it. It merely offers a conviction through the law and then warehouses those convicted. That’s it. I came to the conclusion that only I, and I alone, would be able to begin the process of holding myself accountable.

I do want to acknowledge that it’s easy, after being stepped on for a lifetime, to lose sight of the end goal and mistake a conviction through the courts as accountability. Even after all my years of training as a restorative justice facilitator in accountability, I fell victim to wanting to see Derek Chauvin suffer. When they said he would be held in solitary confinement, an evil laugh escaped my lips because I have spent countless days in there and I wanted him, a cop, to feel that isolation and pain I and others have been forced to feel. However, I quickly realized that as a prison abolitionist, this isn’t what I actually want. I don’t want to accept this broken system of justice as my own.

Over the last decade, I have committed myself to understanding accountability and how to best hold myself accountable for the harm I’ve caused. I’ve learned how to do this while also taking into account those I’ve harmed: my community, my loved ones and myself. Building these skills while facing the harm I had caused didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still working on it. I will be for the rest of my life. This was the only way to begin to atone for the life-ending harm I caused in my youth.

In Derek Chauvin’s case, accountability will only come if he does the work to hold himself accountable. As a society, we can punish him, but that’s all we can do. Accountability is his responsibility. Being held responsible by someone else is much different then being held accountable by ourselves.

As a society, we need to decide: are we looking for the kind of justice and accountability that will stop police from killing people of color in our communities, or are we just willing to buy into the broken system of so-called justice that has destroyed our communities and countless lives within them?

We cannot continue to allow these racist, over-zealous cops to continue to murder people in the streets. But we also don’t want to fall victim to believing that their version of justice is the same as ours, because in the end their policing system will always target those it was designed to oppress: impoverished communities of color like the one I grew up in. We owe them and ourselves so much more.

Christopher Blackwell, 40, is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, and is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Jewish Currents, and many other publications. He is serving a 45-year sentence. Follow Christopher on Twitter.

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I’m a formerly incarcerated person who luckily found success. It’s time to expunge the records of former prisoners and end their perpetual punishment.

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Inmates file out of the prison bakery at the Rikers Island jail after working the morning shift, in New York. Nearly a third of Rikers Island inmates who said their visible injuries came at the hands of a correction officer last year had suffered a blow to the head.

  • The economic toll of a conviction is especially devastating for Black and brown people, who represent 80% of those who have a conviction.
  • A conviction can lead to a loss of half a million dollars over a lifetime.
  • New York State has the chance to reset the lives of more than two million of its residents by passing the Clean Slate NY Act.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA and a justice reform activist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I am extremely lucky to be where I am.

I am the Chief Marketing Officer for a global company. I have worked for elected officials in the UK and the US with their press corps and campaign operations. I own a home in Manhattan. And, by the way, I was incarcerated for a “crime”.

Incarceration has the most profound effect on the person who is serving time, but the consequences reach far beyond the prison walls. When I recently shared my story of being a formerly incarcerated person who made it to the C-Suite, I was again reminded of the destructive nature of our justice system. I heard from colleagues whose loved ones struggle to find work; of friends losing out on dream jobs because of background checks, and the emotional and psychological toll of experiencing these disappointments time and time again. The emotional strain on those individuals and their families was all too familiar. “What will become of me, of us?” is a question that never goes away.

My success has been nurtured by providence from people who understood that my mistake would doom me to a Sisyphean challenge, unable to reach the top of that proverbial hill, unless they became determined to help me. That challenge? A criminal justice system that extracts a pound of flesh and, like the vengeful Javert, routinely returns to perpetually punish people like me for a mistake.

My good fortune though, is incredibly rare. I am blessed to have had family members with the means to support me and a prospective employer willing to give me a chance. Many people don’t have this kind of support. For most incarcerated people, once they are out they fall back into cycles of deprivation that usually got them there in the first place, doomed to steal that proverbial loaf of bread again because their criminal records carry a scarlet letter that allows society to treat them as “less than.” We must create an environment where more people can tell a story like mine.

A conviction’s enduring collateral damage can be wide-ranging – permanently barring individuals from basic needs like employment and housing. Even though people who are released are said to be free, they’re not. They are over-supervised, over-policed, pushed out of employment, housing, and school, and often harassed back into incarceration.

More than 70 million Americans have a record and five million are formerly incarcerated people who have an unemployment rate of 27%. Today’s general unemployment rate is around 6%.

The economic toll of a conviction record is especially devastating for Black and brown people, who represent 80% of those who have received a conviction. They experience higher unemployment and poverty rates, and estimates show that a conviction can cause a loss of nearly $500,000 in income over a lifetime.

We are not just causing further economic and emotional harm, we are also wasting potential that could be working to discover cures to deadly illnesses, designing cleaner and greener cities, or, like me, revitalizing Main Street brands. The economic benefits to both employers and the national economy are clear. It’s essential that our laws are changed because we can’t rely on individual acts of kindness or a company to do the right thing.

Wipe the Slate Clean

New York State has the chance to lead the way and give more than two million of its residents a second chance through “Clean Slate” legislation. Advocates and impacted people seek a new law that will automatically seal and expunge a resident’s conviction record once they are eligible.

Right now, the system we have for expungement in New York is broken. It is application-based, extraordinarily difficult to navigate and costly. In the three years since this system was created, less than 1% of eligible people have successfully had their records expunged.

The Clean Slate legislation proposed in Albany is designed as a two-step process to end the perpetual punishment of a conviction record. A conviction will be automatically sealed one year after sentencing on the individual’s last misdemeanor conviction and three years after sentencing on their last felony conviction, not including time incarcerated.

A conviction will be automatically expunged five years after sentencing on the individual’s last misdemeanor conviction and seven years after sentencing on their last felony conviction.

This is a common sense step that will make New York’s communities stronger. And we know that these types of systems work. A recent study found that within two years of clearing their records under Michigan law, individuals’ wages increased by an average of 25%. According to the same Michigan study, five years after benefitting from record clearance, individuals were less likely than members of the general public to commit crimes.

Our system punishes people unfairly. Millions of New Yorkers are needlessly unemployed or underemployed, homeless or without permanent housing, just because they have a conviction record.

Formerly incarcerated people are not a separate population; they are members of our society. They are our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and friends and must be treated as such. I may be the exception in this system, but I want my experience to become the rule. That’s why we need the Clean Slate NY Act.

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A Trump loyalist was found guilty of making death threats against lawmakers, including AOC, Pelosi, and Schumer

Capitol attack riot
A pro-Trump mob broke into the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to disrupt the Electoral Vote Certification.

  • Trump loyalist Brendan Hunt faces up to 10 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of making a death threat against elected officials.
  • In January, Hunt posted an 88-second video titled “KILL YOUR SENATORS: Slaughter them all” to the platform BitChute.
  • Hunt’s attorneys argued his rhetoric didn’t amount to a serious threat and Hunt defended himself in court in Brooklyn on Tuesday.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Brendan Hunt, a 37-year-old Trump loyalist from Queens, faces up to 10 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of making a death threat against elected officials.

Two days after rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Hunt posted an 88-second video titled “KILL YOUR SENATORS: Slaughter them all” to BitChute, a platform popular on the far right. In the video, he called on viewers to travel to Washington, DC for President Joe Biden’s inauguration and “spray these motherf——” with guns.

“If anybody has a gun, give me it,” Hunt wrote. “I’ll go there myself and shoot them and kill them.”

In December 2020, Hunt demanded Trump hold a “public execution of pelosi aoc schumer etc,” referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He said outside groups would kill the lawmakers if they weren’t executed by the government. Hunt didn’t participate in the Capitol riot.

That same day, Hunt posted another threatening comment in response to a New York Daily News article about a man who, infuriated by police enforcement of COVID-19 regulations, ran a police officer over with his car.

“Yeah booiii run those pigs over,” Hunt wrote. “Anyone enforcing this lockdown mask vaccine bulls— deserves nothing less than a bullet in their f—— head! Including cops! If you’re going to shoot someone tho, go after a high value target like pelosi schumer or AOC. They really need to be put down.”

Prosecutors argued that Hunt’s speech is not constitutionally protected because he made detailed and specific violent threats. They also put forward evidence that he holds racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic beliefs.

Hunt’s attorneys argued his rhetoric didn’t amount to a serious threat and Hunt defended himself in court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, telling the jury that he was depressed and bored during the pandemic and had been using a lot of marijuana and alcohol. He said he was not sober while filming the video in which he made the death threats.

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Education is the best way to fight prison recidivism, but correctional departments are failing incarcerated people and society

prisoners non descript anonymous
Prisoners at Oak Glen Conservation Camp line up for work deployment under under the authority of Cal Fire, during which time they are called and treated as firefighters rather than inmates until they return to camp, on September 28, 2017 near Yucaipa, California.

  • Education is the most powerful tool in reducing the chances an incarcerated individual will recidivate upon release.
  • Washington Department of Corrections claims to work toward reducing recidivism.
  • The educational opportunities offered in Washington state prisons are sub-par and can be difficult to access for some.
  • Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

People who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 43% less likely to return to prison, which makes education the undisputed king of recidivism-reducing tools. Yet here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) in Washington state, of the courses offered, very few have been known to create pathways to employment, and access to them can be elusive.

The Washington Department of Corrections’ literature claims that its mission is, “to improve public safety by positively changing lives.” Though an ambiguous statement, its context implies that the goal is to reduce crime by rehabilitating those they house before releasing them back into society. Considering 68% of people who get out of prison end up returning, the logical plan of action – assuming the Department of Corrections (DOC) remains true to its mission statement – would be to employ the most effective tool, and emphasize a model that not only makes valuable education available to the entire population, but incentivizes incarcerated individuals to enroll in classes.

Educational assets

Having developed a resume in freelance journalism, I recently decided to spend the last two years of a 12 year sentence earning a degree that would allow me to pursue journalism school upon release, so I inquired of the education department about my options. The response came within days, and I learned that MCC, in collaboration with Edmonds Community College, offers a 1-year certificate in Computer Information Systems and a two-year Associates of Technical Arts degree in Business Management (ATA). As technical courses, neither provide transferable credits.

Still, I asked my wife to research both degrees. Neither are listed as requirements for employment anywhere she could find. We had floated the idea of creating a publishing company somewhere down the line, so I requested a meeting with MCC’s Dean of education to ascertain whether or not the ATA might at least teach me skills that would be applicable to such a venture.

The Dean promptly scheduled an appointment with me, and when the day arrived, I filled a legal folder with my published novels, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve written, and a copy of my résumé. I felt that, in order to get a useful answer, it was important for her to understand that my plans were more than just the pipe dreams of someone whose perspective has been warped by years in prison. I prepared my questions in advance, and speed-walked to the education building to find it dark, locked up, and empty.

Upon returning to my living unit, I received a message that she had sent at the last minute, stating she would have to reschedule. Then, the next week, it happened again. And again, after that. This pattern continued for months, until I finally requested, she just move forward and enroll me in the ATA Business course. It seemed like a major life decision to have to make uninformed, but what choice did I have? She responded that she would get back to me because the class might be too full.

Over the course of a few more electronic exchanges, I asked how people on her waiting-list were being prioritized and reminded her of how long I had been actively seeking to be advised on a college pathway. She ended up eventually enrolling me, and agreed, again, to sit down with me in order to finally answer my questions. I start class next week (Spring Quarter) and have still not been able to get a meeting with anyone resembling an academic advisor, or anybody from MCC’s education department, for that matter.

These hurdles can be even more pronounced for others. Until recently, the Department of Corrections considered prisoners with immigration detainers to be a low priority, even for basic education classes which American prisoners are required to take. All courses in MCC were taught exclusively in English, and of little value to individuals being deported to certain countries upon release.

Prior to COVID-restrictions shutting down all educational programming, the Latino Development Organization, a prisoner-led nonprofit, was collaborating with the Mexican Government to implement a basic education program that offers a certificate recognized in Mexico and hosting an array of bilingual classes.

The University Beyond Bars, another prisoner-led program, provided accredited AA and BA degrees in Liberal Arts. Even then, waiting lists were long, and DOC staff, a demographic composed mostly of White Republicans – at least in Washington – created masses of red tape around organizing classes, and aggressively banned teachings that didn’t conform to conservative ideology.

The issues around educational access here in MCC may stem from complacency – the lack of incentive to create pathways to success and remove obstacles from in front of potential students, or they could be financially charged – the result of non-accredited courses somehow allowing more funding to funnel into certain accounts. Either way, they’re arguably the most important and pressing issues affecting Washington state prisons.

According to data posted on the Washington DOC’s website’s section on Offender Demographic Characteristics by Release and Recidivism, of the 22 prisoners released every day in the Evergreen state, 6 return. In order to remain true to its mission, DOC, it seems, is in dire need of an educational advisory board, consisting of members of the incarcerated community, and taxpayers alike, and centered around re-imaging its education department in prisons like MCC, which is failing. Until then, it will be clear that reducing recidivism isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.

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Thousands of inmates given the chance to serve their sentence at home because of COVID-19 might go back to prison cells

prison inmates
In this Aug. 16, 2016, file photo, general population inmates walk in a line at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif.

  • Thousands of people imprisoned for low-level crimes have been serving their sentences at home because of the pandemic.
  • Because of a lingering legal opinion made under the outgoing Trump administration, these people might have to return to prison.
  • The Biden administration has yet to address the legal opinion.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A legal opinion made in the remaining days of the Trump administration might force incarcerated people who have been serving their sentences at home to return to prison.

Reuters reported that nearly 24,000 incarcerated individuals who’ve committed low-level crimes have been allowed to serve their sentence at home due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus. But the legal opinion has a clause that says these incarcerated individuals might be removed from their homes and put back into cells.

Congressional Democrats have called for the reversal of the legal opinion, written by the Justice Department under the Trump administration.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, along with more than two dozen other congressional lawmakers, asked Biden in a letter last week to prioritize the memo’s reversal and rescind it.

“We urge you to use your executive clemency authority or direct the Justice Department to seek compassionate release for people who have demonstrated that they no longer need to be under federal supervision,” the letter said.

The Biden administration has so far left the legal memo untouched.

The memo says the at-home sentences only apply to the period of time during which the coronavirus forces social distancing and quarantining. Once it’s lifted, the federal Bureau of Prisons “must recall prisoners in home confinement to correctional facilities” if there is no other reason for them to stay at home, according to Reuters.

About 7,400 BOP incarcerated individuals have remaining time to serve – and these are the individuals who might most be impacted if this memo isn’t rescinded.

“Words can’t really express how I feel to be home 11 years earlier. To get a job, to get a bank account,” said Kendrick Fulton, a 47-year-old man who was sentenced for selling crack cocaine. “I served over 17 years already. What more do you want? I should go back for another 11 years to literally just do nothing?”

In the time that he’s been home, Fulton got a job at a wholesale auto glass distributor, Reuters reported.

A BOP union official told Reuters correctional facilities no longer have the staff to get these individuals back to prison, calling the task “impossible.”

“We don’t have the staff,” Joe Rojas, Southeast Regional Vice President at Council Of Prison Locals, said to Reuters. “We are already in chaos as it is as an agency.”

Neither the BOP nor the Justice Department immediately responded to a request for comment.

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After months of torture and imprisonment, Hamas told a Palestinian activist that he would only be released if he divorced his wife

rami aman palestine gaza
Rami Aman, a Palestinian Gazan peace activist, holds note’s in which he recalled his ordeal, during an interview on the roof of his family house in Gaza City, Feb. 10, 2021.

  • Rami Aman was arrested for setting up a Zoom call between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
  • He received pressure from Hamas officials to divorce his wife – the daughter of a high-ranking official.
  • Aman eventually signed the divorce papers but remained in jail for two more months, AP reported.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Palestinian activist Rami Aman has said that he was forced by the militant group Hamas to divorce his then-wife in order to secure his release from a Gaza prison, according to the Associated Press.

Aman told the news agency that after months of pressure from Hamas officials, he eventually gave in to pressure and went ahead with the separation.

The demand that he divorce her is thought to be a move by the militant group to distant itself from Aman’s decision to engage in discourse with Israeli peace activists last year, AP reported.

His ex-wife is the daughter of a senior-ranking Hamas official, AP said.

She has since been deported from Gaza, against her will, and Aman told the news agency that he may never see her again.

Read more: People are being unjustly kept in prison because of bad software. It’s yet another reason mass incarceration should be a national outrage.

Aman was imprisoned following a backlash against him for helping set up a two-hour-long Zoom chat between Israelis and Palestinian peacemakers, Insider’s Anthony L. Fisher reported in April 2020.

He was one of over 200 people on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide who participated in the English-language Zoom chat initiated by Aman’s organization – the Gaza Youth Committee.

Following a campaign on Facebook by a Palestinian journalist to shame those who attended and the subsequent social media outrage online, Aman was charged with the crime of “normalization” with Israel.

His former wife was also arrested, the Associated Press reported.

After Aman’s arrest on April 9, 2020, he said that he was interrogated and tortured. He claims he was blindfolded, taken to a prison cell, and was forced to sit in a tiny child’s chair for days or weeks on end, according to AP.

He was referred to by his prison number, only allowed to remove his blindfold for bathroom breaks, and could only leave his seat to be interrogated or pray, AP reported.

During his imprisonment, a police officer reportedly told him that it would be “better” if he proceeded with a divorce. He resisted the request for months, AP said.

In August, an Islamic judge asked him whether he felt coerced into separation. Aman said yes but the judge, the activist told AP, refuted this. “How are you being forced? Do you see me carrying a gun?” he says the legal official told him.

Aman, 39, eventually signed divorce documents, expecting to be released, but remained imprisoned for two more months.

“The deplorable treatment of Rami Aman by Hamas authorities reflects their systematic practice of punishing those whose speech threatens their orthodoxy,” Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, told AP.

His ex-wife, who has been deported to Egypt, confirmed to the Associated Press that she was forced into the divorce and wants to reunite with Aman.

Aman is now banned from leaving Gaza and security officials are still holding onto his laptop, computer, and phone, the news agency said.

He is in frequent communication with human rights organizations, lawyers, and Hamas officials, AP reported.

But his priority is to be reunited with his lover.

“Now I have my personal battle: return to my wife,” the activist told the news agency.

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Ending private prisons is not enough. Biden must end the business of incarceration.

prison inmates
Inmates at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California.

  • Only 9% of the federal prison population is held in private prisons. 
  • Ending private prisons is good, but much more money is made from businesses that profit off public prisons. 
  • Biden should halt private corporations from securing new contracts with federal prisons. 
  • Ashish Prashar is Sr. Director of Global Communications at Publicis Sapient and a justice reform activist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

President Joe Biden, by executive order, directed the Department of Justice to end its private prison use. It’s a step in the right direction and a symbolic moment for this administration to say they are going to take criminal justice reform seriously. While this step decouples the federal government’s relationship with private prisons, let’s remember that such institutions hold just about 9% of the federal prison population – a little more than 14,000 people

Profit from incarcerated people doesn’t meet the moral standards of justice. However, private prisons aren’t even where the biggest profits exist. Private companies continue to profit off the labor of inmates in the public prison system, or, the “prison industrial complex.” President Biden must also dismantle this repugnant practice. 

These corporations have monetized crime and punishment with the government’s help. Whether they draw money out of the pockets of incarcerated people and their support networks or from taxpayer coffers, they siphon from the $80 billion in taxes spent annually to keep 2.3 million people incarcerated.

Of that, tens of billions flow to the private sector through contracts with healthcare providers, food suppliers, prison contractors, and countless others. There are 4,100 corporations that use prison labor directly or through their supply chains. In 2020, Worth Rises released The Prison Industry: Mapping Private Sector Players (2020) and called for divestment from 180 large, publicly traded companies.

The market for privatized services dwarfs that of privatized facilities. Private prisons are only 8% of the market, with a total annual revenue of $4 billion. By comparison, to many companies, the roughly $80 billion that the United States spends on corrections each year is not a national embarrassment but a gold mine. Food service provides the equivalent of $4 billion of food annually. Private companies provide about half of the at least $12.3 billion spent on healthcare. Telephone companies, which can charge as much as $25 for a 15-minute call, rake in $1.3 billion.  

Incarcerated people also make everything from license plates to body-armor vests and mattresses. In California, some serve as firefighters. In New York, they have made hand sanitizer during the pandemic, a product they had limited access to. Elsewhere, they are employed by major corporations and get paid 8 to 15 cents an hour for this labor. In Texas, inmates are paid nothing to pick cotton – which harkens back to the time of slavery. 

Divest from businesses that profit from people

Together, through sustained, coordinated action, Americans can dismantle this inhumane system. This will require a unified front of activists, labor organizations, shareholders and employees.

Americans must divest from companies that profit from prisons and end all financial relationships with companies that participate in the prison system. Economically disenfranchising prisoners by paying them nothing or less than a dollar a day for their work is as morally reprehensible as the chain gangs of Jim Crow and the enslavement of Black people before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Biden ban on the business of incarceration

President Biden would be wise to order a halt to all private corporations from securing new contracts with federal prisons. Swift legislation needs to follow, making it illegal for business to have any direct or indirect involvement with incarceration – ending economic interests with a clear timetable.

President Biden, our nation’s criminal justice system is unjust; no company should benefit from the incarceration of humans. We have an opportunity to right the course of history and dismantle the prison industrial complex. It would be a travesty if your administration fails to uphold the values it professes to believe, and fails to right these wrongs.  Now’s the time to put people before profit. 

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform activist and the Global CMO at R/GA. He sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Just Leadership, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. @Ash_Prashar

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Facebook posts and Cameo videos by Charlie Sheen and Dolph Lundgren were used by Russian trolls to persuade Libya to release a suspected spy

Charlie Sheen Cameo Maksim Shugalei Libya Russia
Actor Charlie Sheen voicing support for jailed Russian sociologist Maksim Shugalei in a Cameo video

  • The Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Cameo in a coordinated effort to get the suspected spy Maxim Shugaley released from a Libyan prison. 
  • Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and other actors on Cameo recorded supportive messages, which were shared on the pro-Shugaley Facebook pages in Libya. 
  • Arrested in Tripoli in May 2019, Maxim Shugaley was charged in June 2020 with “actions that harmed the State’s security,” according to a statement from the Libyan government given to the Anadolu Agency news service. 
  • Russian advocates for Shugaley’s release created a misinformation campaign, shooting a “documentary” about him for Russia Today, then distributing it via Facebook and Instagram in Libya, according to Facebook and the Internet Observatory. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After 18 months in Libyan prisons, alleged Russian spy Maxim Shugaley this month walked free, boarded a plane, and was greeted in Moscow as a returning hero. 

During his long absence, Russia Today had aired an action thriller called “Shugaley” that dramatized his arrest, complete with explosions, gunfights, and torture scenes. The film claimed he’d been falsely imprisoned. It proved so popular that they released a sequel. Even Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longtime leader, had called for Shugaley to be released.

A roster of Hollywood actors also had recorded short supportive messages for him via the Cameo app. “Wall Street” star Charlie Sheen did one, speaking to Shugaley from the sparsely decorated kitchen where he did many of his Cameo videos. 

“Do not give up,” Sheen said in a version of his video posted online. 

As he shakes his fist at the camera, Cyrillic subtitles translate his message into Russian. “Freedom will come. We insist that freedom is – is – is – is in your future, on your horizon,” he said. 

But internet security researchers in the US had an altogether different opinion of Shugaley, according to information about Russian troll networks released this week by Facebook and the Internet Observatory, a cyber policy research group at Stanford University.

To them, Shugaley – alternatively written as “Максим Шугалей” and “Maksim Shugalei” – had been a central figure in a Russian effort to spread misinformation in Libya.

Maxim Shugaley and Samir Seifan
Maxim Shugaley, right, and Samir Seifan in Libya.

He was affiliated with one of Saint Petersburg’s most well-known troll networks, the Internet Research Agency (IRA,) according to media reports and Stanford researchers. Investigator Robert Mueller, in his final report to the House Intelligence Committee, called the IRA a troll farm, saying it had worked to get President Donald Trump elected. 

The Russia Today movie and Cameo spots were distributed in Libya as part of an IRA web of misinformation that included hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts. 

Shugalei Film Screenshot Russia Libya Facebook Instagram
An actor portraying Russian sociologist Maksim Shugalei in a Libyan prison, from the film “Shugalei.”

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identity and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency,” Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy, and David Agranovich, global threat disruption lead, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

Arrested, held, and charged in Libya

Shugaley and his interpreter, Samir Seifan, were detained in May 2019 and charged as spies in June 2020. They were accused of “actions that harmed the State’s security,” according to a statement given to the Anadolu Agency news service. 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.JPG
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in Moscow.

Russian officials said the two were researchers with the Foundation for the Protection of National Values. But Libya said they were actually working for Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor. Libya said they’d been working with rebel groups to overthrow the government.  

In public, Russian diplomats trying to free the pair were seeking talks with the head Libya’s Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj.

“We regularly and insistently raise this topic at all meetings with representatives of the Tripoli authorities, demanding an immediate and unconditional release of the Russian citizens,” said Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, in July. 

In private, members of the IRA were flooding Facebook and Instagram in Libya with positive images of the prisoner. Researchers at Facebook and Stanford detailed the “coordinated network” in Libya that helped get secure release.

A few days after the release, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said Russia’s misinformation network in Libya amounted to “political shenanigans.”  

“The Libyan government’s release of two Wagner operatives caught undermining Libyan politics is just another example of how Russia uses mercenaries and political shenanigans rather than open democratic means to advance its interests,” he said. 

He noted that Russians had also printed counterfeit Libyan money, violated UN arms embargoes in Libya, and acted in “its own interests to the detriment of the entire region.” 

The Facebook network responsible for information about Shugaley was just one of three removed last week, but it was the biggest of them. The other two were focused on different regions, and one was based in France, according to Facebook.

The network supporting Shugaley had also been operating on Twitter, with about 30 accounts, according to Stanford researchers. One account had about 12,000 followers. 

Twitter on Wednesday told Business Insider it was still investigating the network, but had taken action on a “small” number of accounts. “We do not have country-specific information to share at this time and our investigations are ongoing,” a Twitter spokesperson said via email.

How did the misinformation campaign work?

First, a production company run by Alexander Malkevich, head of the IRA, raised money to produce “Shugaley.” Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was mentioned in Mueller’s report on hacking in the US, was in charge of the company, Aurum LLC, that held the film’s copyright, according to last week’s report from Stanford researchers, who cited previous reporting on Shugaley and the IRA from The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg News, and BBC Africa

Shugalei film screenshot prison
An actor portraying Maxim Shugaley in a Libyan prison in Russia Today’s “Shugaley” movie.

The movie aired on Russia Today’s RT Documentary Channel in May 2020. Shugaley is portrayed in a flattering light. In the film’s narrative, he was in Libya as an aid worker before being captured by terrorists, not the Libyan government. RT called it a “harrowing yet true story.” 

Part of the RT summary reads: “Privy to information that could bear serious consequences for the puppet government, the researchers were subjected to torture and denied justice. The film pays tribute to these real-life heroes and raises awareness of their fate.”

The movie has a 9.72-star rating out of a possible 10. 

Officially, it wasn’t a Russian government production, but the Foreign Ministry issued a press release to coincide with its launch. The ministry said in a statement at the time that diplomats “will continue using all available opportunities and channels to influence the Libyan authorities.” 

Members of the IRA created fake Facebook and Instagram accounts in Libya. They pretended to be locals. They built an audience of millions, and sought to attract attention from local journalists. 

 

In all, they created 211 Facebook accounts, and 125 pages, according to Facebook. They made 17 Instagram accounts, and 16 groups. Most criticized the Libyan government, some promoted Russian policy, and at least one Facebook page focused exclusively on Shugaley, according to a report released last week by Stanford researchers. 

“The Facebook Page [about Shugaley] had 103 posts overall, and included regular updates detailing Malkievich and the Foundation’s efforts to pressure Libya into releasing Shugalei and Seifan, as well as quotes about the matter from prominent Russian figures such as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin,” wrote Stanford researchers.

Facebook pages dedicated to “Shugaley” and its sequel, “Shugaley-2,” included screen shots and video links. As of this week, the trailer for “Shugalei” had about 390,000 views on YouTube. On Russian social media site vk.com, another version had 17.9 million views. The full movie, which was posted in its entirety on Russia Today’s Documentary YouTube channel, had about 750,000 views. 

On Instagram, about 99,500 people followed the Russian’s accounts. The accounts asked Libyan influencers to tag themselves wearing “Shugalei” movie T-shirts.

The network also shared images of Maria Butina, a spy who’d infiltrated Washington, holding a one-woman protest outside the Libyan embassy.

Hollywood gets involved via Cameo

Sheen was just one of a few high-profile Hollywood names that sent warm wishes to Shugaley. “Snatch” actor Vinnie Jones and “Rocky IV” star Dolph Lundgren each recorded their own videos, which were later posted on vk.com. “Machete” star Danny Trejo shot one, too, as first captured on Shooting the Messenger

Dolph Lundgren Maxim Shugaley
“Rocky IV” actor Dolph Lundgren in a Cameo video supporting Maxim Shugaley.

“You’re a great guy,” said Lundgren. “You have our support. Never give up, and remember – freedom is the only way.”

At times, the actors appeared to stumble over Shugaley’s name in the scripts they read. It’s unclear who paid for the Cameo appearances, but the videos made their way to the network set up to distribute positive news about Shugaley in Libya, said Stanford researchers.

A Cameo spokesperson declined to comment. 

About 5.7 million accounts followed at least one of the pages run by Russia in Libya, said Facebook. The page owners spent about $186,000 on ads, paying in dollars and rubles. 

‘Welcome Home!’

 

After eight months of Russia’s online campaign, the Libyan government agreed to release the two men. 

On December 10, Shugaley and Seifan were driven to Tripoli’s airport. They were handed over to former Russian Ambassador Libya Ivan Molotkov, according to a short statement read that day by the the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman in Moscow. 

Said Zakharova: “The Russian deputy minister expressed satisfaction with the decision of the Libyan authorities and thanked everyone who assisted the release of the Russian nationals.”

On Twitter, an official ministry account posted a photo of Shugaley stepping off a jet in Russia. It said: “Welcome Home!”

On arrival in Moscow, Shugaley and Seifan were reportedly each given 18 million rubles – about $246,420. The money came from a company owned by Prigozhin, who had been involved in the making of the “Shugaley” film and had ties to the Wagner Group, according to a report in The Moscow Times. The payment amounted to 1 million rubles for each month they’d been in prison. 

Five days after they arrived, the IRA network was removed from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Have a tip? Send it to Kevin Shalvey by encrypted email at reporterk@protonmail.com or via Signal message at +44 7587 300383.

Reporter Kevin Shalvey worked at Facebook from 2018 to 2019.

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