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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
“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.
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 email@example.com or via Signal message at +44 7587 300383.
Reporter Kevin Shalvey worked at Facebook from 2018 to 2019.