On Thursday December 9th after more than forty days in jail, the prison administration took the decision to release Steve Donziger and permit him to serve out the rest of his sentence under home confinement. Upon his return, he gave the following interview with independent journalist and activist Marianne Williamson:
Today, Steven’s legal team will urge a three-judge panel to reverse Judge Preska’s Chevron-financed “conviction” after he dared to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. His family and our movement need your help to bring him home.
Steven Donziger is the first lawyer in U.S. history to be imprisoned for the misdemeanor crime of contempt. It is no coincidence he is one of our nation’s most successful environmental justice advocates. For the last ten years, Chevron and its 60 law firms have done everything in their power to weaponize the legal system to target Steven after he helped Indigenous peoples in Ecuador win a historic $9.5 billion pollution judgment against Chevron.
It is both unethical and despicable that Chevron and its allies in the fossil fuel industry have abused our courts to target Steven — especially after the U.N. last September determined his detention was “arbitrary” and ordered the U.S. government to release him because of a “staggering” lack of impartiality by the Chevron-linked judges in his case. The five esteemed jurists from the U.N. found the bias against Steven by Judges Preska and Kaplan violated his right to a fair trial. Anyone at the trial last May could see it for the farce that it was: Judge Preska denied Steven a jury of his peers and read the newspaper during witness testimony.
Today, Steven is on the 34th day of his maximum six-month prison sentence for the lowest-level federal offense possible under the legal code. Let’s remember why: Steven was the person who helped hold Chevron accountable for deliberately poisoning the Amazon and decimating five Indigenous peoples — the Secoya, Cofán, Guarani, Quechua, and Siona. Steven also was sent to a federal prison after already serving more than two years under house arrest prior to trial. His pre-trial detention alone is more than seven times longer than the longest sentence ever imposed on a lawyer for the same charge.
We also had a major breakthrough this week. Nine Congresspersons, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, sent the Biden Administration a blistering letter demanding the DOJ finally take action to both free Steven and take control of his case from Chevron law firm Seward & Kissel. Private corporate prosecutions cannot happen in any country that purports to adhere to the rule of law. As Rep. Tlaib said: “This is a test case for corporate polluters. They think they found a path for escape justice, but they’ve only just awoken our people.”
We cannot allow this miscarriage of justice to continue. We cannot stand by and watch a supposed liberal democracy like the United States of America lock up its human rights lawyers — and descend into the ranks of a notorious club of rogue states that includes China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Belarus. Steven is the first major test case of a fossil fuel industry playbook to try to intimidate those who challenge the fact that extractive industries are destroying the planet for our children and grandchildren.
Judge Preska’s “conviction” of Steven is not only a violation of international law, it brazenly undermines the U.S. Constitution. Steven was prosecuted privately by a Chevron law firm after the regular federal prosecutor rejected the case. Steven’s lead lawyer in his argument today, the great U. of Texas professor Stephen Vladeck, will be before three judges appointed by President Trump. We are urging these judges to resist falling into Chevron’s and Preska’s demonization trap and take the legal issues seriously: we simply cannot have private corporate prosecutions in this country.
Today’s argument represents a major chance to bring Steven home. If we win the decision, it will be game over for the nightmare orchestrated by Judges Kaplan and Preska to try to silence Steven, and he will be released.
The original post begins below the asterisk.
On the eve of his appellate argument [Nov 30th] to overturn Judge Preska’s “conviction” in a trial found to violate international law, I am reposting letters sent by international human rights and environmental lawyer Steven Donziger from his prison cell in Connecticut (with original emphasis retained throughout).
Message received Fri 19th:
I am finally able to write directly from inside the belly of the beast: the federal prison in Danbury, CT. I am now on day 23 of my incarceration, and the experience has been nothing short of mind-blowing. I am living with another person in a 54 sq ft cell; next door is a 37-year-old man, one of the kindest people I have ever met. He was sentenced to a 35-year term for gang violence when he was 19. Three people in my unit of 80 or so men are lifers and have over 30 years in the system.
The length of the sentences for various crimes is astounding. We are unique as a country for the extraordinarily punitive nature of our criminal justice system. And it sickens me to see it from the inside. All of us here are simply raw material for a business built largely on money and politics that has virtually nothing to do with rehabilitation (although there are staff here working miracles against all odds to help inmates adjust to the outside).
This is considered a “low” security prison, but the conditions are extremely limiting. No Internet, almost no newspapers, limited phone calls and email, and almost no contact with the outside world. The food is scarce; no fresh vegetables, little fruit, extremely small portions which forces the mostly impoverished inmates to supplement their diets by buying junk food at the commissary where prices can be 50% higher than the corner store in New York City. It can take weeks for a visitor to get approved; one man has not seen his kids (now aged 5 and 7) in two years because of COVID restrictions. There is a total shortage of staff, programming, and no way to get a college degree. I will only be able to write very infrequently, if at all.
Having said that, please consider this: Chevron and Judges Preska and Kaplan thought they could snuff out my advocacy by dumping me into this place. They could not be more wrong. Not only is the prison bubbling with humanity and kindness, the likes of which one rarely sees on the outside, but the support for me and the affected communities of Ecuador both in my unit and around the world has literally exploded as a result of this obvious act of corporate persecution. I am becoming stronger, more resilient, and more understanding as a person. And I have almost boundless energy to continue the fight as a result of sharing this largely miserable experience with so many people from all walks of life.
I am getting dozens of letters a day from around the world. My friends in the unit love it when the letters come. Some read them and slap their knees with incredulity. How can one prisoner get so much mail? Others remove the stamps to use as “currency,” an off-the-books economic system that allows inmates the autonomy to trade goods and services among themselves.
In the meantime, here is a concrete update on case developments:
- My appellate argument to overturn Judge Preska’s “conviction” of me in the Chevron-financed non-jury contempt trial will take place on Nov. 30. This is an extremely accelerated schedule which shows the concern of the court that a great injustice might be taking place. That said, I believe judges in New York generally are closing rank behind Kaplan and Preska because our campaign has been so effective that it has challenged the institutional credibility of the federal judiciary as a whole. While I am always optimistic, I fully expect to lose this appeal and spend the balance of my six-months sentence in prison. That said, my legal team already has decided it is likely we will take the issue off the nation’s first corporate prosecution to the US Supreme Court if necessary.
- Our support in Congress is growing by leaps and bounds. A new letter organized by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Chuy Garcia demanding my immediate release is gathering signatures as we speak. The letter urges The Biden administration to “send a clear signal that it stands with communities harmed by pollution and environmental destruction and the lawyers courageous enough to represent them and not the corporations that benefit from polluting the water, air, and land of local people.”
- Law students nationwide are preparing to organize a work boycott of the two corporate law firms (Seward and Gibson Dunn) that Chevron has used to try to demonize and prosecute me. The Seward law firm should really be ashamed; that firm has been held by the United Nations to be in violation of multiple provisions of international law by prosecuting me.
- Several human rights organizations are launching a campaign on Nov. 29 to demand President Biden pardon me — both because it is the right thing to do to correct the injustice, and also to bring the US government into conformity with international law consistent with the ruling from the United Nations.
Now, the money question. We need more funds to carry forward with these and other important activities. We need to pay people to support themselves to do this vital work. While I am locked up, the campaign must not just continue but also get stronger and more effective. Because of the incredible efforts of so many people, including my wife Laura and legal assistant Matt Burton, we are succeeding. In fact, the day I reported to prison, we gained 20,000 new followers on Twitter and many more on Instagram.
I know many already donated on the financial end. If you are not in a position to help now, please don’t worry; your support is being expressed in so many other ways and is deeply appreciated. But if you can dig deep and match your previous donation, please do. If you have not given, please consider making a donation. We are building this big with the ultimate goal of not only getting me out of this institution as soon as possible but also to put our human rights legal team in a position to finally hold Chevron fully accountable and force it to pay the full amount of the pollution judgment to the Indigenous peoples and farmers in Ecuador’s Amazon.
Thanks again to everybody for jumping into this extraordinary campaign and building this collective action that is literally changing the paradigm of the fossil fuel industry and helping to wake up the world to the promise of what citizen action can accomplish. I wake up each day in prison with a hop in my step because of you and the possibilities we have created together.
Message received Wed 24th:
My prison experience is getting even tougher: yesterday, the Danbury prison went on a total lockdown due to a COVID breakout. That means we cannot get out except for two hours per week. About 80 men are crammed into our unit, where two people occupy cells meant for one. Social distancing is impossible, few wear masks, there is no COVID testing, people are sick, nobody knows who has COVID, and word on the prison street is that the rate of vaccination among the guards is less than 50%. Medical staff appears so overwhelmed it often takes ten days or more to see a doctor, even when exhibiting severe symptoms.
I’m not going to lie: I actually feel if I get seriously ill inside this place, I could die.
I’m not alone in that feeling among my new friends inside. To know you are so at the mercy of others if an emergency were to arise is a heavy and awful emotional burden. Worse, it is sometimes hard to get the professionals here to acknowledge the validity of how your body feels to you. Most of my fellow residents (“inmates”) say staff here often accuse them of faking symptoms when they ask to see a doctor.
That said, it is Thanksgiving which is my favorite holiday of the year in the United States. I think of Native Americans who had their territory overrun by a conquering government that manufactured laws to steal land and distribute it to white settlers. I think of the Cherokee, the Cheyenne, the Choctaw, and so many others. The bravery and the courage. Survivors all. And I think of my family, friends, and all those I love — and all of those who stand behind the Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples who, against all odds, won the historic pollution judgment against Chevron.
It helps to both give thanks to our triumphs and to remember the unpleasant truths.
It is almost unfathomable to me what people are going through here and how they still keep going. The human spirit is really hard to snuff out. Some have spent 30 consecutive Thanksgivings in the federal prison system. When I came, there were three frail men with walkers in my unit (one has since been released). Some inside have not had a visit in years. Others get no mail. Many mark the years by remembering Thanksgiving when the cookies were baked fresh, when they were from a box, and when there were no cookies at all.
The food supposedly will be better on Thursday, but the mess hall has closed because of the lockdown. We will be eating turkey out of styrofoam boxes in our tiny cells, looking at an open-air toilet. That said, I can’t tell you how positive I feel about getting through this and back to the other side to continue our important work.
I am asking again for everybody who can step up and donate to this extraordinary and paradigm-shifting campaign to please do so during the holiday season. We need resources to keep our legal team working full steam and our broader global advocacy operating on all cylinders, especially while I am locked up. And, of course, we need resources to get me out of here as soon as possible.
Specifically, several human rights groups are organizing a global drive to demand the Biden Administration pardon me both because it is the just thing to do and to comply with the United Nations decision ordering my immediate and unconditional release. You will be hearing more about this in the coming days. We also need funds to continue to build a legal infrastructure needed to take on new and similar cases to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and ultimately to save our planet.