Billie Winner-Davis first saw the news that Donald Trump had announced pardons for 41 Americans and commutations for 8 others when she checked Twitter after work a few days before Christmas. She promptly turned on MSNBC in her home in Kingsville, 45 minutes southwest of Corpus Christi, hoping to hear her daughter’s name, Reality Winner, announced on the list. Reality had been incarcerated since 2018, serving a 63-month prison sentence for leaking to the press a National Security Agency report analyzing foreign attacks on U.S. election infrastructure. Winner-Davis had organized a grassroots movement pushing for her daughter’s release and maintained a sliver of hope that she might be back home for the holidays.
Reality had already missed Thanksgiving, and, a few days before that, the birth of her niece. Federal Medical Center Carswell, the prison in Fort Worth where Reality is incarcerated, had allowed her a video visitation session with her sister a few days after the birth. Winner-Davis noticed that the tension and anxiety that had taken hold of Reality while at Carswell seemed to momentarily melt away when she first saw her baby niece.
But as Winner-Davis watched newscasters run through the list of Trump’s latest pardons, she didn’t hear her daughter’s name. She wanted to make certain it hadn’t been a mistake and combed through the list of pardons online. Among those who’d received clemency were white-collar criminals and corrupt politicians, the murderers of unarmed civilians in Iraq, and various Trump cronies, but not her daughter. Winner-Davis started to cry.
“It just hurts so much more to see all of these people who are connected, who contributed to his campaign, who have money and everything else get pardoned,” Winner-Davis said. “It just feels like we’re living in one of those countries where the system is so corrupt and that you can buy anything, including freedom. And that’s not the way that our country has always worked—at least I never thought it did.”
A native of Kingsville, Reality Winner was living in Georgia and working for the NSA as a translator in 2017 when she obtained classified agency documents that detailed previous attempts by Russia to interfere in American elections by hacking voter registration databases. She didn’t go through an official channel to flag the report, which often results in retaliation, and instead leaked the documents to the Intercept, an investigative journalism outlet. After it published a story about the documents, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission called the report “credible,” urged states’ elections officials to read it, and issued guidance on how to tell whether their offices had been compromised by hackers. According to the internal emails of state voting officials, which were obtained by the Intercept through public records requests, potential targets of the Russian scheme had not been made aware of the plot until the documents leaked by Winner became public.
The leak was quickly traced back to her. The Trump administration pursued charges against Winner under the Espionage Act, a law that was originally intended to prosecute spies during wartime but which, starting with the Obama administration, has increasingly been used to target whistleblowers. During the pretrial phase, attorneys for the government attempted to paint Winner as a terrorist, and insinuated she’d attempt to flee the country and join the Taliban if given the opportunity, citing notebooks found in Reality’s home, in which she allegedly “mention[ed]” the names of Taliban leaders and expressed interest in traveling to Afghanistan. She was denied bond, something that had happened only once before in an Espionage Act case. In June 2018 she pleaded guilty to a felony and was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison, the longest incarceration ever ordered for someone who leaked government information to the press.
“This sentence promotes respect for the law and affords deterrence to similar criminal conduct in the future,” U.S. attorney Bobby L. Christine said in a press release after the sentencing. “Winner will serve a term of incarceration that will give pause to others who are entrusted with our country’s sensitive national security information and would consider compromising it.”
The Department of Justice declined our request for an interview for this story.
The judge granted Reality’s request to be held at a facility in Fort Worth, where she’d have better access to medical treatment for bulimia. Following Reality’s sentencing, Trump tweeted criticizing then–attorney general Jeff Sessions for a sentence he described as “unfair” and called “small potatoes compared to what Hillary Clinton did.” (It’s unclear exactly what he was referring to regarding Clinton.)
During the trial, Winner-Davis retired from her career as a social worker with Texas Child Protective Services to focus on advocating for her daughter. In 2017 she temporarily moved to Georgia, where Reality was jailed while awaiting trial. Since she has returned to Kingsville, Winner-Davis said, her neighbors have mostly been supportive of her efforts, though she’s found many are reluctant to speak out publicly in support of Reality, who was a well-liked straight-A student and accomplished athlete growing up. “In South Texas, people don’t like to rock the boat,” Winner-Davis said.
She has repeatedly written to senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and her representative in Congress, Filemon Vela, a Democrat, but received form letters explaining that they would not be able to assist in securing her daughter clemency. Much of Winner-Davis’s advocacy has now shifted to Twitter, where a handful of celebrities, including Star Wars star Mark Hamill and former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, periodically tweet support for Reality’s release.
In February, Reality’s legal team formally submitted a petition for clemency—which can be a pardon forgiving someone for their accused crime or a commutation offering a shortened sentence—to the Department of Justice, along with 4,500 letters of support from the public. They have yet to receive a response.
Reality Winner’s time in federal prison has been fraught, amid poor conditions and a massive coronavirus outbreak that resulted in her testing positive, according to her legal team and Winner-Davis.
In April, Winner’s legal team filed a motion in federal court for compassionate release, a request that requires “extraordinary or compelling circumstances” that warrant the release of an incarcerated person before his or her sentence expires. The request, which cited Reality’s health problems and the dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic, was denied by a federal judge in April, and in early December an appellate court upheld the ruling. The denial of requests has been the norm this year: During the first three months of the pandemic, 349 inmates at FMC Carswell requested compassionate release and all were denied or did not receive a response. Of the 10,940 federal prisoners who applied for compassionate release from March through May, wardens approved 156 requests, and only 11 were ultimately granted after further review, according to the Marshall Project.
Not long after Reality’s legal team filed its application for compassionate release, FMC Carswell reported its first coronavirus death, when a woman died after giving birth while on a ventilator. By July, five hundred women incarcerated there had tested positive for COVID-19, and at least six women at Carswell have died of COVID-19-related causes since the pandemic began. In August, more than seventy women signed on to a potential class-action lawsuit against the facility, its warden, and several officials and officers, alleging they were being served rotten food and were provided negligent medical care as the virus spread.
Reality has described conditions inside the prison to her mother as looking like a “landfill,” with trash strewn about. She was recently moved to a new unit and says for a while she was prohibited from using the washer or dryer and had no clean clothes. She also says she was barred from using a hair dryer and from exercising, and that she was threatened with retaliation by prison staff if she tried to speak out about the conditions. Reality also told Winner-Davis that in March she’d filed a complaint under the Prison Rape Elimination Act alleging that a corrections officer sexually assaulted her. Reality says the officer whom she’d accused was not removed from Reality’s unit.
Officials at FMC Carswell did not respond to requests for interviews about conditions inside the facility or about Reality Winner’s allegations that she had been threatened or raped.
Meanwhile, Reality missed another Thanksgiving—her fourth straight—and spent her twenty-eighth birthday behind bars. “When you have a loved one in jail, it’s like the entire family is in jail,” Winner-Davis said. “You don’t have the same joy. I really empathize with all the families who go through this, who have loved ones in jail or in prison, because it’s just so cruel.”
As Christmas approached, there was another COVID outbreak at Carswell, according to Winner-Davis. Reality and those in her unit were placed under intense quarantine restrictions. To pass the empty blocks of time behind bars, Reality draws on pages ripped from whatever books she has access to in prison, her sketches often depicting cute animals such as cats or owls alongside uplifting messages. Over the holidays she sent her mother a sketch of a festive living room scene, with a Christmas tree and stockings and a dog lying down before a cozy-looking hearth. “Dreaming of our next Christmas,” she wrote on the page. “Just like the ones we used to know.”
Outside the walls of Carswell, back at the Winner-Davis household, traditional family Christmas activities, including putting up lights on the house and exchanging gifts, were again tinged with sadness. Before Reality was imprisoned, her mother would always put the tree up and drape it in lights, then the family would together decorate it later—a tradition that continued even after both her daughters grew up and moved out. “Now, of course, we have to put the ornaments on,” Winner-Davis said. “We can’t wait for Reality, because Reality is not coming home.”