What Are They Hiding?
Two Activists Were Released from Prison, but Feds Still Won't Unseal Their Records
Two weeks ago, Katherine Olejnik and Matthew Duran saw the sun for the first time in five months when federal judge Richard A. Jones granted their attorneys' request to release them from the SeaTac Federal Detention Center.
Neither had been charged with a crime, but they were sent to prison for civil contempt of court—refusing to answer some questions for federal prosecutors in front of a grand jury. That grand jury was supposedly looking into political vandalism on May Day last year, but neither Duran nor Olejnik were in Seattle on May Day. They say they refused to answer questions about other people's political beliefs and social affiliations (in the tradition of those who refused to testify about who was or wasn't in the Communist Party for Senator Joseph McCarthy).
Duran and Olejnik spent two of their five months in solitary confinement under irregular circumstances. Their attorneys, Jenn Kaplan and Kim Gordon, say that when previous clients have wound up in solitary, prison officials have been able to explain why. (Prison officials say The Stranger's request for comment last week "is being reviewed.")
People were overjoyed at their release—the post announcing the release on The Stranger's blog got picked up on social media, and even regular commenters who'd scoffed when the two went to prison seemed pleased by this turn of events. But the problems aren't over.
Throughout this process, The Stranger has been working with attorney Neil Fox, president of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, petitioning to unseal some of the documents in this case that prosecutors have reflexively shielded. Some of those motions, for example, aren't sensitive to the investigation, but merely cite precedent and case law. We have been successful in getting some made public (such as a copy of the government's search-warrant affidavit, which Gordon and Kaplan say was helpful in getting their clients released), but not others (such as the full civil contempt proceedings). If we can raise the funds—including a $450 filing fee and at least $300 for printing—Fox and The Stranger will push our case for greater government transparency to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We plan to file soon.
In an interview after they were released, Duran and Olejnik said they were treated better than most prisoners, but they're still having trouble eating and are showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. "If I hear something behind me, I jump with my back to the wall," Duran said.
One more grand jury refuser, Maddie Pfeiffer, remains at the SeaTac FDC.
This article has been updated since its original publication.