After having served nearly three months in a federal prison camp in central California, Matthew Keys is making the best of it.
In August 2016, the 29-year-old journalist began his two-year sentence in Atwater, California, about 120 miles east of San Francisco. Earlier this year, Keys was convicted at trial under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the notorious anti-hacking federal law that dates back to the 1980s. An effort to reform that law has languished in Congress.
Keys told Ars that, even post-conviction, he did not hand over any login information that led to the 40-minute alteration of a Los Angeles Times headline in 2010.
Hours before Keys’ sentencing hearing in April 2016, Ars received a letter from someone under the pseudonym “Sam Snow,” who claimed that he, and not Keys, was the one who actually handed over the login details. This new claim by Snow will likely have no impact on Keys’ appeal, which is pending at the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals.
Ars has been periodically corresponding with Keys by e-mail through CORRLINKS, the monitored e-mail system set up for federal inmates, and the following interview has been edited for clarity. We hope to be able to visit him in person in the coming months.
Ars: What is your day-to-day like?
Keys: I wake up around 6:30am, shower, sometimes grab breakfast or nibble on something on my way to work. Work starts around 7:30. I’m at work until 10:10am, lunch is at 10:30am, back to work around 11am, and then usually I’m off work by 2:20pm. (except for lately, which I’ll get into later). Dinner is at 3:30pm, after which I usually wait around the dormitory until mail call (between 4 and 5pm). If I don’t have classes that day (programming classes, not “college classes,” basically classes we can take to do something interesting and kill some time), I’ll nap until around 8pm or I’ll read the newspaper, a magazine, or a book. TV time from 8pm until around 10pm, then I’m usually in bed.
Weekends are a little different. With the rare exception of an overtime day (there have been three of those), we don’t work on the weekends. My boyfriend visits me every other Sunday, so I’m awake around 8am to get ready for his visit (from 10:30am to 3pm); otherwise the schedule is about the same. I use weekend time to work out and catch up on reading and writing.
What is your living situation like?
There are two buildings at Satellite Camp Prison (SCP) Atwater: A dormitory, which is an open living area with three rows of metal bunk beds and a common area, with round tables and television sets, and another building with a visitation room, a library, a chapel, and three classrooms. The dormitory also houses a recreation room/small gymnasium, a TV viewing room, staff offices, and lavatory with private-stall showers. There are, at any given time, around 90 to 100 men living in the dorms (there are no cells at a satellite camp). Most people are here for one of two crimes: White collar (mostly financial fraud) or non-violent drug related offenses. The number of drug-related offenses generally outnumbers the white collar cases.
Camps have a general reputation of being “Club Fed,” an easy place to do time. But that’s wrong. This is still prison. We might have slightly more freedom of movement, but we still have plenty of restrictions. The system of rehabilitation here is significantly flawed in a way that almost guarantees most people here who actually committed a crime will offend again. Very rarely is this a staff issue—most of the staff members I’ve met here are cordial, respectful, and helpful—it’s an institutional problem. Someone thousands of miles away is making broad decisions governing all inmates, regardless of their crime, situation, living condition, financial situation, education, or health.
The problem with that is everyone’s circumstance is unique and different. Some people can’t afford medical care (we have to pay out of pocket for it), some can’t afford toiletries, some (like me) have medical conditions the government refuses to acknowledge and treat. Some people have been told they will not receive halfway house time—time meant to help rehabilitate and reintegrate a person into society—if they are unable to pay hundreds of dollars in owed fines and restitution. Some people have been told they will spend weeks, if not months, in redundant GED classes despite having graduated with college degrees. (For a while, one of the inmates here with a doctorate in jurisprudence was told, despite his scholarly record, he would still have to attend GED classes.) Taxpayer resources are wasted in some areas, while resources that could go toward helping rehabilitate people, prepare them for reintegration into society, and encourage their success are severely lacking.
Yes, this is prison. But it seems to me if society is willing to take a person’s liberty away, society has a responsibility to ensure that person is taken care of while in custody and is well-prepared and well-informed in order to function as a constructive member of society once they are released. I’ve only been here three months, but it’s clear to me that even at “Club Fed,” that doesn’t happen. That’s a problem that can only be fixed at the institution level.
How did you spend your last few days on the outside?
On the suggestion of a friend, I encouraged people to contact the White House. I wrote a letter to a White House official and distributed the letter to a select handful in the media. POLITICO was the only news organization to write about the campaign, which both surprised me and didn’t surprise me. When I realized that our effort wasn’t getting us anywhere, I spent the last of those days with my family, my boyfriend, and a handful of close friends.
Who is managing your digital accounts/devices while you’re away?
What contingency plans, if any, did you establish for re-establishing your accounts when you get back?
I took steps to ensure I could access my accounts when I’m released. Depending on when I’m released will depend on whether I’m able to re-access my accounts, I guess. I really don’t know if something will happen or something will change between now and then—inmates in the federal prison system do not have Internet access.
Is there any opportunity to do journalism from the inside, whether about the BOP, the Atwater facility, or otherwise? You mentioned to me that a lot of people are interested in criminal justice reform. Does your experience now make you want to cover the criminal justice system more when you get out?
I’m still exploring this possibility. Officially, the Bureau of Prisons does not allow for an inmate to act as a reporter or publish under a byline while they are incarcerated. Legal material available to us here challenges that policy, suggesting it may be a constitutional issue. There have been cases in the past where people have written columns while incarcerated—Barrett Brown, who wrote for The Intercept, and the Manhattan Madame who wrote for XOJane—though there have also been consequences for people who have exercised their constitutional rights while they’ve been incarcerated.
One thing that did make me happy: I received a letter from the FCC earlier this month letting me know I had won an issue I raised on appeal two years ago, and the outcome of the appeal meant more documents would be disclosed pursuant to a [Freedom of Information Act] request I made a while back. Another journalist, Shawn Musgrave, filed the same FOIA about a year after I did, so I’m hoping he does something with the documents that emerge, since I can’t while I’m here. I’m glad to know, though, that the public will continue to be informed on important issues based in some small part on the work I was able to do before I arrived here.
Who is Sam Snow?
I don’t reveal the names of sources who have been promised confidentiality.
Since you reported to Atwater, I have received a few more very short e-mails from Sam Snow. Frankly, he seems a bit naïve as to how the legal system works. On July 26, for example, he wrote me: “no i dont plan on visiting him i’m hoping he won’t have to go to prison at all!” and when I told him that this was extremely unlikely, he seemed surprised. Can you tell me anything more about who he is and what your relationship with him is? Now that you are serving your sentence, is he worth protecting? Under what circumstances would you reveal more about him?
I would reveal more about any confidential source only if I had their permission to do so, and if I felt their decision to volunteer their identity was made of sound mind and not under duress or persuasion. A change in my circumstance does not alter the fact that a source was offered and accepted anonymity.
Do you have any regrets about not taking a plea deal? It strikes me that even if your conviction and/or sentence is overturned on appeal, you’ll have already served the bulk, if not all, of your time. Is that price worth it? Do you have any regrets about not taking the stand at trial? You told me in Vacaville that you want to “narrow the applicability of the law so it doesn’t happen to anybody else…” Does that motivation still hold true?
No. I am innocent. Innocent men should, and do, fight for their liberty.
My main motivation for taking this case to trial, and now to appeal, is to clear my name. But there are other reasons for fighting this case as well. An aggressive prosecutor is seeking to create precedent by using a broad, vague law to charge a journalist with conspiracy for committing an act of journalism. As I’ve said before, that should frighten many people in the journalism community. For some reason, it apparently doesn’t, because no journalistic institution came to my defense—which was more than disappointing—although a number of journalists did challenge the prosecutor’s intentions and the harshness and vagueness of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
It is well-documented, through FBI reports published on the Internet, that I was under surveillance [and] that the prosecutor in the case had personal motivations for wanting this case. He reportedly threw a fit when the lead FBI agent sought to move the case to Los Angeles, where the Times newspaper was based, because, according to the document, “he really wants to prosecute Keys.” That the Department of Justice has targeted journalists and their sources in a number of other cases (the New York Times, Fox News, the Associated Press, and others)—in some cases, threatening to jail reporters for contempt. But here, there was no main suspect for about three years, so they couldn’t charge me with contempt. Instead, they charged me as a conspirator. Which, as I’ve said many times before, is bullshit.
What happened to me can, and almost certainly will, happen to others—to journalists, to activists and to others the government deems to be unsavory. If we succeed on appeal—and we believe we will—it’ll prevent another person from having to go through what I’ve been through.
Let’s assume for a moment that the 9th Circuit doesn’t rule in your favor, and an en banc appeal is declined. Would that change anything for you, and how you talk about your case?
No. We still have the Supreme Court. As my attorney Jay Leiderman said in one of the hearings, the Supreme Court “is bound to take up this issue, and it might as well be us” who brings the case before them.