Incarcerating right-wing extremists with other criminals is always a fraught proposition, since they are free to proselytize their beliefs, and prisons have proven over the years to be congenial environments for spreading political radicalization. But when you imprison a large collection of extremists with similar beliefs together, the situation becomes even more dicey, as their ideologies and shared conspiracy theories blossom into even more radical forms and harden into confirmed far-right identities.
This, as VICE’s Tess Owen reports this week, appears to be the scenario unfolding inside the Central Detention Facility in Washington, D.C., where federal prosecutors are holding about 40 men accused of committing various crimes in the course of participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
The men are circulating a newsletter among themselves, singing the national anthem every morning, and generally spreading more far-right disinformation among themselves, reinforcing and solidifying their antidemocratic beliefs.
“I do think the fact that the J6 defendants who are currently being held pre-trial … having them all together where they can seemingly communicate by newsletter, is likely to foster continued feelings of anti-government mentality among those individuals who are being prosecuted,” Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told Owen.
The 40 or so insurrectionists, according to their own writings, are being held together in a separate “Patriot Wing” of the jail, apart from other prisoners. Calling themselves the “1/6ers,” most of their communications with each other revolve around assuring each other of their martyrdom and righteousness.
“We watch the people of other countries rise up against authoritarianism and think, how sad they must be to want freedom and liberty so much,” a jailhouse letter written by Texas militiaman Guy Reffitt, and published by ProPublica, said. “Here, the more you try to divide, bend or even break America. The more The Republic of The People will stand indivisible and resolute.”
Reffitt told ProPublica that more than 30 people he was in custody with at the Washington jail had discussed the letter. He said the suspects use “kites”—a slang term for jailhouse messages passed from cell to cell—to communicate with each other.
“By naming themselves, having a newsletter, establishing this unification thing, they’re viewing themselves as patriots and see what they did as necessary to defend the country,” Laura Dugan, Ralph D. Mershon Professor of Human Security and Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University, told Owen. “Some may have to go even deeper into this layer of denial, buying even more into the idea that the election was not legitimate, and they had no other choice but to go and fight for it.”
Richard Barnett, the Arkansas man notorious for having put his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk at the height of the Capitol siege, told NBC News that the men sang the national anthem daily to bolster their camaraderie. He said the newsletter was part of the men’s internal communications.
“We would all contribute to it and pass it cell to cell. Like in any prison, things get passed,” Barnett said.
The problem of ideological extremists spreading their beliefs within the prison system is not a new one; Islamist radicalism has been known to spread within similar environments, creating concern among counterterrorism experts. Similarly, far-right prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood may be primarily criminal enterprises, but they also have a underlying white-supremacist ideology that often is maintained by members after their release from prison.
Some far-right extremists, such as the late leader of the Montana Freemen, LeRoy Schweitzer, used their prison stints to spread their belief systems. Within a year of his 1996 arrest, Schweitzer had successfully converted dozens of fellow prisoners into his “sovereign citizenship” program, creating headaches for both courts and prison officials. This can have long-term consequences; in the succeeding years, sovereign-citizen ideology has been spreading widely within American prison culture.
So far, most of the “1/6ers” communication appears to involve sharing conspiracy theories, as well as voicing defenses of their actions at the Capitol that appear geared both to persuade outsiders as well as to potentially serve as a defense in court.
“January 6th was nothing short of a satirical way to overthrow a government,” wrote Reffit in his letter to ProPublica. “If overthrow was the quest, it would have no doubt been overthrown.”
More than anything, they appear to focus on justifying their martyrdom. “We have been labeled the enemy, yet clearly we see tyranny as the enemy,” Reffitt wrote. “While our lawyers do our bidding and the judges do their duties, we remain resolute, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem all in unison, loud and proud most every day. All because we are us, we are you, we are all Americans and in here, we have no labels.”
“By making these symbolic gestures, it makes it seem as though their ‘struggle,’ everything they’re going through, is worth it. If what they did was for nothing, that would cause a serious break in their identity as ‘patriots’,” Kurt Braddock, faculty fellow at the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, told Owen. “These justifications are being mainstreamed and normalized by many elements of the right, and that’s the biggest danger right now.”
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.