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In a D.C. jail, Jan. 6 defendants awaiting trial are forming bitter factions

One inmate described the situation to NPR as "too many rats together in a small cage for too long."

  • By Tom Dreisbach/NPR
TOPSHOT - Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. - Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

TOPSHOT - Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. - Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Inside the Washington, D.C., jail, where a group of defendants charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol have been held for as long as a year or more, a bitter divide is growing, current and former inmates say.

A combination of that intense proximity, the stress of criminal cases and a fight over more than a million dollars donated to support the defendants has contributed to the rift.

One inmate described the situation to NPR as “too many rats together in a small cage for too long.”

“Tempers naturally get short,” he said, with “cliques solidifying further into independent ‘camps’ as time progresses.”

That inmate, like several others, told his story to NPR on the condition of anonymity to describe the pressure-cooker environment inside the jail. A dozen current or former inmates of the D.C. jail ultimately spoke to NPR and said that the divisions among some of the highest-profile defendants in the country are now boiling over.

It all started in the weeks immediately after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. FBI agents conducted a campaign of “shock and awe,” in the words of a top prosecutor, making arrests as the Department of Justice rushed to bring charges. Most of the people arrested were allowed to go free while their cases worked their way through court. Judges decided a smaller group — often those facing the most serious charges or those who prosecutors worried might flee the country — should be locked up while they awaited trial. That decision presented authorities with a challenge: Where exactly should the government hold them?

Some ended up scattered in jails close to their homes. But a few dozen (the precise number has fluctuated) were incarcerated in the city where the Jan. 6 attack took place, in Washington, D.C.’s Correctional Treatment Facility. The District’s Department of Corrections decided for the inmates’ “own safety and security” to detain all of the Jan. 6 defendants in just one part of the facility, a section known as C2B.

The combination of a court backlogged with COVID-19-related delays, plus the lumbering nature of a massive federal criminal investigation, has stretched the “pretrial” period to as long as a year or more for some detainees. And so the decision to hold a disparate group of alleged Capitol rioters from all over the country — including people linked by prosecutors to the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and QAnon — in one section of the jail for a protracted period has had unintended consequences.

Initially, the inmates seemed so unified and bonded that a defense attorney told a judge the jail had developed a “cult-like” atmosphere. Experts on extremism worried that the jail was radicalizing the inmates. But recently, conflicts have blown up between the inmates and grown into what another attorney referred to as a “schism” and what an inmate compared to a “middle school lunchroom.”

The main driver of this conflict, according to C2B inmates, along with their attorneys and family members, is the growing pool of money donated in the name of the Jan. 6 defendants. An alphabet soup of groups has sprung up to support the Jan. 6 defendants — from A4J (Americans For Justice Inc.), to CAPP (Citizens Against Political Persecution), to PFP (Patriot Freedom Project) and PMP (Patriot Mail Project). As donations have grown, so have resentments. And the conflict that has built inside the jail has been amplified outside by a kind of power struggle over who speaks for the so-called political prisoners.

Police try to retrieve a barricade during a scuffle with President Donald Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Julio Cortez / AP Photo

Police try to retrieve a barricade during a scuffle with President Donald Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. The incident happened as Congress prepared to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, with thousands of people gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud.

Detainees describe a pressure-cooker environment

When Brandon Fellows first arrived in C2B in the summer of 2021, he hoped to find camaraderie with his fellow “patriots,” as he calls them.

About 140 police officers were injured defending the Capitol. About 250 people have pleaded guilty to one or more criminal charges related to the attack, which the FBI classifies as an act of domestic terrorism. Fellows, however, calls Jan. 6 “the best day of my life.”

Fellows, 28, is facing comparatively minor charges compared to some others in the D.C. jail. Prosecutors say he breached the Capitol, put his feet up on a senator’s desk and smoked a joint, but did not attack police. He has pleaded not guilty and was locked up because a judge found he violated the terms of his pretrial release. Prosecutors said Fellows harassed his probation officer and ignored court orders. (Fellows apologized in court.)

Due to COVID-19 protocols, Fellows and other inmates in C2B spent long stretches of the last year alone in their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day. Many of the inmates declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and were restricted from going to the barbershop or getting in-person visits.

When they did have access to recreation time, many bonded. They sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” at 9 every evening, held Bible studies, compared notes on legal cases and even hosted a short-lived jailhouse show called the “Hopium Den,” where inmates put on skits and did comedy routines roasting one another. Some inmates said the jokes could be brutally mean. But Troy Smocks, a former Jan. 6 detainee who recently finished his sentence for posting online threats against elected officials, said it “relieved pressure” in an often hopeless environment. For years, the D.C. jail has been notorious for unsanitary, substandard and, in the words of D.C.’s attorney general, “squalid” conditions.

Still, factions started to form.

“Being incarcerated with a group of people who are from vastly different backgrounds, income brackets, education levels and viewpoints — compounded with the stress of solitary confinement, being away from our loved ones and looking down the barrel of 6- to 15-year prison sentences — is very stressful, so naturally there is going to be tension,” said one inmate, who asked to speak anonymously to discuss the conditions inside the jail.

A handful of inmates said their experience of being arrested had turned them away from Donald Trump. “I stopped caring about politics because that’s what got me incarcerated,” said one inmate, “and I don’t ever want to be a pawn in someone else’s game again.” Another said he would never go to another political rally in his life.

The opposite is true of Fellows. He said the government had made an “enemy” by prosecuting him and that he rejected a plea offer from the government that would have resulted in a sentence of time served — meaning, he would go free. “I just don’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., generally does not discuss plea negotiations and declined to comment on Fellows’ case.)

Others have gotten more deeply invested in the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory and have even been writing letters to a post office box that they’ve heard reaches Trump.

FILE – In this Jan. 12, 2021, file photo, shattered glass from the attack on Congress by a pro-Trump mob is seen in the doors leading to the Capitol Rotunda, in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

There have been deep divides over donations

An even deeper divide has grown around the issue of money. Inmates use money for items at the jail commissary, time on the phone, bills back home and, perhaps most important, legal assistance.

Many inmates were eager to hear about the launch of the Patriot Freedom Project, which said it would provide financial help to Jan. 6 riot defendants and their families, including cash grants, gifts and legal aid.

Early on, the group raised big money: The pro-Trump writer and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza donated $100,000. “These are people who have a very good, close to the ground assessment of who needs what,” D’Souza said on his podcast, “so there’s no money going to administrative costs or any sort of rigmarole.”

“I hear he donates $100,000 to us,” remembers Fellows, who had arrived at the jail not long before the announcement. He said he expected the funds to be distributed equally among all of the jailed Jan. 6 defendants.

“I divided it by the amount of people in C2B, and I got all excited,” he said.

But then Fellows said he found out the group, led by Cynthia Hughes of New Jersey, was going to pick and choose which defendants and families to support.

The people that have received aid from the Patriot Freedom Project have praised the group effusively. “If Cynthia didn’t create the Patriot Freedom Project many families would have suffered,” the wife of one inmate told NPR.

“I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have that support,” said the wife of another detainee.

By April 2022, the group announced it had raised almost $1.2 million. But resentments have built among the defendants who said they did not receive donations from the group.

“I personally have not gotten a dime out of it,” Fellows told NPR, even though the Patriot Freedom Project featured Fellows’ photo on its website until recently.

Fellows is not alone in his frustration. As NPR has reported, experts in charity law said the group presented some “red flags.” For example, Hughes has disclosed a history of financial problems documented in legal filings. The group’s board also initially consisted of just Hughes, Hughes’ sister-in-law and Hughes’ son. After facing criticism, Patriot Freedom Project replaced Hughes’ family members on the board, public records indicate. Hughes said, as of now, “I don’t have financial problems.”

Initially, many of the criticisms of the group simmered in group chats on the outside, or quiet conversations in the jail, as people hoped they were next in line for help.

But after NPR’s reporting, a group of inmates organized and contacted NPR. In all, a dozen current and former inmates of C2B said they wanted the Patriot Freedom Project to be more transparent. Several were not willing to go on the record because they were concerned about backlash. And defendants are often reluctant to talk publicly, because they worry their comments might be used against them in court. But five people decided to go public with their criticism.

“The people that gave to Patriot Freedom Project believed that they were giving to help with the legal and financial cause for the men and women themselves. It wasn’t for [Cynthia Hughes] to select and choose,” said Troy Smocks. Smocks’ photo was also featured on the group’s website until recently, even though he said the group has not given him any money.

“The Patriot Freedom Project’s disbursement process is a disgrace to both donors and defendants alike,” Thomas Sibick said in a statement. Sibick has pleaded not guilty to several charges, including the alleged assault of Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone during the riot.

Jacob Lang, who has pleaded not guilty to allegations that he assaulted police with a shield and a bat, praised Hughes and Patriot Freedom Project for providing support to some families and defendants. “I truly commend Cindy for stepping up to the plate and helping out these patriot families when no one else was there for them,” he said. But he agreed more transparency was needed so “everyone would sleep better at night.”

In the past, the group has pointed to the “Statement of Activities” document posted on its website. That document claims that the group has spent $665,000 on legal aid and financial support to defendants’ families. But that leaves nearly half a million dollars yet to be disbursed — a major point of frustration as trials for many defendants begin.

Police with guns drawn watch as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Police with guns drawn watch as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Allegations of antisemitism and bullying arise

Several defendants said Patriot Freedom Project had reacted “defensively” to their concerns.

Three sources, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation, claimed Hughes had discussed taking legal action against a Jan. 6 defendant for criticizing the group — one of the “patriots” referenced in the group’s name. (Hughes did not respond to NPR’s questions about that claim.)

Ronnie Sandlin — who prosecutors allege breached the Capitol, smoked a joint in the rotunda, and tried to “rip” the helmet off a police officer — said he was even more concerned by the group’s “belligerent responses to any suggestion that they should be transparent with the fund.” (Sandlin has pleaded not guilty to all charges.)

A particular sore point for some of the inmates of C2B is fear that donations are distributed through “favoritism.”

Hughes is personally close to one defendant, Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, whom she has described as an “adoptive nephew.” Hale-Cusanelli’s defense attorney is actually court-appointed, and so the government — not Patriot Freedom Project — pays for Hale-Cusanelli’s defense. But other inmates said they were concerned they had to “suck up” to Hale-Cusanelli to get access to donations.

“Looking at where the money is and looking at the parties that don’t get along with him, I would say that there’s evidence to support that,” said Fellows.

And Hale-Cusanelli is, by many accounts, a polarizing figure.

Federal prosecutors have accused Hale-Cusanelli, a former Army reservist, of being a white supremacist and Holocaust denier. Hale-Cusanelli allegedly breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 but has not been accused of violence or property damage. He has pleaded not guilty but was detained before trial because a federal judge found that he posed a danger to the community.

The allegations made by prosecutors are consistent with his behavior inside the jail, according to Smocks.

“He would sit at the table closest to his cell and draw antisemitic characters on the table,” said Smocks. He compared the drawings to Nazi-style propaganda cartoons.

Smocks has a “lengthy criminal history,” according to prosecutors, and has previously been convicted of bank fraud, forgery and other offenses. Supporters of Patriot Freedom Project have suggested that undermines his credibility.

Seven other current and former inmates of the D.C. jail, however, agreed with Smocks and told NPR that Hale-Cusanelli had made antisemitic comments or drawings — such as depicting Jewish people as pigs and dropping an atomic bomb on Israel. The drawings were “hateful and inflammatory,” said one detainee. “It perpetuates a stereotype that I resent about Trump supporters being racist and intolerant, because we’re not.”

Still, sources inside the jail said Hale-Cusanelli had a group of supporters, in part, because of his connection to the Patriot Freedom Project. (Those supporters did not respond to NPR’s messages seeking comment.)

One detainee compared the situation to “the movie Mean Girls, but with racist, antisemitic extremists.”

Jonathan Crisp, Hale-Cusanelli’s defense attorney, said the claims about the supposed antisemitic drawings were false but declined to comment further.

Recently, the Patriot Freedom Project launched its own podcast and appeared to address the allegations against Hale-Cusanelli. Jan. 6 defendant Kash Kelly, who is Black, told Hughes that it was false to claim anyone in C2B was a white supremacist. Neither Hughes nor Kelly specified exactly which people they were talking about. Kelly did not respond to a message from NPR seeking comment.

Others close to Patriot Freedom Project have suggested their critics are just trying to get a bigger portion of the donated funds.

Fellows, for example, has raised more than $30,000 via the crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo. He said if people want to support Jan. 6 defendants, they should give directly to individuals, not third-party groups.

“I think there’s enough evidence to warrant an investigation — a third-party audit,” said Fellows. “And in the meantime, people should just honestly not donate to Patriot Freedom Project.”

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Jose Luis Magana / AP Photo

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

State regulators in a handful of states have said they’re looking into whether the group is complying with state charity registration requirements. On April 6, the California Department of Justice sent a second letter to the organization saying it must provide records within 30 days or potentially lose tax-exempt status in the state.

In response to NPR, Hughes did not directly respond to the criticisms from Jan. 6 defendants or answer specific questions.

“I started Patriot Freedom Project to help the J6 prisoners and their families,” Hughes wrote, in part, in a statement to NPR. “Patriot Freedom Project will never stop fighting for these people, their families, and their children.” On the Patriot Freedom Project’s own podcast, Hughes was more defiant in her defense against critics of the group, saying: “They don’t affect me because my work speaks for itself.”

Inside the jail, some inmates said they have faced blowback for speaking to NPR and have been labeled “snitches” or federal informants. They said they were concerned that the jail grievance system could be used to retaliate against them.

As trials move closer and closer, that pressure has only intensified.

NPR contacted the spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Corrections to ask how the department is handling the conflict in the jail. The agency did not respond.

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