Why I Must Continue My 70 Day Prison Hunger Strike

12/12/2016 07:58 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2017

Imprisoned human rights activist, journalist, and author Martin Gottesfeld submitted this article from solitary confinement, responding to concerns from his family and supporters regarding his hunger strike, originally began to raise awareness and seek a presidential pledge to help address institutionalized child abuse in America. Gottesfeld is currently being held without bail at MCC New York and is charged with Knocking Boston Children’s Hospital off the Internet in apparent defense of a patient who was being abused there. He is married to Dana Gottesfeld.

Through my attorneys, my wife has shared with me everyone’s concerns for my health and wishes for me to stop my prison hunger strike, which I have waged since October 3rd, and especially my stoppage of fluids on November 11th. (Update since article was originally written: “Recently, I have temporarily been augmenting the hunger strike by taking non clear fluids, because one cannot live without non clear fluids, I have also been taking one multivitamin a day. This will last for a limited period.” Gottesfeld said.) The hunger strike continues on; today is his 70th day. First, please let me thank you all for your thoughts and prayers. Second, let me assure you, I am not suicidal. So, why am I doing this?

The reasons are many. Some are simple while others are complicated. At first, I was hoping that my prosecutor, Adam J Bookbinder, who took over cybercrime for Carmen Ortiz’s office in the wake of the Aaron Swartz tragedy, would prove himself different than his predecessor, however I am sad to report that does not appear to be the case.

Who Was Aaron Swartz?

Aaron Swartz was a very gifted computer programmer. He co-founded Demand Progress, and is credited as a co-founder of Reddit as well. He also worked on parts of the RSS Standard. He could have gone to the valley and chased riches, but instead stayed on the east coast, endured our northeast winters, and was a very prominent Internet and political activist.

Aaron came onto the Department of Justice’s radar for his work to make public court records truly public. You see, there is a system called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records.) Nearly any federal court document you could want was available on PACER—for a price. The law that created the PACER project allowed the courts to charge a nominal fee, sufficient to pay for the ongoing operation of the system itself, but that wasn’t what was happening; the fees went beyond any level necessary to keep the system running. To Aaron (and others) this profiteering from information that is supposed to belong to all of us, and which the public has a vested, constitutional interest in, was unacceptable.

WENDY MAEDA/THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Carl Malamud, who also justly took issue with this questionable government behavior, set up his own website and appealed to people to send in PACER documents they had acquired, making them available to others for free. Aaron discovered that in a beta program, seventeen no-cost PACER workstations had been setup across the nation, and he happened to live close to one. So, he dropped in and, using a computer script he quickly wrote, started downloading massive numbers of pages over about three weeks, which he then sent to the free PACER alternative site, for the public to use without cost, as they should be. The people who ran both sites were surprised, and the FBI sent agents to reconnoiter Aaron’s home. There was no law or system policy prohibiting Aaron from doing this though, and as one of the founders of the alternative PACER site has said, the terms of use were not clearly defined, though this did open an FBI file on Swartz.

Later, after more activism and some really quite notable results, Aaron happened upon JSTOR. Our government awards millions of taxpayer dollars each year in grants for academic studies. The idea is supposed to be for the public to own and benefit from the results, but like PACER, the actual practice is far from what you’d expect, and people have found ways to line their pockets by taking what’s supposed to be public and charging for it.

In the case of JSTOR, this morally distasteful behavior occurs on the publishing end. Once thousands, or even millions, of our tax dollars have been spent conducting a rigorous academic study, the researchers have to publish their results somewhere, and too often that’s JSTOR. Now, theoretically at least, this data should belong to every American citizen and for the most part be open to the public, who have already paid to produce it. However, results published to JSTOR are not, and anyone wishing to access the results of this once again usually publicly funded research must pay. The fees for an individual study or two may not break the bank for enterprise organizations, but for broke graduate students wishing to perform a meta- analysis across dozens or perhaps hundreds of studies, they can be an absolute show-stopper, not to mention the research-chilling effect they have on academicians from poor countries who may not be able to afford access to a single JSTOR document with American dollars.

To Aaron, and many of us who support him and his legacy, this status quo is wholly unacceptable. Similar to the free PACER workstations, Swartz discovered that MIT pays for a site license to JSTOR, allowing anyone on the university’s network unlimited access to its library. Through a legitimate relationship Swartz had with MIT, he registered a laptop on the school’s famously open network, placed it in an unlocked wiring closet, and once again using software he wrote, set it about downloading en masse.

From a technical perspective, it seems to me at least that if Aaron actually thought he was doing anything wrong, he would have taken steps to avoid being noticed, like limiting the speed with which he downloaded from JSTOR. I can’t say for sure, but the lack of such precautions seems to suggest Aaron knew he was justified; a modern day electronic Robin Hood, re-disseminating tax dollars unjustly taken by a greedy, profiteering, entity that did nothing to contribute to the public good, and was, in effect, a vile leech, sucking America’s fresh scientific blood and holding back the progress of all humankind. Further, Aaron did offer to pay JSTOR somewhere around $1 million of his own money if they would open up their collection to anyone, anywhere, but JSTOR balked at the offer and wanted hundreds of times that sum to even entertain the idea of giving up their goose that lays the golden eggs.

Once Aaron was noticed downloading the articles from JSTOR, he was arrested. However his efforts, which again given his legitimate connection to MIT, and the university’s unlimited JSTOR license, don’t seem to actually violate any law. When asked, he turned over his JSTOR hard drives to the authorities. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her then chief of cybercrime Steve Heymann didn’t care though. They had Aaron indicted on 13 felony counts of violating the CFAA, a federal anti-hacking law.

When Swartz refused to take a felony plea that would have ruined his political future, quite probably sent him to federal prison and barred him from using computing technology for years, Heymann infamously compared Aaron to a rapist. Heymann also claimed Swartz had started a wild Internet campaign asserting his innocence, which he had not. Prosecutors even called Aaron’s girlfriend into their offices to compel her to give them information on him, and when Ortiz’s office was warned about Aaron’s delicate mental state, they didn’t take it any easier on him. After more than a year of fighting the indictment and concerned about the toll the whole matter was having on his friends and family, Aaron took his own life.

GETTY

Swartz’s death was widely mourned across the nation and the globe. It was as if the whole internet shed tears. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried when I heard the news, and recalling that moment now, my mouth may be dry, my lips may be chapped but my cheeks are wet. To be clear, I didn’t know Aaron Swartz, but there are a great deal of common formative experiences technologists share. People like us don’t have to know each other to share tight, common bonds, and the loss of one of us is a loss to all of us. The loss of a hero like Aaron Swartz denies us of his many gifts and the contributions he would have made to our society and the culture of technologists.

Following Aaron’s death, 61,000 people digitally signed a whitehouse.gov petition calling for Carmen Ortiz, his prosecutor, to be fired. Aaron Swartz Day is now celebrated across the globe as a time for those with technical talents to carry on Aaron’s spirit by writing computer software to benefit their communities, as he so often did. If you want to know more about Aaron’s life, there is a biographical documentary available on YouTube called “The Internet’s Own Boy.” Though Steve Heymenn is no longer the cybercrime chief for the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office, Carmen Ortiz remains, and her office is prosecuting me under the same federal anti-hacking law. I am the next activist she has chosen to pursue with this questionable statute.

What is the “Troubled Teen” Industry?

The troubled teen industry is comprised of for-profit institutions that are quite diverse, but share one main thing in common: for a hefty monthly price tag, they promise to treat children with issues from ADD to clinical depression, schizophrenia, autism and others. However, the majority of the time this treatment is a con that takes advantage of desperate parents who feel they have exhausted every other option to help their kid. Here is what the American Bar Association told congress about the industry in 2007:

Despite egregious abuses, these facilities continue to grow in number and size. The industry is booming and reportedly worth over a billion dollars. A parent may pay between $3,000-$5,000 per month to send their child or youth into a private unregulated residential treatment facility and not be able to monitor his or her progress because of rules limiting family contact. The industry prospers on promises to modify troublesome behavior and to make “bad” kids good. Its financial sustainability is ensured by frequent deceptive advertising on the internet that market facilities as offering an array of mental health and educational services that are often not available or provided by unqualified staff.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office also investigated the industry, with disturbing results:

I have discussed my fight against child abuse in this industry at length in a previous HuffPost exclusive. Before I ever came onto the scene though, Congressman George Miller fought the same fight for decades without success. He begged the Justice Department to investigate, but they refused, leaving tens of thousands of American children to suffer as outlined in the video above. PBS has also produced a documentary called “Who’s Watching the Kids?” about the industry, focusing on the state of Montana.

Representative Miller retired after 30 years of struggling to do something to protect these kids, but with nothing to show for it. In the meantime children continue to suffer all the while the government looks on, taking notes and writing reports, but not actually protecting the youth from torture and death. To me, fighting this industry is less like typical political activism, and more like stopping a mugging in a dark alley. The dangers are imminent, lethal, and there is no hope the police will act in time. So what would you do?

Who Is Justina Pelletier?

Justina Pelletier was fourteen years old when she was brought to Boston Children’s Hospital for treatment for a very specific physical aliment. However, a resident in a different specialty, a mere seven months out of medical school, and a non-MD psychologist disagreed with her diagnosis. They claimed her problems were psychological, so they stopped her vital medicines and locked her in the psych ward. When her parents vocally objected, the hospital went to the state to have them stripped of custody and subjected to a gag order preventing them from speaking to the media.

Pelletier family/Patrick Mahoney

I have written about my involvement in the Pelletier case multiple times, but the bottom line is, after what Boston Children’s put Justina through, she lost the use of her legs and was nearly killed. Like in the section above, I’ll end, by asking, when you know a child is being mistreated like this, and nothing else has been effective in terms of protecting them, what do you do? Do you let them suffer or die? My personal answer is no, it is to act, but as a private citizen, I shouldn’t have to. Isn’t this what we have oversight and law enforcement agencies for?

Why My Hunger Strike Must Go On

I feel compelled to continue my hunger strike for many reasons. Carmen Ortiz simply cannot be allowed to do to others what she did to Aaron, and especially not quietly. This ongoing hunger strike is the best and only way possible for me to see to that.

After decades of inaction to protect kids in the troubled teen industry as well as kids like Justina, I cannot allow the people who actually risk everything to protect such children to be criminalized instead of the actual torturers and murderers. After all these decades, I must oppose such a gross perversion of American jurisprudence with every fiber of my being, and if necessary, although it’s not exactly “Plan A,” with my dying breath. As a convict activist, federal felon, and without computers for years, I would be completely ineffective in any attempts to bring about positive change. I know this as well as Aaron did.

Finally, I must oppose this and persevere for the simple fact that it is wrong. It is an injustice, and it must not go unchallenged. Such travesties perpetuate themselves precisely because they all too often go unchallenged by people willing to risk their lives. The founders of our great nation knew this.

I hope that my supporters will take heart though regarding the increasing attention the strike, Carmen Ortiz’s sordid past, the troubled teen industry, and the Pelletier case are all receiving. I’m sorry I can’t share all the developments on every front, but you can rest assured there are good things on each of these horizons and plenty of reasons to stay optimistic. If my strike does reach the point of forceful hydration and feeding, those will have to continue for an extended period of time while more and more of the full story comes to light, and hopefully it can finally be enough to help bring about meaningful change. Everything else has been tried, and when it comes to protecting these kids, I will leave no rock unturned.

This article was written by Martin Gottesfeld on November 18th, the 46th day of his hunger strike. He stopped all fluids on November 11th. Friends and supporters operate www.FreeMartyG.com as well as a Facebook page and Twitter account. He is married to Dana Gottesfeld.

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