Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendants in pretrial jail are fighting over donations Allegations of bullying and intimidation as well as complaints about the distribution of more than a million dollars in donated funds have led to bitter conflict among Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendants.

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

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AUTOMATED VOICE: This is a free call from an incarcerated individual at Correctional Treatment Facility.


The Correctional Treatment Facility is part of the Washington, D.C. jail, where a few dozen January 6 defendants have been held. They've been kept together in one place, a unit called C2B. Officials say that housing all of these defendants together is, quote, "for their own safety and security." But as NPR's Tom Dreisbach reports, that decision has had some unintended consequences, including a bitter divide among inmates.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: First off, could you just say who you are and what you do? What's the best way to identify you?

BRANDON FELLOWS: My name is Brandon Fellows. I owned a chimney business and tree business outside of here, but now, I would best describe what I do as - I'm a political prisoner.

DREISBACH: Brandon Fellows is one of the lower-level January 6 defendants, charged with breaching the Capitol and putting his feet up on a senator's desk, not the violence that injured about 140 police officers. And he was only locked up in C2B after a judge found he violated the terms of his pretrial release by harassing his probation officer.

The FBI refers to January 6 as an act of domestic terrorism. Fellows calls it the best day of his life. And when he first got to the jail, he said the inmates had bonded.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh, say can you see...

DREISBACH: This scratchy recording was made over a jailhouse telephone. It's the inmates singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," something they do every night at 9.

For long chunks of the last year, pandemic protocols meant inmates were kept in their cells alone for 23 hours a day. Many inmates refused to get vaccinated against COVID, which limited access to things like the barbershop. When they have gotten rec time, they used it to work out, using trash bags filled with water as weights or compared notes on legal cases.

Troy Smocks spent about a year in the jail for posting violent threats against elected officials online and recently finished his sentence. Smocks says at one point, the group put on a kind of jailhouse show they called the Hopium Den.

TROY SMOCKS: You know, they would put on little skits and things like that. You know, it was our own comedy show. It was to relieve pressure.

DREISBACH: Some thought the jokes could be brutally mean, but it did build camaraderie.

Experts on extremism and some defense attorneys started worrying that the decision to put these inmates together was just hardening their views. But interviews and messages with a dozen current and former inmates suggest something more complicated has happened. Over the past year in this confined, pressure-cooker environment, the inmates have actually divided into different cliques.

Take, for example, politics. Three inmates told me they were pretty much done with politics and definitely done with Trump. After all, they said, that's how they got locked up in the first place. The opposite happened to Brandon Fellows. He compares the Department of Justice to terrorists.

FELLOWS: They made an enemy for sure. You know, I didn't like them before, but now they made an enemy.

DREISBACH: He said he even rejected a plea deal from the government, which would have gotten him out of jail.

But another conflict has bitterly divided C2B with claims of bullying and discussion of lawsuits. That conflict is about money. Brandon Fellows says he was struggling financially when word got around in the jail about a big donation the pro-Trump writer Dinesh D'Souza gave to a group supporting the defendants called the Patriot Freedom Project.

FELLOWS: Dinesh D'Souza, I hear he donates $100,000 to us. I calculate - I divided it by the amount of people in C2B and I said, oh, I got all excited. And then somebody informs me, that's not actually how that works.

DREISBACH: Fellows asked around about how to get the money, found out the group would pick and choose different cases. They claimed it was based on need, but Fellows said the criteria were not clear. The leader of the Patriot Freedom Project is a woman named Cynthia Hughes. She's become a regular on Steve Bannon's podcast.


CYNTHIA HUGHES: We need somebody to drop us $500,000 today - today, Steve - because we need to have our own attorneys on these cases.

DREISBACH: The group says it has now raised almost $1.2 million and spent a little more than half of that. Hughes says she's fighting for all of the January 6, quote, "political prisoners." But Brandon Fellows says he hasn't gotten a dime from the group.

Jake Lang has pleaded not guilty to charges that he assaulted police with a shield and a bat during the Capitol riot. He said he didn't need the money, but others did and were frustrated.

JAKE LANG: That's going to create some kind of, you know, problem because we're dealing with people's lives here and years of their lives on the line.

DREISBACH: For a while, those problems simmered quietly. Several people did receive thousands of dollars and were thankful. Others hoped they were next in line. Then NPR investigated and found what charity experts called red flags with the nonprofit. The group even changed their board of trustees in response, and around that time, Cynthia Hughes acknowledged the complaints about transparency.


HUGHES: People are asking for transparency. There was a statement of facts up on our website. We're doing the best we can to provide the information that people need. We just need a little bit of time to put things together.

DREISBACH: Then a group of inmates organized and started reaching out to me. Most were not willing to go on the record because they were worried about retaliation from a rival group inside. Brandon Fellows said that has to do with a conflict with another inmate. His name is Timothy Hale-Cusanelli.

FELLOWS: Because he's here and because of the friends that he has accumulated, I think less people are willing to go public.

DREISBACH: Cynthia Hughes calls Hale-Cusanelli her adoptive nephew, and inmates told me they were concerned that they had to, quote, "suck up" to Hale-Cusanelli and side with his clique to get money from the Patriot Freedom Project. One told me life in the jail started feeling like a middle school lunchroom. He compared it to Nazi "Mean Girls." And Troy Smocks, who is Black, said this about Hale-Cusanelli.

SMOCKS: He would sit at the table closest to his cell and draw anti-Semitic characters on the table.

DREISBACH: Like the Nazi type cartoons.

SMOCKS: Right. Yeah.

DREISBACH: Like from Nazi propaganda.

SMOCKS: That's it.

DREISBACH: Seven other inmates backed this up. They described cartoons depicting Jewish people as pigs or dropping an atomic bomb on Israel. Prosecutors also call Hale-Cusanelli a white supremacist who once went to work with a Hitler mustache. He's pleaded not guilty and denied those allegations. Hale-Cusanelli's attorney denied the drawings were anti-Semitic.

Inside the jail, accusations have flown that the people who talked to NPR are snitches, and several told me they were worried the jail grievance system might be used to punish rivals. Outside the jail, Cynthia Hughes has pushed back on her own podcast.


HUGHES: There's people that have done interviews and they've said some negative things about me or about Tim, you know, or about the project. And you have to have thick skin. I'm not fazed by those people. They don't affect me. Because my work speaks for itself.

DREISBACH: Still, three people told me that she had discussed bringing legal action against the January 6 defendant for criticizing the Patriot Freedom Project. Hughes did not answer any specific questions for this story. People close to the group have suggested that their critics are just trying to raise their own money. Brandon Fellows, for example, has raised more than 30 grand crowd-funding online. But he says that big $1.2 million pot of money has made life in C2B toxic.

FELLOWS: There's a disease in the pod, and I think it's a Patriot Freedom Project, and it needs to be taken out. It's like a cancer.

AUTOMATED VOICE: You have one minute left.

FELLOWS: Good grief. It needs to be taken out.

DREISBACH: All this jailhouse drama has blown up just as people are headed to trials that will determine whether they stay locked up. January 6 defendants have been told they were put in the separate unit of the D.C. jail for their own safety. But after a year together, several inmates said the conflict had reached a boiling point. When NPR contacted the D.C. Department of Corrections to ask how they were handling the situation, they did not respond.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.


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