The Real Reason the Jan. 6 'QAnon Shaman' Was Released From Prison Early
Jacob Chansley, also known as the "QAnon Shaman," screams "Freedom" inside the U.S. Senate chamber after the U.S. Capitol was breached by a mob during a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Credit - Win McNamee–Getty Images
Jacob Chansley, the convicted Jan. 6 rioter who was dubbed the “QAnon Shaman” thanks to viral photographs of his outlandish getup, has been released from prison and transferred to a halfway house more than a year before he was initially set to be released.
His former attorney and legal experts say it has nothing to do with Tucker Carlson, or the Fox News host’s broadcast of footage of Chansley seemingly being led through the hallways of the U.S. Capitol by police.
Federal prison records indicate that Chansley, a self-described shaman and a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory, entered a “residential reentry management” facility in Phoenix, Ariz. on Tuesday with a release date of May 25—around 14 months ahead of his scheduled release.
The Bureau of Prisons has not commented on the reason for his early release, but noted that recent changes to the First Step Act allows inmates to earn “up to 54 days of good conduct time for each year of the sentence imposed by the court.” Federal and state prison inmates often earn sentence reductions over the course of their time behind bars.
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Chansley, 35, pleaded guilty in September 2021 to one felony count of obstruction of an official proceeding and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. He was perhaps the most visible rioter to storm the Capitol, carrying a spear and wearing a horned fur hat and face paint on Jan. 6. He was also one of a small number of rioters to make it to the floor of the Senate Chamber, where he used a bullhorn to rile up the mob, calling former Vice President Mike Pence a “f—ing traitor.” Chansley also left a note on paper that read “It’s Only A Matter of Time. Justice Is Coming!” The imposing images of him on the Senate floor were broadcast around the world, becoming a symbol of the Jan. 6 attack.
Chansley’s case recently regained national attention this month when Carlson aired previously unseen video surveillance footage of Chansley walking through the Capitol hallways accompanied by police officers, who at some moments appeared to be escorting him—even opening a Senate-wing door. But the four-minute clip provided no context about his interactions with law enforcement and omitted the most incriminating aspects of his conduct.
Albert Watkins, the attorney who handled Chansley’s plea and sentencing, tells TIME that the new footage did not play any role in his former client’s release. “Absolutely no,” he says. “I have seen no indication of any filings related to the new footage. There are no docket entries indicating the same.”
He notes that the plea agreement and sentencing imposed by the court permitted reduced time if Chansley undertook certain programs and behaved well while confined. The early release, he says, is most likely “based on a host of factors routinely taken into consideration by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.”
Erica Zunkel, a law professor and associate director of the University of Chicago’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, tells TIME that the early release seems to be the product of routine federal prison policy rather than a decision based on the potential new evidence. “It would be completely inappropriate if the Tucker Carlson video played a role in his early release,” she says. “They don’t have the authority to consider things that happen after someone is sentenced except in very limited circumstances.”
“This is what the Bureau of Prisons does when people are being released. They calculate good time credit,” she adds.
At Chansley’s sentencing hearing in 2021, he described his own actions as “indefensible” and said he had “no excuse.” “I am in no way shape or form a dangerous criminal. I am not a violent man. I am not an insurrectionist. I am certainly not a domestic terrorist,” Chansley told the judge. “I am nothing like these criminals that I have been incarcerated with.”
So far, more than 1,000 people have been arrested for storming the Capitol, with charges ranging from obstruction of an official proceeding to assault. But 27 months after the attempted insurrection, a significant number of rioters are still awaiting their sentencing. Around 42% of those arrested—420 individuals—have received criminal sentences, while the rest are waiting for their trials or haven’t yet reached plea agreements.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, 220 defendants were sentenced to periods of incarceration, with longer prison terms for those who engaged in violence or threats. So far, the median prison sentence for the Jan. 6 rioters is 60 days, according to TIME’s calculation of the public records.
An additional 100 rioters have been sentenced to periods of home detention, while most sentences have included fines, community service and probation for low-level offenses like illegally parading or demonstrating in the Capitol, which is a misdemeanor.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this story. Chansley’s current lawyers—John Pierce and William Shipley—did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Watkins says his former client served 11 months in solitary confinement before being sentenced. He called Chansley a “gentle and intelligence young man,” and says he believes Chansley will lead a law-abiding life after release. He adds: “I applaud the decision of the U.S. Bureau of Prison in this regard.”