The Long Silence

Federal prisoners' fight to get the word out reaches unprintable extremes.

Jordan's copy of Off! was intercepted in the mailroom; at a disciplinary hearing, he was found guilty of "unauthorized contact with the public." The bureau's ban on inmates publishing under a byline has existed for decades but has rarely been used; lately, though, it's been getting a workout at ADX. Unabomber Kaczynski has also written for Off! and was recently investigated for another article published in a radical environmental newsletter, Green Anarchy.

Perhaps the most famous use of the no-byline rule was an attempt in the late 1980s to silence Danny "Red Hog" Martin, a federal inmate who wrote regular dispatches about prison life for the San Francisco Chronicle. Sussman, who was Martin's editor at the Chronicle and later co-authored a book with him called Committing Journalism, says the byline rule was used as a pretext for punishing Martin when his essays hit a nerve with prison administrators. The case turned into a long-running court battle between the newspaper and the bureau that was never fully resolved; the government managed to get the case dismissed as moot after Martin was paroled.

"We were the first case in the fifteen years the regulation had been in existence," Sussman recalls. "The theoretical reason for the rule is that [publishing] gives inmates standing among their fellow inmates; it makes them 'big wheels.' But they knew all along that Danny was publishing under a byline. What happened was they put him in the hole, then they went looking for something to hold him on."

Sussman and Martin got around the byline ban by arranging to publish Martin's work anonymously ("By a Federal Prisoner"). Jordan tried a similar strategy, submitting a second article to Off! under a pseudonym. But ADX officials cited him again for violating the no-byline rule, stating that even a pseudonym wasn't permissible. In fact, one officer decided that the mere act of sending out the manuscript "constitutes an unauthorized contact with the public," regardless of whether it's published.

"He can send a letter to anybody," says ADX's Montgomery. "There's a difference between a letter and something written as an article for publication purposes. As long as it's a letter, they can write to anybody."

But the distinction may not be as clear-cut as Montgomery suggests. According to Bureau of Prisons spokesman Daniel Dunne, federal prisoners are still allowed to write letters to the editor, which are clearly intended for publication. What if an editor transforms that letter into a bylined article? If a family member receives a letter from a prisoner and turns it over to a reporter who prints its contents, can the prisoner get in trouble for that?

"Yes, because they're trying to circumvent the policy," Montgomery replies. "I would imagine it would be investigated."

Jordan has filed a series of actions in Denver's federal courts challenging his long "holdover" at ADX and the ongoing interference with his mail and his writings. He claims that the no-byline rule is overly broad and vague and tramples on his First Amendment rights. He argues that he has no control over whether a recipient views his work as a "letter" or an "article" or how it might be presented in a publication, yet he's punished for the result. And he says the possible consequences of being published -- which could include loss of "good time" that would otherwise shorten his sentence and restrictions on his mail, property, phone and visitor privileges -- have made him think twice every time he puts pen to paper.

"When I write the media...I am forced to weigh my interest in getting the information out there against the punitive consequences which are sure to follow," he writes. "Even when I write personal letters, I refrain from writing about certain things I would otherwise for fear of less official retaliatory punishment."

Sussman points out that several state prison systems have banned face-to-face interviews with prisoners, contending that prisoners have other means, such as writing letters, to communicate with the public. ADX's increased muzzling of its prisoners contradicts that assumption.

"They say prisoners have other ways to get their views out without being interviewed, but if you can't send mail to the news media, that's an issue in itself," Sussman says. "If you can't do that, there's no way to learn of abuses in the prison system."

Certainly, the blanket ban on articles about "inmates and their causes" could prevent ADX prisoners from reading about abuses in their own prison. Mark Jordan's expected release date is sixteen years away, and it may be that long before he's allowed to read this article.

Click here to read related stories.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help