Reporting Live from Supermax

Thursday's decision by U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger that the Bureau of Prisons can't stop even high-security prisoners from publishing under a byline may not mean much to the public at large. Is there anyone out there clamoring for dating advice from Ted "Unabomber" Kaczynski or a Forbes column on how to build loyalty among your employees by ex-FBI traitor Robert Hanssen?

But it is a big deal for anyone interested in what goes on inside the federal prison system. The plaintiff in the case, Mark Jordan, is a Florence ADX inmate doing a heap of time for bank robbery and the fatal stabbing of another inmate; he also happens to be a pretty good constitutionalist, defending his diminished First Amendment rights in a variety of radical publications. Jordan got his mail heavily censored and was punished for "acting as a reporter." The details of his fight can be found here and here.

Prison officials often try to muzzle problem inmates by denying reporters the ability to interview them, saying the prisoners have other ways to communicate their views. But then they start interfering with their mail and throwing them in the hole if they write a letter to a newspaper that gets published. The most famous case dates back to the 1980s, when a federal prisoner named Danny Martin started making waves with columns in a San Francisco newspaper — and was punished in a variety of ways under the "no byline" rule.

Martin's case never got to trial. Thanks to help from some University of Denver law students, Jordan's did. Given the difficulties involved in interviewing any prisoner in the Florence supermax, where some of the most high-profile terrorists and career criminals are kept in isolation (more on this subject in next week's cover story), inmates turned reporters may be our best hope for getting the inside story. – Alan Prendergast


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