The Long Silence

As an aspiring 26-year-old writer with a dark past, Mark Jordan figures he has plenty to tell the world. He has stories about bank robberies, for instance, and the many episodes of violence he's seen in eight years of prison life. And how federal authorities have been trying to coerce him into confessing to a murder that he swears he didn't commit.

But as U.S. Bureau of Prisons inmate #48374-066, Jordan has no right to publish anything, anywhere, about any of these matters. According to his keepers, even the act of trying to get his views into print amounts to a violation of prison regulations, subject to disciplinary action. In the past year, Jordan has been punished twice for the crime of "acting as a reporter or publishing under a byline," offenses that have resulted in his losing some of the few privileges he has left as a 23-hour-a-day lockdown inmate in the highest-security prison in the country.

Jordan's case highlights what has become an increasingly heated -- and litigious -- battle over the information flow in and out of the federal prison system. In recent months, federal authorities have drastically tightened the restrictions placed on incoming and outgoing mail at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum in Florence (better known as ADX), confiscating a wide range of publications sent to inmates and taking action against cell-block writers who seek to publish articles about their experiences.

The move appears to be part of a nationwide trend, both in federal and state prisons, to further constrict inmates' limited ability to communicate with the media. But the crackdown has been particularly harsh at ADX, where Jordan has been placed in isolation for the past three years pending an investigation into an inmate homicide at another penitentiary, a case in which no charges have been filed.

Prison officials say the increased scrutiny of inmate mail is a necessary security measure at the Florence supermax, which houses many of the most formidable terrorists in the entire federal system, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Colombian hit man Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera and Ramzi Yousef, convicted of conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But civil libertarians, prison activists and other critics of the blanket censorship have questioned its legality.

"It's patently unconstitutional," says California author and prison researcher Peter Sussman, who's battled the Bureau of Prisons over its no-byline rule in federal court. "We don't hold prisoners incommunicado in this country -- but apparently we do now."

"I believe that the recent actions inhibiting my efforts to publish are related to the homicide investigation and to prohibiting prisoners from revealing many of the things that go on here at ADX," Jordan wrote in a recent letter to Westword. "Public scrutiny is the last thing these people would like."

ADX officials review all incoming mail and have traditionally invoked security concerns to ban certain publications, such as racist and anarchist tracts and even Prison Legal News, on the grounds that they could prove "disruptive" to prison operations. Several months ago, though, warden Michael Pugh declared that any article "that contains specific information written by or about an inmate or inmates and their causes" would be subject to confiscation as "third-party inmate-to-inmate correspondence." The new policy has been used to keep inmates from receiving particular issues of a wide range of mainstream publications, from Westword to the Christian Science Monitor to the New Yorker, simply because that issue contains an article that makes reference to a prisoner somewhere, regardless of whether the reference has any bearing on operations at ADX (Off Limits, August 29).

"It could be an article about an inmate, his case, something that could encourage rioting -- anything that could endanger the security of the facility," says ADX spokeswoman Wendy Montgomery. (Pugh was recently transferred from ADX.)

One item that caught the attention of the prison's mailroom last year was an article Jordan published in Off!, a magazine put out by students at the State University of New York. In "The Social Bonds of the Have-Nots," Jordan wrote candidly about the reason he's been kept in administrative detention at ADX since mid-1999: his refusal to cooperate with FBI agents investigating a fatal stabbing that occurred in the recreation yard at U.S. Penitentiary Florence, across the road from ADX in the four-prison federal complex.

A bank robber serving what amounts to a 25-year sentence, Jordan is considered to be a medium-security prisoner, not a supermax case. But that all changed after another inmate, David Brian Stone, was found stabbed in the back at USP Florence, one of the most violent federal pens in the country ("Marked for Death," May 25, 2000). Jordan was moved to ADX shortly afterward as a "temporary holdover," presumably until the murder investigation was completed.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast