Muzzling the Messenger: A Supermax Story

The shackled plaintiff testified by video hookup from a holding cell in the control unit of the highest security federal pen in the country. His lawyers were students from the University of Denver who haven’t yet passed the bar. But Mark Jordan was determined to have his day in court.

Three days, actually. That’s how long Jordan v. Pugh, et al is expected to last in Denver federal court, a trial that pits a convicted murderer against the numbing bureaucracy of the federal prison system and its Orwellian rules that punish prisoners for the crime of “acting as a reporter or publishing under a byline.” At stake is the nagging question of whether security concerns – and, in the case of the U.S. Penitentiary ADX, where Jordan resides, national security concerns – trump any rights to free speech a federal inmate might have, even if that inmate’s name is Ted Kaczynski, Ramzi Yousef or Eric Rudolph.

Or Mark Jordan. In 2001 Jordan, who looks a bit like a young Ray Liotta, lost the few privileges a 23-hour-a-day lockdown convict has left, all because he published two essays on prison life in Off!, an obscure lefty rag put out by students at the State University of New York. Told that the Bureau of Prisons frowned on inmates receiving any kind of notoriety for publishing articles, Jordan published the second article under a pseudonym, to no avail; our 2002 report on the dispute can be found here.

Jordan maintains that the BOP has been inconsistent and downright flaky in the way it’s applied the rules; at one point outside supporters were posting his stuff online with no objections from the prison lords, but he was later threatened with severe mail restrictions.

In the six years it’s taken for the case to get to court, Jordan has won another lawsuit over BOP restrictions on printed materials coming into ADX; he’s also been convicted of the fatal stabbing of another inmate on the yard of USP Florence a few years ago. During this morning’s testimony, he referred vaguely to being shuffled around different prisons because of court dates “pertaining to a criminal matter” (the stabbing), but the cryptic references went largely unnoticed as Judge Marcia Kreiger paused every few moments to scold, nudge and otherwise prod along his earnest but green student lawyers, who seemed flummoxed by every government objection.

It’s an interesting case, full of tricky constitutional issues. Should the government keep men like the Unabomber from every publishing again? If it doesn’t, will they become such “big wheels” in the prison system that they could become a security threat?

“I want to get a message out to the public,” Jordan told Judge Krieger during his video testimony. “Maybe a unique prisoner’s perspective…I just can’t do that any other way.”

Regardless of the outcome, there should be plenty here for Jordan to write about. If he can only figure out where to do it. –Alan Prendergast

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Crystal Preston-Watson