Supermax Censorship Claimed by Prison Legal News

The U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum outside Florence, Colorado, better known as ADX, has a deserved reputation as the highest-security supermax prison on the planet. It houses some of the most notorious inmates in North America — from Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and shoe bomber Richard Reid to Aryan Brotherhood leader Barry Mills, double agent Robert Hanssen, and Colombian guerrilla leader Simon Trinidad — in 23-hour-a-day, escape-proof lockdown. 

Among human rights activists, though, ADX is controversial not just for what it keeps in but what it manages to keep out. Proper treatment of the mentally ill, for one thing; a massive lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons alleges a history of abuse of delusional, self-mutilating inmates. Journalists, for another; as first reported in Westword several years ago, the prison has, contrary to stated  BOP policy, routinely denied every reporter's request for a face-to-face interview with an ADX prisoner since 2001. Aside from one tightly supervised media tour in 2007, that practice continues today. 

Officials at ADX also seem intent on keeping out Prison Legal News, a feisty monthly magazine with readers among the incarcerated in all fifty states — including nineteen subscribers at ADX. According to a lawsuit recently filed by PLN in Denver's federal district court, officials at ADX have ignored BOP policy, the First Amendment and common sense for the past five years by frequently rejecting the publication on the grounds that it is "detrimental to the security, discipline, or good order of the institution or...might facilitate criminal activity."

PLN has often challenged state or federal prisons that attempt to ban the publication, and this isn't its first scuffle with authorities at ADX. A few years ago the supermax's mania for censorship resulted in confiscating particular issues of a wide range of publications, from Westword to the Christian Science Monitor  and 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. PLN took the BOP to court, reaching an informal settlement in 2008 that considerably eased restrictions on what references to other prisoners or prisons would be allowed. 

But that bout of glasnost lasted only a couple of years. Since 2010, the magazine's suit alleges, the BOP has banned eleven issues of PLN. The notices sent to the magazine didn't always explain why each of the issues were rejected, but the lawsuit states that "the rejections appear to treat any reference to any ADX inmate or staff member — current or former — as a security risk." This includes information publicly available from the prison law library even to ADX inmates, the suit points out, such as reports on lawsuits against ADX or one on former federal prison guards sentenced for abusing prisoners. 

The lawsuit notes that ADX officials made no attempt to redact just the article that was deemed too close to home, preferring to prevent subscribers from getting the entire issue. Nor was the notice of rejection or the appeal process conducted in a timely way.

ADX is the only federal prison that has banned PLN in recent years, according to the magazine's founder and editor, Paul Wright.  "I have no idea why they're doing this," he says. "It could just be as simple as a new person in the mail room. But these guys are in total isolation, and I don't think it's a security risk or a big secret [to report] what any of those guys are in there for."  
For the past six years the Obama administration has been pushing for closing the military detention center at Guantanomo Bay and moving a handful of its detainees to ADX — a proposal that has prompted occasional snorts of indignation and protest from Colorado political leaders. If that move ever happens, it will certainly be reported in Prison Legal News.  Whether their subscribers inside ADX will get to read those stories is another question. "We know we're in for a long, hard-fought slog," says Wright, who's lined up impressive legal talent from several firms in Denver, Chicago and Washington to help pursue the case. "Litigating the BOP is really intense."

Read the complaint in its entirety below.

Prison Legal News v.. Federal Bureau of Prisons

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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