The Mailman Cometh

It can be tricky, running the toughest prison in the entire country, but it's hardly ever dull. One day you're getting blasted by lawmakers because security is too lax and convicted terrorists are managing to send letters out to new recruits. The next you're in the doghouse with a federal judge because your efforts to keep certain mail from coming in are considered unconstitutional.

Lose some, lose some.

Things seem to be heading downhill at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, better known as ADX. Home to some of the nation's most infamous prisoners — including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (pictured), Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and Colombian hit man Dandenis Munoz Mosquera — the federal supermax outside of Florence has been a magnet for controversy ever since its 1994 debut. But many of its most recent problems appear to be related to a single cause: shortsighted staff cuts, in the mailroom and elsewhere, that have exposed security gaps and sent buck-passers in the Bush administration scurrying for cover.

The staff shortages have sparked union protests and town meetings organized by state representative Buffie McFadyen (her Internet home page can be accessed here), who's made supermax security a rallying point for Fremont County residents. The cuts may have contributed to two inmate homicides last year, the first such deaths in ADX's history. And they've led to declining searches and made it easy for prison gang leaders and terrorists to send coded (or simply untranslated) messages to miscreants in the outside world. Yet the Bush administration has denied several BOP requests for additional security funding since the 9-11 attacks, even though more and more terrorists are being housed there. That prompted a recent letter from Senator Ken Salazar to President Bush urging that he intervene in the matter.

When you're short on guards, one way to deal with the mail is to ban everything potentially subversive coming in and out -- which is what ADX basically tried to do after 9-11. Prisoners couldn't receive publications that reported on prisons (including Westword), couldn't contribute articles to radical publications or receive those publications in the mail. That led to a series of court battles with prison writer Mark Jordan, who recently scored a modest victory in Denver's federal court, allowing him to receive a copy of a publication entitled (appropriately enough) "Justice Denied." Jordan, who's serving time for a bank robbery and a 1999 murder at another prison, will need the reading material; he's not due to be released for another 32 years.

To learn more about Mark Jordan, how the Aryan Brotherhood leadership operated within ADX, why Munoz Mosquera is serving ten life sentences in total isolation, and more, check out our Crime and Punishment archive. -- Alan Prendergast

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts