Here’s Why You Haven’t Been Reading Any Prisoners’ Tales From the Colorado ‘Supermax’ Prison

The U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum in Florence, Colorado, widely known as the “Supermax” prison, houses many of the nation’s most notorious and violent criminals. But you probably haven’t read any interviews with any of those prisoners — including Sammy Gravano, John Walker Lindh, and Ramzi Yousef — in the last several years. Why not?

According to this article by Alan Prendergast in Westword, the prison has summarily banned all reporters:

According to documents obtained by Westword, ADX officials have denied every single media request for a face-to-face interview with a supermax prisoner from January 2002 through May 2007. It doesn’t matter if the request comes from a major news organization or a humble local TV station; it doesn’t matter if the prisoner is a high-profile resident or an obscure career criminal. Contrary to bureau policy, prison brass have turned down every journalist, citing boilerplate “security concerns” if no handier excuse is available. Blanket denial of access appears to have started after the September 11 attacks.

As someone who was once allowed into this prison, for an article I wrote about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, I have always been impressed that jail and prison officials are so accommodating toward journalists, even though jailhouse interviews allow prisoners an opportunity to self-aggrandize, agitate, and plead their innocence — i.e., to do a lot of things that probably aren’t in the best interests of the officials themselves.

I have always interpreted this policy as the mark of an extraordinarily open democracy. Think about it: we live in a country where a convicted terrorist like Kaczynski is allowed to invite a member of the press into his prison to talk about nearly anything he wants. Is the change in policy at the Supermax prison just a random ripple, or is it a significant pushback against that openness?

As a journalist, I have always been in favor of such openness; but I can think of many, many reasons why others might breathe a sigh of relief at such a change. If a convicted terrorist loses the right to vote, why does he retain the right to tell his story at will via the media?

(Hat tip: Romenesko)


People don't get sent to the Supermax for having played music too loudly or for not having cleaned up after their dogs. If an inmate is bad enough to be sent there - at astronomical cost to the taxpayers, no doubt - he's bad enough to lose the right to media access.


Apparently "out of sight (out of contact) out of mind" works well for the Supermax facility. I believe access to information is something that any democracy requires. The information may not always be interesting, necessary or what we want to hear but we should have access to it never-the-less.


What about the media's right to access him?


Everytime I hear Sammy Gravano's name it makes me sick. What a chump....what a sorry snitch. I'm sure he's not having fun.

But I don't understand why the jails are doing what they're doing. The prisoners talkign does zero harm to society whatsoever and curtailing it only makes us less of a democracy.


Perhaps a better question is whether the rest of us, or our press representatives, have lost _our_ right to media access to prisons. Why should the press be singled out as not getting access? Only relatives, presumably? Seems like 1st amendment issue to me.

Plus this isolation sniffs a bit too much of man in the iron mask, or Guantanamo, for me.


Is it a right of the media to talk to prisoner?
Or is it punishing the prisoner?
I think it's punishing the prisoner because part of prison is is losing rights.
How is it supermax if a prisoner can spout his ideology whenever he wants?
The media has a lot of other things they can be doing. Let the psychologists and sociologists and criminologists have access for academic purposes but how does letting a reporter access a supermax prisoner help you or me, beside Cops like entertainment?


Is this an issue of the terrorist retaining the right to tell his story to the media or an issue of the media able to report on the people and treatment in prisons?

If it was only the former, I would agree. However, I think the later also has a lot of value to society as a whole in terms of helping to maintain humane standards.

Mario Ruiz

Dear Stephen,

Banning the press is a very bad thing!

When it comes wartime we have to follow some rules.
In the same "dialectic method" this blogs follows, I wonder if the terrorist and some other criminals must have a limited access of the press in consideration of such a time?

Mario Ruiz

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

The Unabomber is a fascinating case and Stephen Dubner's article on him is well written and very much worth reading. These two factors (prisoners who, though they commit repugnant acts, are very interesting to understand and journalists who write with a high degree of skill) make me think that there should be media access to maximum security prisoners. We can learn a lot about why people commit certain crimes and how their minds work, from reading the prisoner's words, even if much of what is said comes minds that are all too often distorted with coldness and an inability to feel any guilt for what they did.

ils vont...

Burying it under the rug is never a good idea. People should be reminded of these big time criminals and why they are in jail, especially if their crimes affected our society as a whole. Our government is trying to control too much, its gonna back fire. Not sure how but it will.


Can the prisoners still send letters/e-mails or have telephone calls with the media?

If so, the lack of the ability to have a real-time interview seems trivial, to me.


but why the media?
Are they going ask the questions that scholars who do have access won't ask (assuming scholars do have access of course)?
Wouldn't we get a lot more value and education out of a partnership like Levitt and Dubner have here?
Like the book this site is based on?
Personally I'd rather read something like this than an sensationalist account from Geraldo Rivera.
Let the investigative journalists go after the people who aren't behind bars yet.

Bryan G

Stephen & Steven,

Thank you for publicizing this issue. Criminal justice is one America's great skeletons in the closet and perhaps the general public prefer it that way. However, with 1 in 32 persons actively incarcerated or on probation, this deserves more attention. Additionally, an untold number of individuals have spent some period of time in "The System" and their charges acquitted, dismissed, withdrawn or never pursued.

As someone who recently spent a few days in jail, wrongfully accused, I have a new perspective on this system. As a law student, I had resources, knowledge and a network to bring attention to my plight. Most of the men I met, all accused or convicted felons, did not have any of my advantages and were stuck in the system awaiting the slow crawl of justice.

If Americans knew how the system worked and treated their fellow man there would be little doubt why the recidivism occurs and why the prisons don't seem effective deterrents to crime.

Bad things happen in the shadows and hiding the problem is not making it go away. The press is an important tool in bringing injustice to light and more light would be a welcome addition to every jail.


Stat Source:



One of the fundamental principles our democracy (or any democracy) is founded upon is that we make the best decisions when provided with the most points of views, the most information.

It doesn't make people in charge happy, because they usually have "the decision" they want to be made in mind already, but our job is not to make officials happy. Our new national trend towards secrecy does nothing to protect us, it only undermines our society and encourages us to make worse decisions that only harm ourselves.


The whole idea of prison is to isolate those individuals whose actions have clearly demonstrated that they cannot or will not comply with the rules of civilized society.This not only protects society from them AND their ideas,but prevents them from recruiting others to their beliefs.For those who achieve Supermax incarceration,either their crimes were so heinous that they were deemed to be locked away"forever",or that they have failed in any and all attempts to modify their behavior to acceptable norms.Not that long ago these individuals would have summarily executed upon conviction instead of comfortably housed for decades at society expense.I care nothing for their thoughts and opinion,nor their"rights" or creature comforts,only that they stay locked away where the laws of the land put them.I suspect a high percentage of the "journalists" that wish contact are either seeking sensationalism or info for another low grade"Movie of the Week."



It scares me that there are so-called Americans who don't understand that their own rights are threatened by this policy. If criminals can be silenced by incarceration, think how tempted our government would be to shut off their critics with a little creative prosecution. I can guarantee that Soviet Russia did not allow prisoners to be interviewed by the press.

And, Dubner, your defense of the right of a free press is very weak. If respected journalists aren't fighting for the right of the public to know, perhaps they don't deserve such respect.

Sour Grapes

Just because someone has been convicted of a crime doesn't mean you have carte blanche to do whatever you like with them from that moment on -- not in a civilised country at least. A hole in the ground where prisoners were thrown used to be called an oubliette -- a place to be forgotten. If the media use their access to retail the madman ideology of terrorists of any stripe, as some like discordian seem to fear they will, the remedy is in the market: customers can punish the offending medium. If the prisoner is isolated, however, there could be all sorts of wrongs going on with no redress whatever.

Democracy doesn't work properly in poor lighting conditions. Anywhere there's darkness, there's usually something bad going on.

Patriot X

Look - the bottom line is that people in that prison are some of the most vile people on the planet, and as such, they don't deserve any privileges, other than those basic necessities that sustain their right to live as convicted criminals who are clearly threats to society - freedom isn't free, and sometimes, the rights of those who are deemed a threat to it must, by necessity, be compromised upon, whether individual members of society agree with it or not. But in all honesty, it is a waste of time to even think about these people unless you have something to gain by it, and in this instance, who would have something to gain by having them allow interviews of those convicted criminals, hmmm?

Why, the media of course, in order to shove all the more bologna down the already stretch marked throat of society to gain their objective. I've got a C Note wagered that this won't make it on this website (and if it does, I bet it will be taken down almost immediately). Playing mind games with society isn't a very tough thing to do, but when an individual starts playing mind games with the manipulators thereof, that becomes an intolerable situation, now doesn't it? It would really show your “support” of the first amendment if this was published on your website, and if it isn't, you will have proved my point and made me a hundred dollars richer. As Abraham Lincoln said a long time ago, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time”, and men like me were pulling Lincoln‘s strings. Make your play and have a nice day.




This not only protects society from them AND their ideas...

The day we as a society need to be protected from ideas -- any ideas -- is the day we hang it all up.

Say it loud: the answer to bad speech is more speech.


I agree with tde, if they are still able to send and receive censored letters I am less concerned.

These convicted felons can still have lawyers. They still have access to courts. Their lawyers have access to reporters. They do not have a right to access the press for public relations, lies, or to leak sensitive information. If convicted of a crime you lose some rights, that should not be shocking news. Reporters may lose some hot stories but society can survive that.