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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)