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Fortress Of Solitude: The Bureau Of Prisons Is As Good At Keeping Prisoners In As It Is At Keeping Reporters Out

A hundred miles southwest of Denver, the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum houses a killer lineup of mobsters (Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano), gang leaders (Barry "The Baron" Mills), assassins (Colombian hit man Dandenis "La Quica" Muñoz Mosquera) and guerillas (John "American Taliban" Walker Lindh). But not to worry ? despite some embarrassing security breaches and two prisoner homicides in the past two years, ADX has never had anything close to a breakout. It?s probably the most escape-proof prison in the world.

For almost six years, it's also been media-proof. High-security prisoners are locked away in the Florence supermax, out of sight and mind and reporters can't get in to see them, no matter how hard they try.

According to documents obtained by Westword, ADX officials have denied every single media request for a face-to-face interview with supermax prisoners 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. When Westword sought an interview with prisoner Thomas Silverstein last spring, ADX warden Ron Wiley refused. The BOP ?makes every effort? to accommodate media requests, Wiley explained, but "granting your request at this time may disrupt the good order and security of this institution."

Silverstein hasn't been granted a face-to-face with any journalist for more than a decade. But further inquiry revealed that Wiley wasn't turning us down because of who the subject was; prison spokesman Isidro Garcia acknowledged that the cited security concerns applied to any interview with any prisoner.

So when was the last time ADX allowed a prisoner to be interviewed? Garcia said he wasn't authorized to release that information.

After months of Freedom of Information Act requests and side battles, the answer finally arrived. There have been exactly 100 media requests to visit ADX since 2002, and Wiley and his predecessors have denied every single one. In fact, one of the last interviews to be conducted inside the supermax before the total media ban was Westword's visit with La Quica in 2001, four months before the September 11 attacks.

In 23 cases, the reason cited for the denial was that the prisoner declined to be interviewed. Another eighteen were turned down because the prisoner in question is subject to special administrative measures (SAMs), including a ban on all media contact. (The BOP blacked out the names of the prisoners out of privacy concerns, but virtually all SAMs prisoners are convicted guerrillas.) Three were rejected because the requests came from academics or free-lancers who aren't considered legitimate journalists by the BOP. But more than 50 percent of the denials cited unspecified "security concerns" because, well, any visit by any outsider could, in theory, disrupt the good order and security of the government's most insecure supermax.

CNN, the Washington Post, 60 Minutes, Newsday, they were all turned down flat. So was the tabloid press, both foreign and domestic, from America's Most Wanted to American Gangsters to some dubious offshoots of the BBC and the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Well-known authors of books on terrorism, including Peter Lance and Lawrence Wright, were barred from interviewing prisoners with ties to radical Islam. Even the Cañon City Record, practically the prison's hometown newspaper, couldn't get in the door.

Journalists who simply wanted a tour of the place, free of any contact with prisoners, fared no better. Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, who's been working on a book about the American prison system for several years, sent a plaintive three-page letter to the warden in 2004, offering to let prison officials review "any physical description of the facility and its staff that I write" before publication. No dice.

"I think ADX Florence may be America's most important prison," Schlosser wrote. "Denying me access to ADX Florence will not prevent me from writing about the facility. It will only make it harder for me to give a fully accurate depiction of the facility's aims and practices."

Schlosser was seeking what all self-respecting journalists want: the ability to see the situation for themselves. Without any access to the country's most important prison, reporters have been reduced to repackaging accounts from the prisoners themselves. Eric Rudolph, for example, has been a prolific correspondent for publications ranging from Time magazine to the Colorado Springs Gazette, giving his own take on life inside "Bomber's Row" at ADX. But the view from lockdown can be quite limited, and prisoners can be punished if they write too freely. They are not supposed to mention other prisoners or provide physical details that might mess with the good order and security of the institution.

BOP policy states that a warden can suspend all media visits during "an institutional emergency" but provides no other basis for an ongoing ban on inmate interviews. Warden Wiley refused a request for an interview about the five-year ban at ADX or when it might be lifted.

This article originally appeared in Westword. It is reprinted here with permission.

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