The coronavirus infection spreading across the United States prison system is throwing Ross Ulbricht’s confinement into sharp relief.
Found guilty of seven charges including money laundering, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and computer hacking, the controversial founder of the Silk Road is currently serving a double life sentence plus 40 years, without the possibility of parole.
As the pandemic worsens conditions for the nation’s large prison population, Ross spends 22 hours a day behind bars in Tucson, Ariz., where he’s currently being held. Outside visits are stopped so Ross’s mother, Lyn, and other loved ones, who work tirelessly for his release, are unable to act as “Ross’ lifeline to the outside world.” And Ross stands a good chance of being infected, with rates in his part of the system running four times the New York average.
Because of the nature of his crime, Ross is not allowed access to a computer or the internet, not even to check his email. So he spends his time writing, reading and meditating, his mother said, and calling home.
“Even though Ross is a grown man, I'm still a mom and can't help reminding him to drink lots of water, wash his hands and take vitamin C when he calls," Lyn Ulbricht said. "He assures me he's doing all that and I don't need to worry, but it's hard under these circumstances. Prisons are probably the most at-risk places for contracting the virus."
The Silk Road holds a storied position in Bitcoin’s history. Named after the ancient trade routes that connected East to West, the online emporium became the currency’s first proven link to the world of internet commerce (it even introduced some well-known crypto folk to bitcoin). Anonymized shoppers could buy anything, as long as it didn't harm a third party, from fake IDs to opioids, or any narcotic, as well as spyware, art and books. For Ulbricht, the innovation wasn’t what was sold, but how: voluntary exchange.
“What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong,” the Silk Road founder, then operating under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, said in an interview with Forbes. (It should be said: Lyn and Ross both maintain this quote is not his. Nor has Forbes has not attributed this quote to Ross.)
Despite his alleged crimes, Ulbricht has become a folk hero in libertarian and crypto circles. “Ross is an amazing entrepreneur who helped make the world a better place,” Roger Ver, founder of Bitcoin.com, said in a direct message. Ver is among thousands of supporters who have fomented a movement seeking to liberate Ulbricht (with the hashtag #freeross).
And the coronavirus crisis could accelerate this process. “It certainly doesn’t seem like it can hurt his cause,” Ver said.
Close, unsanitary quarters are hotbeds for viral infection. Worse, throughout the pandemic prisoners have had limited access to protective or hygienic products and, sometimes, lack basic medical care. These conditions have activists, politicians and even Attorney General William Barr calling for the temporary release of at-risk populations. Others are pushing harder for the amnesty of all non-violent offenders.
The call for criminal justice reform amid a global pandemic echoes the issues the Free Ross campaign has been championing for years.
“There’s been a lot more attention brought to the subject [of prison reform],” said Lyn Ulbricht. “There are many people serving horrific sentences in our country now for nonviolent crimes. It shouldn't be like that. We're the biggest incarcerator in the world. That's a national disgrace.”
Lyn Ulbricht is the organizing force behind the loosely coordinated campaign seeking her son’s release. In 2013, when the 29-year-old Ulbricht was arrested, she created the FreeRoss.org website to raise awareness and funds for his bail, which was ultimately rebuked.
In 2015, ahead of and during the 11-week federal trial held at the Southern District of New York, Lyn spoke frequently at conferences, to media and online arguing Ross’ case had wide implications for the future of internet commerce, First and Fourth amendment rights and criminal justice.
Then, in 2017, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Ross’ conviction and sentence – essentially eliminating any chance of legal recourse – she began seeking clemency through political means. This effort has culminated in a petition directed at President Trump, asking him issue Ulbricht a commutation. The most recent petition has received over 280,00 signatures.
Many who agitate on Ross’ behalf see his case as representative of the totality of crimes committed through mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.
“We should support anyone who is being persecuted for victimless crimes,” Roger Ver said. “The police, prosecutors and judges are the ones who are the criminal aggressors in this case, and the world should speak out against them just like we now speak out against the runaway slave catchers of the past.”
While Ver had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the “Freedom Fund” – “He made it possible for us to go to trial,” Lyn said – he remains pessimistic about the political process. “Begging the system that put him in prison to now take him out seems like an uphill battle,” he said. This is something Lyn Ulbricht reluctantly admits.
Despite her efforts to reach the Trump administration, his family and even Kim Kardashian – who successfully lobbied the president to release a 63-year-old woman serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction – she has had little success.
“It’s difficult to coordinate efforts. I’ve tried to reach out but it’s not easy to get to them,” she said. While she thinks Trump has shown an inclination to reform the justice system with the First Step Act, “it’s a matter of convincing President Trump this is something that is worthy of his attention and mercy.”
That doesn’t mean she lacks hope. Trump makes instinctual decisions, she said, adding, “Anyone who looks at the sentence can see it's wrong.” Ulbricht was a first-time offender, convicted on non-violent charges in a trial that shows some signs of malpractice. The charges listed in Ross’ original indictment would’ve, at minimum, landed him a 30-year prison sentence.
A more lenient sentence would be in line with what busted merchants on the Silk Road have been handed. Not to mention the former U.S. Secret Service agent who skimmed bitcoin from the site while participating in federal investigation to uncover its founder. Instead, Ulbricht received a punishment Lyn argues is unconstitutional.
“The Eighth Amendment says no cruel or unusual punishment and this is very unusual for a first time nonviolent offender, and it's certainly cruel,” she said. While the conviction has opened her mind to the possible injustices of the law, it’s something all her hopes are tied to.
“[Trump] can sign a piece of paper and Ross would walk out the door,” she said.
Criminal justice reform
Seven years ago, Ulbricht found himself behind bars at New York’s Metropolitan Detention Center while awaiting trial. Today, this municipal prison system has an infection rate of more than 9 percent, according to the Legal Aid Society. This is compared to the 2 percent infection rate on the city’s streets.
Prisoners across the country report they are unable to practice social distancing or even properly wash their hands. Found wanting before the outbreak, prison medical care is reportedly incapable of managing a prison outbreak. In a memo to the Bureau of Prisons, Attorney General Barr confirmed the virus is “materially affecting operations, and called for the release of vulnerable and at-risk inmates to home confinement.
Still, there is no consistent national approach to manage the virus in prisons, nor federal guidelines to determine which inmates may be eligible for temporary release. And that guidance may not come soon, with Trump decrying the proactive release of elderly and infirm prisoners he called “very serious criminals” during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing earlier this month.
It’s in this landscape that reformist policies begin to make sense. A 2016 report showed nearly 40 percent of people in state and federal prisons were incarcerated without provably presenting a danger to their communities. That means these sentences are “strictly punitive, not correctional,” Lyn Ulbricht said.
During Ross’ bail hearing, prosecutors said he operated “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today.” And while the prosecution accused him of hiring hitmen, Ulbricht is, technically, a non-violent offender. A number of eminent scholars, lawyers and celebrities have weighed in, calling the sentence "a shocking miscarriage of justice," to use Noam Chomsky's words.
Still young at 36, healthy and without any underlying conditions, it’s unlikely Ulbricht will be released to home confinement during the pandemic. Instead, he, like the majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons, jails and other correctional facilities across the country, will spend 22 hours a day “in his cage with his cellmate” as a precautionary measure, Lyn said.
Lyn has moved three times since 2013 to be closer to Ross in Arizona so she can make weekly visits. These visits are also on hold for the foreseeable future, and it’s unclear when these restrictions will be lifted. The federal Bureau of Prisons has not responded to a request for comment.
“He can be under house arrest with an ankle brace on,” Lyn said. “He’s not a dangerous person.”
Update (April 30, 22:50 UTC): This story has been updated to emphasize that Forbes has not identified Ross Ulbricht as the pseudonymous Dread Pirate Roberts interviewed in 2013.