“I feel like we really are at a tipping point in history, and I don't think it's just the United States, I think it is a worldwide issue.”
Ross Ulbricht is 33 years old, and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado, for “non-violent” crimes. Described by his mother Lyn as an “outdoorsy” guy who is “totally peaceful and compassionate”, the young Texan is now locked up alongside the likes of Walli Mujahidh, a Los Angelean who plotted to attack U.S. Military recruits with grenades and machine guns. Mujahidh is now serving a much shorter 17-year sentence.For Ulbricht’s mother, his imprisonment alongside violent terrorists is a huge concern, especially given the nature of his case. So how did a man described as a “very sweet loving person who cares about people and really is a high calibre human being” end up in the same prison complex as some of the world’s most dangerous criminals?
If Ulbricht’s name doesn’t sound familiar, his online marketplace the “Silk Road” certainly will. A libertarian’s paradise until it was shut down by the FBI in 2013, the site was primarily used as a platform for buying and selling illegal drugs, connecting suppliers with customers anonymously and securely.
According to his mother, in line with Ulbricht's libertarian ideology, nothing could be sold which had a victim: child porn, stolen goods, etc. While people may have violated these rules, the premise of the site was simple: it was an area where people could interact and trade away from the prying eyes of Big Brother.
A lengthy investigation by authorities eventually led to Ulbricht being arrested in a San Francisco library, two undercover agents distracting him while a third grabbed his laptop to stop him from closing it and encrypting its data forever.
Prosecutors also suggested that Ulbricht, then in his late twenties, had attempted to use the site to order murders. However they said that they do not believe any killings actually took place. With a lack of evidence for any such crimes, Ulbricht was eventually convicted and sentenced for a variety of “non-violent” crimes, ranging from money laundering to conspiracy to traffic narcotics.
The Silk Road after the FBI arrested Ulbricht and shut down the site.
In what she describes as a “fight for freedom,” Lyn Ulbricht has been campaigning to raise awareness about what she and many others see as a miscarriage of justice in her son’s case. To her, it’s more than just about her son being imprisoned after a controversial investigation littered with scandals; it’s about a war being raged by the state against individual liberty, being fought out on the battleground of the Internet.“The U.S. kind of influences what’s happening worldwide, and of course other governments want to control the Internet as well,” she told Al Bawaba.
Also known by his Silk Road pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts,” Ulbricht has become a cult-like figure for Internet freedom activists and libertarians worldwide. His mother might not be completely denying that he had any involvement in the creation of the Silk Road, but she and many others certainly do believe that the Government acted criminally in its investigation of Ulbricht, and unconstitutionally in his sentencing.
At least two agents involved in the case were found to be corrupt, stealing Bitcoins for themselves while conducting their investigations. Both were sentenced to imprisonment for their crimes, yet this information had no effect on the Second Circuit appellate court who affirmed Ulbricht’s life sentence in 2017.
“I think it was a political sentence,” Lyn Ulbricht said. “[The judge] said so. She said ‘we know you started this site based on a philosophy and I’m not sure that you’ve given that philosophy up.’ This is a first amendment violation. But she did it. And I think it was avery political move.”
The philosophy Judge Forrest was referring to, according to Ulbricht’s mother, was his desire to see a society based on individual liberty and privacy. The type Ron Paul fans and the wider libertarian community dream for. It is because of that desire, she believes, that he currently resides in United States Penitentiary, Florence High, a high-security federal prison within the larger Florence Federal Correctional Complex in Colorado.
“He’s only there because of his sentence length, because Judge Forrest gave him this draconian, excessive sentence.” she said.
“Otherwise, the mandatory minimum for his charges was 20 years. Which is long - a very long sentence for a 29 year old guy...The other defendants in the Silk Road case got much lower sentences, and they actually sold drugs. The biggest drug dealer got ten years, and it goes down from there.”
Locking up Ulbricht, a low-risk prisoner, alongside the likes of the wannabe terrorist Walli Mujahidh might seem rather extreme. Understanding more about the Florence Federal Correctional Complex overall, however, leads to questions being raised about what kind of message the U.S. Government wants to send to those who promote online secrecy and fight against the failing drug war.
The Florence Federal Correctional Complex, where Ulbricht is imprisoned in Colorado. Google Maps.
The complex is not only the location of Ulbricht’s high-security prison, but also that of the infamous United States Penitentiary, Florence ADX, home to the most dangerous inmates in the federal prison system. This means that Ulbricht’s neighbors include Ramzi Yousef, serving life for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, as well as the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Unabomber, the Boston bomber, the Olympic Park Bomber, and the surviving Oklahoma City bomber, to name but a few.
“I’m very worried, I’m concerned,” Ulbricht’s mother told Al Bawaba, “but I do believe that Ross has the ability to get long with people very well. He cares about people, and even with violent people that comes through.”
She expressed concern for her son’s safety in a prison which houses violent, high-security inmates.
“It’s very upsetting. I’m worried about his safety. I pray for his safety every day. He doesn’t belong there,” she said.
“Hopefully he can be somewhat of a good influence and stuff, but when you’re talking about people who are very violent, you never know what's gonna set them off. And I’m very worried about it.”
Despite this fear, Lyn Ulbricht appears confident that her son will be able to make the best out of the bad situation he is in. She says that he is learning guitar and spends a lot of time in the law library. He is taking an arts class and enjoys walking the outdoor track. These are privileges not afforded to all prisoners in the complex. In the maximum-security facility, the most violent and dangerous are locked in their cells 23 hours per day, permitted to exercise in a concrete area reportedly resembling an empty swimming pool.
“Ross is so incredibly positive,” she said. “If I ever start being negative about people involved in his case [...] he will not hear of it. He will not say a negative thing. He certainly is not interested in any kind of vengeance [...] because he really strongly believes that it’s all part of the system and he needs to keep himself positive and hopeful and peaceful.”
Lyn Ulbricht is adamant that her son’s sentence is excessive, and that he does not deserve to be imprisoned in such a high security facility. She believes that a 20-year sentence, the minimum, would have sufficed as her son would be Internet-illiterate by the time he was released, not having had access to a computer in two decades.
“He won’t (sic) have been on the Internet for 20 years, does this judge actually believe that he will come out and create another silk road and be a threat at all?” she said.
Aside from the fear of harm coming to her son while he is in prison, Lyn Ulbricht is also concerned that prison will change him.
“You know I worry—depending on how soon we can get him out of there—how prison changes you. Anyone.” she said. “It’s a terrible waste and so unnecessary.”
To many, the Ross Ulbricht case is a classic example of massive government overreach and a desperate state attempt to highlight a rare “victory” in the unwinnable trillion dollar drug war.
Whether or not the young Texan will spend the rest of his life behind bars at one of the world’s highest-security prison complexes is a question for future appeals courts, however his mother will continue to fight for her son’s freedom - if not from prison immediately, at least from the lifelong condemnation to a cell.