From prison—a maximum security federal penitentiary, to be exact—Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht placed a phone call with the Bitcoin community in attendance at Bitcoin 21 in Miami, Florida, a Bitcoin-focused conference organized by Bitcoin Magazine.
The first real world application many had ever heard of in Bitcoin was called the Silk Road, which launched in 2011. It was a website accessible through an IP address-obscuring software, Tor, where users could buy and sell things. Silk Road was founded by a 26 year old libertarian research scientist, entrepreneur, early Bitcoin user named Ross Ulbricht. Less than three years after the site was launched, it was shut down and Ross was arrested by federal authorities. The two life sentences plus 40 years in prison came down from up on high, despite the fact that Mr. Ulbricht was a first time offender and convicted of no violent crimes.
“We don’t have much time together today,” Mr. Ulbricht started, not knowing if he’d get another chance to speak again. And so he wanted to say as much as he could, knowing that once his time was up, he would hang up and go back to his cell.
“I have lost my freedom,” Mr. Ulbricht started. “But, I want to talk to you about today. I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom. But first, let’s talk about Bitcoin.”
Mr. Ulbricht was active during Bitcoin’s earliest days. “Back then, Bitcoin made me feel like anything was possible. Bitcoin was open to everyone, right?” Mr. Ulbricht loves so much about Bitcoin.
“It could level the playing field,” he said. “When the idea of Bitcoin really clicked for me, I got so excited,” he said, thinking about how with Bitcoin he can try to do something to make a difference in the world.
Mr. Ulbricht was excited, but impatient about what Bitcoin could do for freedom and equality. He admits that he didn’t take time to fully appreciate the principles on which Bitcoin is based: immutability, consensus, and decentralization.
“I had so many big dreams for Bitcoin,” said Mr. Ulbricht. “And what’s so beautiful is, slowly, those dreams are coming true. That’s because of you. You are making those dreams a reality.”
Mr. Ulbricht spoke about how impressed he was with how far the Bitcoin space had come, expanding on how impatient he had been to make those dreams a reality.
“I rushed ahead with my first idea, which was the Silk Road,” he said. “Silk Road was a website I made when I was 26 years old. More than a decade ago now. It used Tor and Bitcoin to protect people’s privacy. I called it an anonymous market. At the time, I thought, Bitcoin makes payments anonymous and private. What are we waiting for? Why are we sitting around talking about it?” Mr. Ulbricht wanted to put the ideas into action. So he did.
“That’s impulsive,” he admitted “That’s a 26 year old who thinks he has to save the world before someone beats him to it.
The Silk Road caught on. It was used to sell drugs. “And now I am in prison,” Mr. Ulbricht said. “I was given two life sentences without parole plus 40 years. I’m a nonviolent first time offender. If nothing changes, I’ll spend the next few decades in this cage. Then, sometime later this century, I’ll grow old and die. I will finally leave prison, but I will be in a body bag.”
Mr. Ulbricht notes that he received a letter the other day from someone he had never met before, who was thanking him. The letter writer was grateful. He thought that, had Mr. Ulbricht not put the Silk Road online all those years ago, he doesn’t believe Bitcoin would be where it is today.
“I’m not sure,” said Mr. Ulbricht. “For better or worse, the Silk Road is part of Bitcoin history now. But, I worry that by putting the Silk Road online, I made things harder for us. There’s no way to know how things would have turned out differently, but I just want to say to the extent that I made things harder for us. I’m sorry. The extent that my actions led to drug abuse and addiction—I’m sorry. I was trying to do something good. I was trying to help us move toward a freer and more equitable world. But, we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions right? Now here I am. I’m in hell. I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.”
Mr. Ulbricht proceeded to discuss “the hole.” It goes by many names. “The shoe, segregation, the box. But, for me, it’s the hole. The hole is the prison within the prison.”
Mr. Ulbricht spent four months straight in the hole. “Not easy for me to talk about, but I will. The hole can make you or break you, and there was a time when it broke me.
It started with my mind racing out of control. I felt like the walls were crushing in on me, like I just had to get out of that cell. It lasted days.”
Mr. Ulbricht began beating the walls and kicking the heavy metal door. “Something…something deep inside me cried out for freedom,” he recalled. “I couldn’t accept where I was or what had happened to me. But, eventually, I realized I had to get a grip. The stress was destroying me. It may sound strange, but what saved me was gratitude. What can I be grateful for in that little cell? Well, I had to start small. I had air, right? Maybe it was stale and foul, but I had air. I had water that didn’t make me sick. Food came through the slot in the door every day. I knew I wasn’t forgotten. I knew someday, it would be over, and my family would still be there.”
Mr. Ulbricht forgave all the people involved for putting me in prison. “I had to,” he said. “The anger I felt wasn’t hurting them, but it was hurting me. So, for the sake of my sanity, I had to let it go.”
Mr. Ulbricht described a dream while he was in the hole. “And, in my dream, I was free. I was in a park, and I felt this huge relief. I wasn’t in prison anymore, and I got worried. Am I out on bail or something? Or are they going to put me back in? Are they after me right now? I started trying to get away and the anxiety woke me up. And there I was again in the hole. And it was like everything that had happened to me over all these years, it all came slamming down on me at once, like life without parole. Maximum Security. I’d been in the hole for months, and there’s no end in sight. I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.”
Mr. Ulbricht spoke of his mother, Lyn Ulbricht, who has championed on behalf of Mr. Ulbricht since his arrest. “After I was sentenced, my mother was invited to go on a speaking tour in Europe. She was raising awareness about what has happened to me and was looking for help,” Mr. Ulbricht recalled. “In Poland, she started to feel a bit sick and had to fly home early. So, the next morning I called my sister from the prison. And the first thing she said was, ‘Has anyone told you about Mom.’ I said, ‘What about her?’”
“Ross, Ross, Ross,” Mr. Ulbricht’s sister let out. He noted the tone in her voice. “I knew Mom had been feeling sick. And at that moment, I just knew my sister was gonna tell me our mom was dead.
But, his sister told him that Mom was in the hospital. “Oh, thank God, she’s not dead!” Mr. Ulbricht exclaimed, before realizing that wasn’t good news.
“That’s not good either,” he said, as he learned what had happened. Technically, Mrs. Ulbricht, his mother, had died. Her heart stopped at the breakfast table one morning.
Mr. Ulbricht’s uncle performed CPR, keeping her alive, and Mrs. Ulbricht was rushed to the hospital. “She was unconscious in the ICU when I called,” Mr. Ulbricht said. “It was a long time before I was able to talk to her, and I didn’t know if she would live. We didn’t know if there would be brain damage. No one would say it, but I knew it was my fault. She had been red lining for two years since the day I was arrested, pushing—pushing every moment of every day for my freedom.
The diagnosis was stress induced cardiomyopathy. “I call it broken heart syndrome. I broke my mother’s heart. It nearly killed her. The pain I’ve caused my family….” Mr. Ulbricht laments not thinking about his family as much as he should have while he took the risk associated with putting the Silk Road online. “When I was risking my freedom,” as he puts it.
Mrs. Ulbricht made a full recovery. “Thank God,” says Mr. Ulbricht. “Years later, she still pushes for me every day, but the whole ordeal—my imprisonment—has been devastating for her. And not just her—my fiance, my father, my sister, everyone—they’re all hurting.”
Mr. Ulbricht uttered once more his refrain for the talk. “I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom. There is more to losing your freedom. It’s more than being locked in a cage and the devastation that brings to your family. Locking someone in a cage until they die—it’s such a horrific thing to do to a person. To lock someone in a cage until they die. The public. You. You have to be convinced that person is evil. That they are somehow less than human.”
Mr. Ulbricht retold a story of when a fellow prisoner came up to him. A young man with a magazine in hand. “They wrote an article about you,” the inmate said. Mr. Ulbricht flipped to the article. He’ll never forget what he saw: an illustration of himself.
“And what was so strange was the face had my features and proportions, but the skin had a putrid color. Eyes were bloodshot. I was hunched over like some kind of ghoul. I pushed the magazine away. I just couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t face what I was saying. It felt like I could feel physical pain in my chest like claws were tearing through me.
“At least read what they’re saying about you,” he said.
“Why?” Mr. Ulbricht riposted. “Why listen to someone bad mouth you and lie about you, if you can’t say anything back. It got quiet.”
Later that day, Mr. Ulbricht and his fellow inmate talked again. “He told me they had done the same thing to him not on national news, but in his local papers.They do it to all of us.
After Mr. Ross said he didn’t want to read it, the fellow inmate gestured in solidarity. He tore out the article and shredded it right into the trash.
“I don’t want to read it, either,” he said.
Mr. Ulbricht was moved. “That meant so much to me: ‘I don’t want to read it either.’ He gave me hope that you wouldn’t look at me like some sort of monster. The caricature they created was that of a violent drug lord. That is not who I am. That is a lie. It’s a lie that was carefully crafted to justify keeping me in this cage until I die. It’s a lie designed to turn you against me, to turn your heart off. They lied. It’s on the record. They cheated on the record. They stole. Two of them went to prison over stealing evidence. That’s on the record. They destroyed evidence. That’s on the record. They planted evidence. That’s on the record.”
At one point, Mr. Ulbricht noted how they were looking into killing him through the death penalty. “They wanted to inject chemicals into my veins that would stop my heart,” he said. “I had this dream where one of them was pointing a syringe to the soft spot of my neck just under my chin.
He kept getting closer and closer as I backed away, but my back was against the wall. Every muscle in my body was tense as I strained to get away. I was practically climbing the wall as the tip of the syringe came right next to my skin.”
Mr. Ulbricht awoke, in the same exact position as in his dream. “I was hyperventilating,” he said. “My heart was pounding. I could still feel the needle coming toward me. Are you starting to understand what it means to lose your freedom? It means living in constant fear.”
Mr. Ulbricht addressed why it has taken eight years to speak. “I’ve been afraid,” said Mr. Ulbricht. “Even now I was strongly warned against talking to you. You’ll only anger the authorities even more. You will ruin what little chance you have left in the courts. Well, it’s not my intention to anger anyone. I am afraid of retaliation. Afraid that because of what I’m saying to you today, I’ll be thrown in the hole or worse. But I’ve learned that listening to your fears can be just as dangerous as ignoring them. Somehow, eight years have slipped by and it’s easier to ignore the lies and everything else to just focus on getting through each day, and trying to be strong for my family.”
As happened periodically throughout the call, a message interrupted Mr. Ulbricht: “This call is from a federal prison.” Mr. Ulbricht continued.
“But today, right now, I have a message for those that have been lying about me, and those that have been thoughtlessly repeating those lies,” Mr. Ulbricht said. “Please stop. You are hurting me. You know what you’re saying isn’t true. You’re hurting me and you’re hurting my family. Please stop. I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.”
Mr. Ulbricht pointed to the irony of his situation. “I made the Silk Road in the first place because I thought I was furthering the things I cared about: Freedom, privacy, equality. But, by making Silk Road, I wound up in a place where those things don’t exist. I’m not alone. These prisons are full of people who don’t deserve this. We are mothers and fathers. We are sisters and brothers. But we’ve been made into monsters in your eyes. We’ve been made less than human.”
Next to all that, there’s Bitcoin, Mr. Ulbricht said.
“Bitcoin. Bitcoin has been transforming our world since that very first block in the blockchain. Let me tell you something, we are just getting started. Wherever Bitcoin has been embraced— anywhere in the world—freedom and equality follow. Bitcoin is the embodiment of freedom. So now, look what we have: on one side we have loss of freedom; we have despair and darkness. And, on the other side, we have Bitcoin; we have freedom, equality, and hope.”
The two can’t be juxtaposed for all to see to pick which they prefer, for they’d choose the light. “The darkness has to be kept out of sight,” said Mr. Ulbricht. “It has to be ignored and forgotten. But listen, here I am crying out from that very same darkness. This is a cry for help. My mother can’t do this by herself, and I’m crying out not just for me, but for all of us. We need your help. We need you to care. We need you to look at the stark contrast between the freedom of Bitcoin on the one hand, and what it means to be locked in a cage until you die. We have a choice today. Right now. Do we ignore what’s happening? The loss of freedom? The dehumanization? Or do we wake up? Listen: Bitcoin is strong. Bitcoin is powerful. We are powerful. And our work is not over. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to take the next step.”
From a cell, Mr. Ulbricht has spent eight years watching Bitcoin grow up. “I’ve seen incredible innovation. I’ve seen Inspiring courage. We didn’t know how things would turn out for Bitcoin back in the beginning. But, over the years, I’ve been continually impressed by what you’ve accomplished. I am proud of you. And I have no doubt we can do anything we set our minds to. We are transforming the global economy. We have brought a taste of freedom and equality to four corners of the world.”
He knows the criminal justice system can be transformed, too. And now, today, I challenge you to set your sights on the hardest problems. I challenge you to shine Bitcoin’s light into the darkest places. I challenge you to set us free.”
Mr. Ulbricht has seen several friends go home after years and decades in prison. “More than one overcame a life sentence. Each time it happens, I weep for joy. Seeing the person regain their freedom. Seeing them reunite with their family. There is nothing like it. It is so beautiful, it hurts. It feels like a miracle. We need more miracles.”
Finally, Mr. Ulbricht’s talk came to an inevitable end. “I have to go soon. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go back to that cell. I want to be there with you. You’ve done so much for me today. Talking with you today is the most freedom in a long, long time. Thank you. Thank you for giving me your attention. I will never forget this day. The memory of this day. This can never be taken from us. Okay. I’m going to go now. Thank you. Goodbye.”