Tommy Silverstein has spent 26 years in federal supermax prisons under a “no human contact” order. Now, with the help of students at the University of Denver’s law school, he is one of a handful of prisoners who are challenging long-term solitary confinement on Constitutional grounds.
Silverstein, now 57, was first sent to San Quentin for armed robbery in 1971, when he was 19. By age 23 he was in Leavenworth, where he was active in the Aryan Brotherhood. After his conviction for the murder of a fellow prisoner (which was later overturned), he landed in the control unit of the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. There he was convicted of killing two more prisoners, and then a guard, whom he managed to stab while being walked, in shackles, back from the shower. Back at Leavenworth, ”Terrible Tommy” was placed in a remote underground cell known as the “Silverstein Suite,” where he remained until 2005, when he was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum in Colorado, better known as ADX.
Alan Prendergast has been reporting on ADX for more than a decade for Denver’s weekly Westword, and in 2007 he wrote the definitive piece on Tommy Silverstein, called “The Caged Life.” As he describes it:
Located two miles outside of the high-desert town of Florence, ADX is the most secure prison in the country, a hunkered-down maze of locks, alarms and electronic surveillance, designed to house gang leaders, terrorists, drug lords and other high-risk prisoners in profound isolation. Its current guest list is a who’s who of enemies of the state, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, plane bomber Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera, abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph and double-agent Robert Hanssen.
When it opened in 1994, ADX was hailed as the solution to security flaws at even the highest levels of the federal prison system. Much of the justification for building the place stemmed from official outrage at the brutal murders of two guards in the control unit of the federal pen in Marion, Illinois, during a single 24-hour period in 1983. The first of those killings was committed by Thomas Silverstein, who was already facing multiple life sentences for previous bloodshed at Marion. The slaying of corrections officer Merle Clutts placed Silverstein under a “no human contact” order that’s prevailed ever since, and it gave the Bureau of Prisons the perfect rationale for building its high-tech supermax. Although he never bunked there until 2005, you could call ADX the House that Tommy Built.
Even within ADX, Silverstein is in a special restrictive unit where only one other prisoner, World Trade Center bomber Ramsey Yusuf, is housed, and where there is virtually no contact with prison staff. The man once branded “America’s most dangerous prisoner” is now described, on a web site maintained by his supporters, as its “most isolated man” (which, with the exception of terrorism suspects held under SAMs, he may well be).
Silverstein claims he is also a changed man. He has taught himself to read, write, and draw in prison, and is an accomplished artist. He says he’s learned self-control, and he hasn’t had a disciplinary writeup in 20 years. “The BOP shrinks chalk it up as me being so isolated I haven’t anyone to fight with,” he wrote to Alan Prendergast, “but they’re totally oblivious to all the petty BS that I could go off on if I chose to. I can toss a turd and cup of piss with the best of ‘em if I desired. What are they going to do, lock me up?”
But students at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, who filed a suit on his behalf in federal court in late 2007, aren’t claiming that Tommy Silverstein is now a nice guy. They’re arguing that his conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and also violate his Fifth Amendment right to due process. The suit filed by Civil Rights Law Clinic at DU, which has also represented other ADX inmates, alleges that the government’s “deliberate indifference has resulted in Plaintiff suffering deprivations that cause mental harm that goes beyond the boundaries of what most human beings can psychologically tolerate.”
Like the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the Angola 3 in Louisiana, the suit challenges not just solitary confinement, per se, but the kind of solitary confinement that has become more and more prevalent in America’s supermax prisons: extreme and effectively permanent isolation, which stretches over decades and offers inmates no hope of ever earning their way into a less restrictive environment. These suits implicitly challenge Americans to think about the issue of torture in our own backyards. Laura Rovner, DU professor who is working with students on the Silverstein suit, told the Denver Post: “When we think about people being waterboarded overseas by our government, the idea of sitting in a cell with three meals a day doesn’t seem that bad. But that doesn’t account for the scars you can’t see or the devastating human erosion.”
A slow constant peeling of the skin, stripping of the flesh, the nerve-wracking sound of water dripping from a leaky faucet in the still of the night while you’re trying to sleep. Drip, drip, drip, the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, constantly drip away with no end or relief in sight.