Cañon City, Colorado, is the Solitary Confinement Capital of the Western World. Now, a Small Group Lawyers, Legislators, and Activists Is Challenging This All-American Form of Torture.
Part 1: The Alcatraz of the Rockies
On the wall opposite Laura Rovner’s desk at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law is a large framed drawing depicting her as the Angel of Justice. The artist is Thomas Silverstein, a onetime armed robber who is serving multiple life sentences for the murders of two fellow prison inmates and a guard. Silverstein made his meticulously detailed ink drawing–which shows a winged Rovner holding a sword, surrounded by slain bodies—in his 7 x 12-foot cell at the notorious United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, in rural Florence, Colorado. A talented self-taught artist, he has had plenty of time to hone his craft. For the last 27 years, Tommy Silverstein has been literally buried alive—held in an extreme form of solitary confinement in the depths of the federal prison system, under a “no human contact” order. The man who was at one time known as “America’s Most Dangerous Prisoner” is now described, on a web site maintained by his supporters, as “America’s Most Isolated Man.”
He is also Laura Rovner’s client. Rovner, teaching fellow Brittany Glidden, and a group of student attorneys from DU’s Civil Rights Clinic have filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Denver, arguing that Silverstein’s 84 square feet of utter and permanent isolation violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as its guarantee of due process. The suit is just one of several brought by the clinic on behalf of various inmates at ADX and at the nearby state supermax prison. Along with a small handful of other cases in Colorado and around the country, the work of DU’s Civil Rights Clinic represents the leading edge of a legal challenge to solitary confinement. As such, it has the potential to affect the lives of the 100,000 or more prisoners who are held in some form of solitary on any given day in prisons across the United States.
In person, the Angel of Justice is a petite, brown-haired woman who chain-swigs Diet Pepsis and pauses to glance at her computer, which incessantly pings for her attention. Rovner has spent most of her career teaching in civil rights clinics at Georgetown, Syracuse, and North Dakota Law Schools, defending the rights of the deaf and other people with disabilities who had been victimized by discrimination, as well as the rights of prisoners. As she talks about her work at DU, she buzzes with energy, yet chooses her words carefully, measuring them against her clients’ best interests.
After pointing out Silverstein’s drawing, Rovner displays some samples from a pile of hand-knit afghans, scarves, and mittens, also made by Silverstein (and notable for the absence of red, blue, and black, which are banned at ADX as “gang colors”). She shows us a recent photograph, in which Silverstein sports long gray hair and an even longer white beard, his eyes squinting out above weathered cheeks and a friendly smile. Dressed in loose white clothing, he looks like an angelic hipster, maybe an aging yoga teacher, or at worst an over-the-hill biker—certainly not a man more dangerous than the host of convicted terrorists, spies, mobsters, and drug kingpins housed with him at ADX.
Silverstein never killed anyone before he got to prison, and he contends that he did so then only when he felt his own life was threatened. He also says that, nearly three decades later, he is a changed man (he does, in fact, meditate and do yoga in his cell). This transformation is something his attorneys seem to accept, and they make a point of it in their suit. But ultimately, Rovner believes, if the Constitution is to mean anything, then it must apply not just to people and causes that engender sympathy, but to men like Tommy Silverstein, who have been written off as “the worst of the worst.” It must prevail not only in the light of day, but in the fluorescent-lit dungeons of ADX.
Tomorrow: Part 2: Showdown at the Colorado State Penitentiary