Tom Silverstein has done some bad things in his life–some very bad things. He used drugs; then he robbed banks to feed his drug use; then he murdered people in prison, after associating with the Aryan Brotherhood (his first victims were African-Americans); then he made the huge mistake of killing a prison guard. So, since 1983, he has been in solitary confinement in one federal prison after another. He now resides in ADX, Florence, Colorado, a prison specifically designed to house inmates in solitary confinement. Some people think the prison was designed with Tom in mind.
Tom was transferred from Leavenworth in July 2005. At Leavenworth he had been housed in a special isolation cell, known as the Silverstein Suite, in which he was cut off from all contact with inmates and subjected to constant light in his cell. It was at Leavenworth where Tom associated with the Aryan Brotherhood and was charged with the murder of Danny Atwell in 1980. He was then transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, where, in 1981, he was accused of the murder of Robert Chappelle, for which Tom received an additional life sentence.
It was also at Marion where Tom’s stretch of solitary confinement began. There he was placed in the Control Unit, which amounted to solitary confinement, in 1983. While Tom was housed in the Control Unit, Raymond “Cadillac” Smith, a leader of the D.C. Blacks gang, was transferred to a nearby cell and began threatening to kill Tom in revenge for the murder of Chappelle. Tom and another inmate, Clayton Fountain, killed Smith with improvised weapons, stabbing him 67 times.
But the ultimate crime occurred on October 22, 1983, when Tom slipped out of his handcuffs and was given a shank with which he stabbed Corrections Officer Merle Clutts dozens of times, resulting in the officer’s death. After Clutts’ death Tom was transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta and placed in solitary confinement with a “no human contact” order attached to his case.
Tom’s conviction for the killing of Danny Atwell was overturned in 1985.
In 1987 riots broke out in the Atlanta Penitentiary, and Cuban inmates freed Tom from his isolation cell. He roamed freely about the prison for over a week and was then handed over by the Cubans to the FBI. He was then transferred to Leavenworth, and placed in solitary where he remained for 18 years, until his move to ADX in 2005. To this day he remains in a state of near-total isolation from all human contact.
In view of the many bad things Tom has done, from armed bank robberies to multiple murders, some people might insist that any punishment short of death is inadequate, that at the least he should be locked in a dark hole and the key thrown away. Such calls would, no doubt, have many echoes across America today. But Tom’s case raises many perplexing questions–questions that confound the conscience of any thinking person.
First, Tom has never been sentenced to death even though convicted of three murders. Rather, the government has condemned him to multiple life sentences, and he has been in jail continuously since 1975. His gravest crimes were committed while in jail, and the manner of his incarceration (uninterrupted solitary confinement) would indicate that the government sees no possibility of–or reason for—rehabilitation or release from ADX. In its own way, then, the government has locked Tom in a hole and thrown away the key, only in this case it is a hole with 24/7 cameras and a single light switch in his control.
Tom has been cut off from human contact–meaningful human contact–since 1983. That is more than 34 consecutive years—an unfathomable amount of time for anyone to endure bereft of human company. In all that time Tom has eaten every meal alone, paced his cell alone, read or watched TV alone, drawn and painted alone, exercised alone, walked in the outdoor area alone, and slept alone. His only human contact comes from silent guards or periodic visits by staff psychiatrists to test his sanity. (And in a perfect Catch-22, his continuing sanity, according to the government, is proof that his punishment is not cruel or excessive!) This punitive treatment is in line with what a Bureau of Prisons official said to Pete Earley about Tom:
When an inmate kills a guard, he must be punished. We can’t execute Silverstein, so we have no choice but to make his life a living hell. Otherwise other inmates will kill guards too. There has to be some supreme punishment. Every convict knows what Silverstein is going through. We want them to realize that if they cross the same line that he did, they will pay a heavy price. (The Hot House: Life inside Leavenworth Prison)
Tom has, indeed, paid a heavy price, and continues to suffer under what amounts to a prison-within-a-prison, a regime-within-a-regime. In spite of extensive studies that show clearly the profound psychological and physiological harm done by prolonged solitary confinement; in spite of international conventions that condemn the use of prolonged solitary confinement as barbaric and torturous (and the United States has often criticized other States for this); in spite of all ethical arguments that condemn the practice; in spite of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur’s urging all nations–including the United States–to end prolonged solitary confinement; and in spite of President Obama’s desire to reform the prison system (there is no reason to mention the present incumbent)–in spite of all this and even more persuasive arguments and recommendations from such bodies as Amnesty International and ACLU, Tom Silverstein sits staring at his concrete cell, his eyes weakened by decades of seeing things, at most, within 10 feet of himself. Certainly his life is a living hell, and if America, on the verge of opening a new ADX facility to promulgate the practices of the one in Florence, feels that justice is served by a form of torture, then, no doubt, these words will find no sympathetic readers.
However, if justice is to be served, the severe restraints placed on Tom by BOP must be lifted, and lifted immediately. After launching a lawsuit (which he lost) against BOP, Tom was moved to the general population of the prison. This move, however, was meaningless: he is still in complete solitary confinement, restricted to his cell 23 hours of the day and forced to exercise alone. He has no contact with any inmate; he is allowed to phone only approved members of his family or friends; and he can have no visitors unless those people knew him before he was first incarcerated (1975), eliminating entirely anyone he has met through recent communication. The steps are simple:
1) enrol Tom in a step-down program with very clear guidelines for his behaviour and his timeline for genuine movement to the general population;
2) have Tom evaluated by physicians and psychiatrists unaffiliated with BOP, and be bound by the conclusions and recommendations of this team;
3) monitor Tom’s behaviour closely and fairly, and allow him to have input into his evaluations;
4) allow Tom (in his own words) “a life in prison that I can fill with some meaning” (Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System).
Tom Silverstein has done some very bad things in his life, and he has thus far paid for his crimes with more than three decades of total isolation from the human community. He does not question the very notion of punishment for crime, but he does seek the application of justice and fairness as basic tenets of law. He has referred to himself as a “survivor,” and his case may indeed prove invaluable to specialists who study the effects of long-term isolation from humanity, but his treatment at the hands of the government has thus far been nothing short of barbaric, and it should end immediately.
For all these reasons, and even more, I have become Tom’s webmaster and buddy.
Richard F. Giles