Federal judges in Denver are of two minds about the kind of punishment doled out at the supermax penitentiary in Florence. While one is allowing a Tanzanian terrorist's complaint about the prison's restrictions on his mail and visitors to proceed to trial, another has thrown out Thomas Silverstein's lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment as a result of more than a quarter-century of solitary confinement.
Conditions at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, aren't "atypically extreme," Judge Philip Brimmer ruled.
Silverstein isn't subject to the "special administrative measures" reserved for convicted terrorists at ADX, which severely limit their ability to communicate with any outsider, even family or legal counsel. But his journey through the federal prison system has been anything but typical.
A former Aryan Brotherhood leader, "Terrible Tommy" was convicted of four murders while in prison; one was later overturned. He's now serving three consecutiive life sentences plus 45 years. The last killing, the 1983 slaying of a federal guard in the most secure unit of what was then the highest-security federal pen in the entire system, put him on a "no human contact" status that lasted for decades. For close to seventeen years he was housed in a specially designed, Hannibal-Lecter-like cell in the basement of Leavenworth where the lights were on 24 hours a day. In 2005 he was moved to a highly isolated range at ADX, as first reported in my feature "The Caged Life" (which also appears, with a coda, in The Best American Crime Reporting 2008).
Since Silverstein first filed his lawsuit in 2007, with assistance from student lawyers at the University of Denver, he's been moved from his tomb in Range 13 to D Unit, which is considered "general population" at ADX. Inmates are still in solitary confinement and have meals in their cell, but they also have access to indoor and outdoor recreation and can shout to each other. That lessening in the general degree of Silverstein's isolation seems to have been one factor in Brimmer's decision to dismiss the former bank robber's claims of enduring extreme deprivation and lack of any social contact.
U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials maintain that Silverstein's placement in isolation is necessary because of his own extreme behavior -- "plaintiff's disciplinary record, in addition to the aforementioned murders, shows assaults of three staff members, a threat to a staff member, an attempt to escape by posing as a United States Marshal, and the discovery of weapons, handcuff keys, and lock picks in plaintiff's rectum," Brimmer notes.
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But Silverstein hasn't been cited for a disciplinary infraction since 1988, and even the BOP's psychologists have rated the 59-year-old prisoner as having a "low" risk of violence for years.
On his official website, maintained by outside supporters -- incarcerated since the 1970s, he hasn't had much opportunity for surfing the Internet -- Silverstein reports that he's still being moved frequently from one cell to another to prevent any kind of ongoing communication with other prisoners. "ALL they care about (obviously) is maintaining my ISOLATION, by any convoluted means necessary," he writes.
More from our News archive: "Mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement: New bill seeks to stop the madness."