Longform

The Caged Life

When the goon squad showed up at his place at five in the morning, Tommy Silverstein knew something was up. He wasn't accustomed to greeting guests at such an ungodly hour — much less a team of corrections officers, helmeted and suited up for action.

In fact, Silverstein wasn't used to company at any hour. His home was a remote cell, known as the Silverstein Suite, in the special housing unit of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. He'd been cut off from other inmates and all but a few emissaries from the outside world for more than two decades.

He stayed in the Silverstein Suite 23 hours a day. His interactions with staff typically amounted to some tight-lipped turnkey delivering his food through a slot in the cell door. The only change of scenery came when an electronic door slid open, allowing him an hour's solitary exercise in an adjoining recreation cage. Visitors were rarely permitted, and entire years had gone by during which he never left the cell.

But this day was different. Silverstein could think of only a couple of reasons why so many well-padded, well-equipped officers would be at his door, ordering him to strip for a search. Cell shakedown? Time for a game of hockey, with Tommy as the puck? No, that was a captain leading the squad. Something big.

A transfer.

So it came to pass that on July 12, 2005, U.S. Bureau of Prisons inmate #14634-116 left his cage in Kansas for one in Colorado. Security for the move was tighter than Borat's Speedo — about what you'd expect for a former Aryan Brotherhood leader convicted of killing four men behind prison walls. (One conviction was later overturned; Silverstein disputes the second slaying but admits the other two.) The object of all this fuss didn't mind the goon squad. He was enjoying the view — and hoping that the move signaled the end to his eight-thousand-plus days of solitary confinement. Maybe, just maybe, his decades of uneventful good behavior had paid off.

"They said for me to keep my nose clean, and maybe one day it'd happen," he recalled recently. "So I foolishly thought this was it. If you saw me in that van, you'd think I was Disneyland-bound, smiling all the way."

But the smile vanished after Silverstein reached his destination: the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, better known as ADX. 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.

What greeted Silverstein two years ago was nothing like Disneyland. His hosts hustled him down long, sterile corridors with gleaming black-and-white checkerboard floors that reminded him of A Clockwork Orange or some other cinematic acid trip. One set of doors, then another and another, until he finally arrived at the ass-end of Z Unit, on a special range with only four cells, each double-doored. His new home was less than half the size of the Silverstein Suite and consisted of a steel slab with a thin mattress, a steel stool and desk, a steel sink-and-toilet combination, a steel shower and a small black-and-white TV.

Stripped of most of his small store of personal belongings, Silverstein had little to do besides take stock of his eighty-square-foot digs. The Silverstein Suite was a penthouse at the Plaza compared to this place. There were steel rings on the sides of the bed platform, ready for "four-pointing" difficult inmates. A camera mounted on the ceiling to record his every move. If he stood on the stool and peered out the heavily meshed window, he could get a glimpse of a concrete recreation cage and something like sky. So this was his reward for all those years of following the rules — 24-hour surveillance in his own desolate corner of the Alcatraz of the Rockies. He was no longer simply in the belly of the beast. He was, he would later write, "stuck in its bowels, with no end/exit in sight."



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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast