The Caged Life

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The double doors muffled sound from outside. But over time, Silverstein realized that there was one other prisoner on the range. He shouted greetings. The man shouted back. He asked the man how long he'd been in the unit. Four years, the man said.

Silverstein told the man his name. His neighbor introduced himself: Yousef. Ramzi Yousef. Convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the one that killed six people and injured a thousand. Nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda leader who recently confessed to planning that failed effort to bring down the towers as well as the 9/11 attacks.

His keepers had put Silverstein in the beast's bowels, all right — right next to the one man in the entire federal system more loathed than he was. Still, it was somebody to talk to. Shouting to Yousef was the first conversation with another inmate that Silverstein had managed in almost twenty years.

But talking wasn't allowed. Within days, a new barrier was erected in the corridor outside his cell, preventing any further communication between the two residents of the range. Inmate #14634-116's transfer to ADX was now complete.

Entombed, Terrible Tommy was alone again. Naturally.

In the late 1980s, Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter, persuaded Bureau of Prison officials to grant him an unprecedented degree of access to inmates and staff at the Leavenworth penitentiary. Earley was allowed to walk the yard without an escort, to interview inmates without official monitoring, to talk candidly with veteran corrections officers about the dangers and frustrations of their work.

The resulting book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, is one of the most vivid works of prison reportage ever published. Among several unsettling portraits of career criminals and their keepers, the most memorable character is probably one Thomas Silverstein, who was then being housed, a la Hannibal Lecter, in a zoo-like cage in Leavenworth's basement, where the fluorescent lights stayed on around the clock to make it easier to watch him. Wild-haired and bearded — the BOP would not allow him a razor or a comb — Silverstein spent hours talking into Earley's tape recorder, describing his violent past and the petty torments he claimed the guards were putting him through in an effort to drive him insane.

Earley's book made Leavenworth's dungeon monster seem not only rational but quite possibly human. Granting a journalist unfettered access to him was a public relations blunder the BOP has been unwilling to repeat. Silverstein hasn't been allowed to have a face-to-face interview with a reporter for the past fifteen years. When Westword recently asked to visit him, ADX warden Ron Wiley promptly denied the request, citing "continued security concerns." But then, Wiley and his predecessors haven't let any journalist inside ADX to interview any inmate since 2001 because of "continued security concerns" (see related story).

Although he readily agreed to an interview with Westword, Silverstein isn't a huge fan of the press, either. He remains friendly with Earley, but he's learned to be wary of hit-and-run tabloid writers following in his wake, eager to write about "the most dangerous prisoner in America." Most of what the outside world knows about him, if it pays any attention at all, is the fragmentary image presented in The Hot House; he's a captive of his own legend, like some prehistoric insect trapped in amber. His letters seethe with contempt for lazy "plagiarists" who have simply appropriated snatches of Earley's account as well as for those who've produced long magazine pieces or cheeseball cable programs about the Aryan Brotherhood that largely rely on the lurid tales of government snitches.

"For some odd reason the media pees when Master snaps his fingers," he wrote recently. "I wouldn't call 'em 'mainstream' any more cuz there isn't anything mainstream about 'em. They're just lackeys for the powers that be."

Silverstein's response to the "injurious lies" spread about him has been to launch his own information campaign at www.tommysilverstein.com. That's right — America's most solitary prisoner, a man who's been inside since before the personal computer was invented and has never been allowed near one, has his own website, maintained by outside supporters who forward messages to him and post his responses.

"He's got a pretty impressive network," says Terry Rearick, a California private investigator who has communicated with Silverstein by letter and phone over several years. After the two lost touch for a time, Rearick got a call from a woman in England on Silverstein's behalf.

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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