Longform

The Caged Life

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The same woman posts regularly on the website, where Silverstein himself duels at length with his detractors. (A similarly heated debate has ignited over the wording of Silverstein's entry on Wikipedia; his defenders and his critics alternately revise the account to suit their competing versions of his crimes.) Some visitors to his site dismiss him as a textbook psychopath. But Silverstein contends that if people understood the grim context in which the killings at Marion took place, the snitch games and psychological warfare and organized violence of prison life, they wouldn't be so quick to demonize him.

It's a strangely disconnected argument — a garbled dialogue between cultures on different planets. Most of the visitors to his website know little about Silverstein's world, just as he knows little about theirs. He's been in prison for the past 32 years, and much of what he's learned about life on the street since he was put in solitary in 1983 has come from reading or watching television. No American prisoner, not even Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, has ever been condemned to such a walled-off existence for such a long period of time. Many of Stroud's years of solitary confinement were spent in relative ease at Leavenworth; he had not only frequent visitors, but also a full-time secretary. Even his seventeen-year stretch in Alcatraz allowed for much more daily communication with others than Silverstein has had.

"I'm amazed that he's not stark, raving mad," says Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, who's corresponded with Silverstein for years and published some of his writing. "He's been in total isolation for almost 25 years. The only people I can think of that have been held in anything remotely like this in modern times are some of the North Korean spies held in South Korea."

Yet the no-contact conditions imposed on Silverstein are becoming less unique by the day. There are now 31 supermax prisons in the country, with more under construction, including Colorado's own 948-bed sequel to the current state supermax, known as Colorado State Penitentiary II. They are costly on several levels — the operational expense per cell can be double that of a less-secure prison, and the rate of mental illness in solitary confinement far exceeds that of the general prison population — but lockdown prisons are all the rage with a vengeful public. Increasingly, they are being used not for short-term punishment (disciplinary segregation) but for long-term confinement of hard-to-manage inmates (administrative segregation), whose privileges keep shrinking. Colorado, for example, no longer allows journalists to interview its supermax inmates except by mail.

"The phenomenon is disturbingly common," says David Fathi, a staff attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project. "If it's disciplinary confinement, it's finite — when you're done, you're done. But with administrative segregation, there's a real lack of transparency about what a prisoner can do to earn his way out."

In the federal system, the past decade has seen the rise of "special administrative measures," or SAMs, which are imposed on terrorists or other inmates whose communications with the outside world "could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons." There are now at least two dozen SAMs cases in federal prisons, including Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui, whose access to mail, phone calls, media interviews or other visits are extremely limited or banned outright. At present the restrictions must be approved by the U.S. Attorney General, but the Bush administration is considering changes that would allow wardens at ADX or other high-security prisons to designate inmates as terror threats and thus ban them from all media contact — even if they haven't been convicted on terrorism charges yet, Fathi notes.

Silverstein isn't a SAMs case. He still has his website and his mail (although he claims it's frequently withheld or "messed with" in other ways). But he may be the prototype of what the government has in mind for other infamous prisoners — to bury them in strata of supermax security to the point of oblivion.

Responding in letters to questions about the psychological impact of his isolation, Silverstein struggles to find the right words. "Trying to explain it is like trying to explain what an endless toothache feels like," he writes. "I wish I could paint what it's like."

In an article a few years ago, he called solitary confinement "a slow constant peeling of the skin, stripping of the flesh, the nerve-wracking sound of water dripping from a leaky faucet in the still of the night while you're trying to sleep. Drip, drip, drip, the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, constantly drip away with no end or relief 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