The Caged Life

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In a Darwinian world, predators have to adapt or die, just like their prey. Tommy Silverstein arrived in the federal prison system at a critical phase of its evolution, when the number of inmate assaults on other inmates and staff was rising sharply and officials were looking at the idea of control units as a way to neutralize the growing threat posed by prison gangs. Silverstein quickly became a symbol of the problem — and the inadequacy of the proposed solution. It's not a stretch to say that the Marion control unit helped to make him what he became, just as the mayhem that erupted there helped to reshape the American prison system.

Before he reached the nether regions of the BOP, Silverstein's criminal career had been thoroughly unremarkable. Born in 1952 in California, he'd grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in Long Beach, but he was bullied by other kids who thought he was Jewish. (According to The Hot House, Silverstein's biological father was a man named Thomas Conway, whom his mother divorced when Tommy was four years old; she later married a man named Silverstein.) As a teenager, he ripped off houses for money to buy drugs; his sister, Sydney McMurray, says he was battling a heroin addiction and problems with his volatile, controlling mother.

"We were taught never to throw the first punch, but never to walk away from a fight," McMurray recalls. "My brother started getting into trouble because he was running away from a violent environment at home. Then he got into drugs, and he became a brother I never knew."

At nineteen, Silverstein landed in San Quentin for armed robbery. Paroled, he was soon arrested again for series of robberies — pulled with Conway and another relative — that yielded less than $1,400. This time, he went into the federal system on a fifteen-year jolt. He was 23 years old, and his life on the streets was already over.

At Leavenworth Silverstein became closely associated with Aryan Brotherhood members who allegedly controlled the heroin trade inside the prison — close enough that when convict Danny Atwell was found stabbed to death, supposedly because he'd refused to be a mule for the heroin business, Silverstein and two other AB members were charged with the murder. In 1980, he was convicted at trial on the basis of shifting testimony from other inmates and sentenced to life in prison. A federal appeals court later ruled that much of the testimony should never have been allowed and threw out the conviction. But by that time, Silverstein was in the Marion penitentiary and facing more murder charges.

Marion opened in 1963, the same year that Alcatraz closed. It was intended to be not just a replacement for the Rock but an improvement, with a more open design and modern rehabilitation programs. Yet by the late 1970s, it had the most restrictive segregation unit in the BOP; not coincidentally, it was also the most violent prison in America, a dumping ground for gang leaders and crazies. Between 1979 and 1983, the prison logged 81 inmate assaults on other inmates and 44 on staff; 13 prisoners were killed. BOP reports issued in 1979 and 1981 proposed turning the entire facility into a "closed-unit operation."

Confined to a one-man cell in the control unit 23 hours a day, Silverstein says he spent much of his time learning how to draw and paint. "I could hardly read, write or draw when I first fell," he explains. "But most of us lifers are down for so long and have so much time to kill that we actually fool around and discover our niche in life, often in ways we never even dreamt possible on the streets. We not only find our niche, we excel."

Prison officials worried that Silverstein was finding his niche in other areas, too. Long-simmering disputes between white and black gangs had a way of coming to a boil in the control unit. In 1981, D.C. Blacks member Robert Chappelle was found dead in his cell. He'd apparently been sleeping with his head close to the bars and had been strangled with a wire slipped around his neck, plied by someone exercising on the tier. Silverstein and another convicted killer, Clayton Fountain, received life sentences for the crime; inmates who testified for the prosecution claimed the two had boasted of it.

Silverstein has always denied killing Chappelle. (Another inmate later claimed to have done the deed, but investigators found his confession at odds with the facts.) Yet even if he hadn't been convicted in court, the suspicion that he was responsible was sufficient to trigger more violence. Shortly after the slaying, the BOP saw fit to transfer one of Chappelle's closest friends, D.C. Blacks leader Raymond "Cadillac" Smith, to the Marion control unit from another prison. Within days, Smith had tried to stab Silverstein and shoot him with a zip gun. Silverstein and Fountain responded by cutting their way out of an exercise cage with a piece of hacksaw blade and paying a visit to Smith while he was in the shower. Smith was stabbed 67 times, in what Silverstein still describes as an act of convict self-defense.

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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