Longform

The Caged Life

Page 5 of 7

"Everyone knew what was going on and no one did anything to keep us apart," he told Earley. "The guards wanted one of us to kill the other."

At the time, there was no federal death penalty for inmate homicides — and not much the system could do to Silverstein, who was already serving multiple life sentences in the worst unit of the worst prison the BOP had to offer. But some staffers, concerned about Silverstein's outsized rep among white inmates, apparently did their best to keep him in check. In the months that followed Cadillac's death, Silverstein began to regard Officer Merle Clutts, a bull-headed regular of the control unit, as his chief tormentor.

Silverstein has given different explanations about what Clutts did to deserve such attention. Clutts trashed his cell during shakedowns and withheld mail; he smudged his artwork and taunted him; he even tried to set him up for attack by other inmates, Silverstein has suggested. Silverstein claims he told Earley "the whole story," but only pieces made it into The Hot House. Earley won't comment, saying he no longer discusses Silverstein with other reporters because of past misunderstandings.

The BOP has denied that Clutts harassed Silverstein. Whatever the source of the feud might have been, there's no question that Silverstein became fixated on Clutts. One study by Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian suggests that prisoners in control units sometimes experience "the emergence of primitive, aggressive fantasies of revenge, torture, and mutilation" of the guards who watch over them.

Silverstein thought about Clutts, and he thought about the difficulties involved in getting to his enemy when he was allowed out of his cell only one hour a day, shackled, escorted by three guards.

Locked down for life, he had a mountain of time to consider the problem.


One day in solitary is pretty much like another. Prisoners have different strategies for filling up their days, but there are always more days to come.

In his cell at Florence, 54-year-old Tom Silverstein usually rises before dawn, catches up on letters and reads, waiting for the grand event that is the delivery of his breakfast. He goes to rec for an hour, comes back to the grand event that is lunch, showers and cleans his cell. Time for some channel-flipping on the small black-and-white TV, in search of something fresh amid the religious chatter and educational programs he's watched over and over. More reading, some yoga. Then dinner, more TV - he's a sucker for Survivor, Big Brother and other "reality-type shows" — and so to bed.

When he was in the Silverstein Suite at Leavenworth, Silverstein had access to paintbrushes, pens and other art supplies. At ADX, he's only permitted pastels, colored pencils and "cheap-ass paper," he reports; consequently, he hasn't drawn a lick since he's been there. He says that every few weeks, he's moved from the cell with the heavily meshed window to one with no window at all, then back again a few weeks later. There are rare, glorious interruptions in the routine — a visit with sister Sydney last May, an occasional lawyer checking in. Visitors sit in a booth outside the cell and talk to him on a phone; he sits shackled on the other side of a glass partition and talks back. But these dazzling bursts of conversation quickly fade into a muddle. Did the last lawyers come before or after his sister? Silverstein isn't sure.

"It's all a blur, a dream state of mind," he writes. "Like my memories. When I venture back to my yesterdays, it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction."

Yet there is one memory, one day that stands out from all the rest — the day that started it all. Twenty-four years later, Silverstein is still in the position of analyzing, defending and regretting the act that has defined his fate. But nothing can explain away the act itself, a murder that was meticulously planned and ruthlessly executed.

Marion wasn't designed to be a supermax. Control unit prisoners had to be shackled and escorted to the shower every day, and the guards permitted them to have brief conversations with other inmates in cells along the way. On October 22, 1983, Silverstein was on his way back from his shower when another inmate in a rec cage called over one of his three escorts — Merle Clutts. Now flanked by only two guards, Silverstein paused at the cell of one of his buddies, Randy Gometz, and struck up a conversation.

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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