The Caged Life

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Before the guards knew what was happening, Gometz had reached through the bars, uncuffed Silverstein with a hidden key — and supplied him with a shank. Silverstein broke away from the guards and headed toward Clutts, now isolated at the far end of the tier. "This is between me and Clutts!" he shouted.

He stabbed the officer forty times before the dying Clutts could make it off the tier. Hours later, Silverstein's friend Clayton Fountain pulled the same handcuff trick and attacked three more guards in the control unit, fatally wounding Robert L. Hoffman Sr.

Two federal officers slaughtered in one day, on what was supposed to be the most secure unit in the entire BOP, sent the system into shock. The bureau's response was to forge ahead with the long-considered plan to turn all of Marion into a control unit while whisking Silverstein and Fountain into even more restricted quarters. (Fountain died in 2004 at the age of 48).

For years prison activists attempted to challenge the Marion lockdown in court, charging that the prison staff set about beating other prisoners and subjecting them to "forced rectal searches" as payback for the deaths of Clutts and Hoffman. In 1988, a federal judge ruled that the inmate accounts of staff brutality were simply not credible.

By that point, Silverstein and the bureau were already on the road that would lead to ADX — a place where communication among inmates, and physical contact between inmates and staff, could be strictly controlled and all but eliminated.

If the guard killings in Marion happened at any federal prison today, the perpetrators would almost certainly face the death penalty. Silverstein has suggested more than once that death would have been a more merciful option in his case.

"Even though we may not execute people by the masses, as they do in other countries, our government leaders bury people alive for life in cement tombs," he writes. "It's actually more human to execute someone than it is to torture them, year, after year, after year."

Silverstein's last taste of some kind of freedom came in the fall of 1987. Rioting Cuban prisoners broke into his special cell in the Atlanta federal penitentiary and set him loose. For one surreal week, he was able to roam the yard while the riot leaders dickered with federal negotiators over the release of more than a hundred prison staffers who'd been taken hostage.

Then the Cubans jumped him, shackled him and turned him over to the feds. Surrendering Silverstein had been high on the BOP's list of demands for resolving the situation, right up there with releasing all hostages unharmed.

Contrary to the bureau's expectations, Silverstein didn't butcher any guards during his precious days of liberty. He didn't harm anyone. He suggests the episode shows that he's not the killing machine the BOP says he is, and that he could exist in a less restrictive prison without resorting to violence.

The bureau isn't convinced. He killed Clutts.

Terrible Tommy says he's changed. He claims to have gone 21 years without a disciplinary writeup. Other long-term solitaries go berserk, smearing their cells with feces and "gassing" their captors with shit-piss cocktails. Not him.

"The BOP shrinks chalk it up as me being so isolated I haven't anyone to fight with," he writes, "but they're totally oblivious to all the petty BS that I could go off on if I chose to. I can toss a turd and cup of piss with the best of 'em if I desired. What are they going to do, lock me up?

"But I just have more self-control now, after 25 years of yoga, meditation, studying Buddhism and taking some anger-management courses. All that goes unacknowledged."

McMurray says her brother has learned a great deal about patience and suffering over the years. "He's more like the brother I knew on the outside years ago," she says. "I have spoken with the guards who deal with him every day, and they don't have a bad thing to say about him. It's the ones in administration who are trying to make it as difficult as they can for him.

"But my brother has a spirit that is unbreakable. In Leavenworth, at least he could draw. It's been more of a challenge for him in this situation, but he hasn't let it break his spirit."

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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