The Caged Life

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The bureau doesn't care about his spiritual progress. He killed Clutts.

Silverstein has told reporters that he wants to apologize to the families of the men he killed, "even though it was in self-defense." He has recanted some oft-quoted lines from his interviews with Earley about "smiling at the thought of killing Clutts" and feeling the hatred grow every time he was denied a phone call or a visit. He says he regrets the grief he's caused and no longer seethes with hatred.

The bureau is unmoved by his repentance. He killed Clutts.

Silverstein has been cut off from the operations of the Aryan Brotherhood for decades. His story is still told among the faithful, in an effort to keep his memory alive among the younger members, but he disputes that the group is a white supremacist organization. His own paintings include an ethnically diverse array of portraits. "I think it's worth noting that Tommy is no longer a racist, if he ever was," says Prison Legal News editor Wright.

The bureau could give fuck-all. He killed Clutts.

Twice a year, prison officials hold a brief hearing to review Silverstein's placement in administrative segregation. For many years, the hearings were held in the corridor outside the Silverstein Suite in Leavenworth. Silverstein stopped attending because the result was always the same: no change. At ADX, he's taken to filing grievances, claiming that the move has left him more isolated, with fewer privileges than ever before.

"I am being punished for good conduct under ploy of security reasons," he wrote last year in a formal appeal of his situation. "The goal of these units is clearly to disable prisoners through spiritual, psychological and/or physical breakdown."

In his response, Warden Wiley pointed out that Silverstein is provided with food and medical care, "daily contact with staff members" and access to television, radio and reading materials.

"It's ridiculous to call a nameless guard that shoves a food tray through the hole in the door...a source of meaningful 'human contact,'" Silverstein fired back. "I request placement in general population."

He took his appeal to the regional office, then to headquarters, where it was swiftly denied. "You are serving three consecutive life terms plus 45 years for bank robbery and murder, including the murder of Bureau of Prisons staff," an administrator noted. "You are a member of a disruptive group and an escape risk. Your heinous criminal and institutional behavior warrant a highly individualized and restrictive environment."

Wiley declines to comment on Silverstein's treatment at his prison. Last spring, a group from Human Rights Watch was allowed to tour certain areas of ADX. The group wasn't let in Z-Unit, where Silverstein lives, or anywhere near A-Unit — the "hole," where most disciplinary cases are housed. But they saw enough to realize that the staffers who bring meals "do not converse regularly, if at all, with the inmates." Despite claims that clinical psychologists checked on prisoners every other week, "several inmates said they had not spoken to a psychologist in many months," and such conversations tended to be brief.

The group also reported that many ADX prisoners are trapped in a catch-22 predicament — they've been sent there directly after sentencing but have never been provided any opportunity to "progress" to a less restrictive setting because of the nature of their crime. Every placement review finds that the "reason for placement at ADX has not been sufficiently mitigated."

"No matter how well they behave in prison, they cannot undo the past crimes that landed them in prison, generally, and then ADX, specifically," Human Rights Watch director Jamie Fellner wrote to BOP director Harley Lapin.

Some crimes, it seems, are beyond redemption.

Silverstein got a copy of the do-gooders' report and immediately fired off a letter to the group, suggesting that they come see him in Z-Unit if they want the real story about the government's "failed and draconian penal system."

No one from the group has come to see him yet. Silverstein waits for them in his box within a box. He knows that the bureau just wants to bury him and that he turned the key himself. But he also knows he didn't build that box all on his own.

His earliest possible date of release is eighty-eight years away. He has nothing but time.

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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