24 Years of Solitude, Then the Lawsuit

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The most isolated prisoner in America has some new friends at the University of Denver. Student lawyers at the Sturm College of Law filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of Thomas Silverstein, an inmate at ADX, the federal supermax prison in Florence, claiming that his solitary confinement for the past 24 years amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Silverstein, a former Aryan Brotherhood leader, was convicted of four murders while in prison; one was later overturned. The last killing, the 1983 of a federal guard in the most secure unit of the Marion penitentiary, put him on special "no human contact" status that has lasted for decades; read all about it in our August feature, "The Caged Life."

This marks the second time DU's budding litigants have gone to bat for an ADX inmate; a previous First Amendment battle on behalf of inmate writer Mark Jordan ended in victory. Given his violent past, DU's student lawyers may have a tougher time convincing a federal judge that Silverstein is a creature worthy of constitutional rights – but there's no question that the government's treatment of him has been both unusual and retaliatory, part of a campaign apparently devised to drive him insane.

According to the complaint filed in Denver's federal court, Silverstein's accommodations over the past 24 years have included an airless cell in Atlanta, where he would strip naked and wet down the floor in an effort to alleviate crippling heat; a special cell in the basement of Leavenworth with no bed and lights and cameras that buzzed 24 hours a day; and his current home at the supermax, where he lives entombed in a remote wing of the high-security penitentiary with extremely limited visiting privileges.

Just how isolated is Silverstein? On one hand, he has his own website, operated by supporters, where he frequently posts messages. But his mail and communication with the outside world continue to be highly restricted in many respects. For example, he's never had a chance to read "The Caged Life"; ADX warden Ron Wiley denied him access to a copy, claiming that it would compromise security because it mentions other inmates and contains (very generic) information about "escort procedures." That decision was recently upheld by the Bureau of Prisons regional director, who praised Wiley's "diligence in maintaining a safe, secure facility." Yet other, less critical stories about the supermax that also mention other inmates are permitted in the facility regularly.

DU's attorneys point out that Silverstein's level of isolation exceeds even that of the legendary Birdman of Alcatraz. They argue that it "goes beyond the boundaries of what most human beings can psychologically tolerate." But what Silverstein can tolerate and what the courts find constitutional in the conduct of supermax prisons may turn out to be entirely different thresholds of pain. -- Alan Prendergast


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