Thomas Silverstein: After 26 years in solitary, "Terrible Tommy" wins a round in court

thomas silverstein images.jpg
Thomas Silverstein at Atlanta's penitentiary (inset) in the 1980s and at ADX in 2007.
When you've spent your time since the early days of the Reagan years in a cell smaller than some people's closets, progress tends to get measured in small, small increments rather than sweeping events.

But Thomas Silverstein, America's most isolated federal prisoner, got some momentous news today. His lawsuit challenging his decades of solitary confinement is still alive.

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer has ruled that Silverstein's case, which raises questions about possible constitutional violations in the way the U.S. Bureau of Prisons consigns prisoners to administrative segregation for years or even decades, can move forward -- a decision that could have implications for other federal prisoners in solitary, too.

A bank robber who was convicted of killing two inmates while serving time in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, Silverstein was put under a "no contact" order after he managed to murder a correctional officer at the high-security pen in 1983. Since that time, he's been in basement isolation cells with buzzing lights, in his own wing of the Leavenworth pen, and, since 2005, buried in the bowels of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX) in Florence -- the subject of my 2007 feature "The Caged Life."

Prison officials have contended that the extreme degree of isolation Silverstein has endured -- including little or no communication with other inmates and entire years spent without leaving his cell -- is necessary, in light of his violent history. But in 2007, law students at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law filed suit on his behalf, challenging his long confinement as cruel and unusual punishment and for lack of due process.

Brimmer's ruling dismisses some of Silverstein's claims against individual defendants, but leaves intact his Fifth and Eighth Amendment claims against the BOP. Although the case is still a long way from trial, DU law professor Laura Rovner views the ruling as a rare victory in civil-rights activists' efforts to challenge the nature of solitary confinement itself.

"It's an extreme set of circumstances, but we're hoping it will have an impact on other prisoners in isolation," Rovner says. "There's starting to be a lot more attention to the issues surrounding solitary confinement and the process involved in getting into general population."

When Silverstein was first moved to ADX, he was placed on the prison's most isolated range, with one other resident -- Ramzi Yousef, convicted of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He's since been moved to a more populous area, but is still kept in isolation. Even his exercise sessions have often been with the rest of the yard cleared, though recently he's been permitted to go into his own rec cage while other inmates are in theirs.

Rovner says she spoke to Silverstein by phone today shortly after she learned of Judge Brimmer's decision. "He's very pleased," she says. "Not only for himself, but he understands what this means for other prisoners."

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