Thomas Silverstein: Thirty years of solitary not "cruel and unusual," judges insist

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Thomas Silverstein.
After more than thirty years of solitary confinement -- including a quarter-century of good behavior, during which he committed no disciplinary infractions -- convicted killer Thomas Silverstein still poses too great a threat to other inmates, staff or himself to be allowed to circulate in the general prison population, according to a three-judge panel representing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Three decades of isolation, including the past nine years at the federal supermax penitentiary in Florence, have produced only "mild psychiatric symptoms" in Silverstein and don't amount to a violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, the panel ruled late last week.

The ruling affirms a 2011 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer, who held that Silverstein's conditions of confinement at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, also known as ADX or the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," aren't "atypically extreme."

A former Aryan Brotherhood leader, Silverstein was convicted of four murders while in prison; one was later overturned. He's now serving three consecutive life sentences plus 45 years. The last killing, the 1983 slaying of a federal guard in the most secure unit of what was then the highest-security federal pen in the entire system, put him on a "no human contact" status that lasted for decades. For close to seventeen years, he was housed in a specially designed, Hannibal-Lecter-like cell in the basement of Leavenworth where the lights were on 24 hours a day. In 2005, he was moved to a highly isolated range at ADX, as first reported in my feature "The Caged Life."

Since Silverstein first filed his lawsuit in 2007, with assistance from student lawyers at the University of Denver, he's been moved from a remote tier containing only two prisoners (Silverstein and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef) to D Unit, which is considered "general population" at ADX. Inmates are still in solitary confinement and have meals and shower in their cells, but they also have access to indoor and outdoor recreation and can shout to each other. That lessening in the general degree of Silverstein's isolation seems to have been one factor in Brimmer's decision to dismiss the former bank robber's claims of enduring extreme deprivation and lack of any social contact.

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Silverstein at ADX in 2005 and (inset) at an Atlanta penitenitary in the 1980s.
The appeals panel opinion describes Silverstein as "resilient" and concludes that the negative impacts of his life in solitary -- including symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and some degree of cognitive impairment -- must be balanced against the concerns of prison officials that he could revert to violence if the restrictions were eased. Although Silverstein claims to no longer have any contact or involvement with prison gangs, the justices note that he once held one of the three highest positions in the AB and that "retirement from the Aryan Brotherhood does not exist." The ruling adds:
"Despite whether he has actually left the gang as he claims or perceives, the [Bureau of Prisons] has provided its well-grounded belief, based on expert evidence, that a serious risk exists that Mr. Silverstein may be required, for his own preservation, to resume his role, either as a leader or murderer, or take some other violent course or otherwise risk his own death or serious injury. Moreover, even if Mr. Silverstein has somehow separated himself from the Aryan Brotherhood, in order for the BOP to protect him he must enter protective custody in which he would still be required to be separated from other inmates for his own protection."
But Silverstein has shown no interest in becoming a protective custody case -- or "checking in," as prisoners say. A website maintained by Silverstein's supporters denounces the BOP's security argument as "just legal maneuvers to keep him isolated."

But for now, at least, the appeals judges have the last word:

"Thirty years is indeed an extraordinary length of time to live in segregation, under any conditions...[but] we cannot look at those thirty years alone without considering the reasons for both his confinement and the continuation of his confinement in such isolation. Up until 1988, Mr. Silverstein committed at least three brutal murders, was implicated in two others, assaulted three staff members, threatened a staff
member, made an escape attempt by posing as a United States Marshal, and possessed weapons, including two hacksaw blades, handcuff keys, and two lock picks. Indeed, with respect to at least one of his murders, the Seventh Circuit stated his appeal afforded 'a horrifying glimpse of the sordid and lethal world of modern prison gangs.' Even the Supreme Court has cited Mr. Silverstein's prior murder cases three times as an example of the type of brutal prison murders perpetrated by its gang members."

Here's the complete opinion.

Thomas Silverstein Ruling

More from our Follow That Story archive circa October 2011: "Thomas Silverstein: Judge rules conditions at supermax not 'extreme.'"


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81 comments
zandraiii
zandraiii

His story is fascinating, that guard he killed, tormented him endlessly. The Federal prison system has a lot of nepotism in hiring and the dead guard has his relatives who were also guards start harassing and tormenting Silverstein. He'd already, I believe denounced the Aryan Brotherhood, but prison supervisors knew what the guards were doing and did nothing to stop it. Sometimes it's worth really trying to understand why an entire event started, not just the results. I'm not saying killing the guard was the answer but it was a mess that lands directly into the federal BOP allowing sons, cousins, brothers and fathers to gang up on individuals and relentlessly torturing anyone makes it likely to cause what happened to possibly happen. So the story is quite incomplete, as far as the big question of why what happened did happen. He's done nothing to anyone for decades and yet no matter how compliant he is, nothing changes for him. That's why this story still generates so much interest, as it has for many, many, many years.

elimgarak01
elimgarak01

Wait a minute...an EX-Aryan Brotherhood member named SILVERSTEIN?!?


Boy,they really don't look much into the family history of recruits,do they? What's next? Letting people of color into the KKK? Maybe a few white members into the Black Panthers or maybe the Nation of Islam?

muhutdafuga
muhutdafuga topcommenter

Weren't idiot conservative (i know that's redundant) judges the ones that said corporations were people and that money is speech?  Yes, it was the "fascist 5" that said that.

Dawn Baker
Dawn Baker

Isolation specially forced isolation is very cruel, I'd rather be put down then forever to be alone......

David Findley
David Findley

I am an ex convict. There is no cruel and unusual punishment. There is NO rehabilitation. That is the biggest phalicy ever. Lock the animal up, or kill him. Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. It is the price you pay when you play. I served ten flat years from the time I was 19 till I was 29. Discharged my sentence in 1991 and never went back. I served more time for drug offenses than most do for violent crimes

Steve Gough
Steve Gough

Fkn bullshit,no one should have this way

Raimondo Briata
Raimondo Briata

Any relation to Shel Silverstein the children's book author?...:)

Sher Quintana
Sher Quintana

If they keep him there till he is dead becase that is not rehabilitation so he really isnt fit for society of any kind. And of course he has "Good behavior" when your alone its hard to fight with yourself!!

Shonna Lynn Perrymond
Shonna Lynn Perrymond

it makes me sick when a person can commit a crime like murder then whine because the justice system should be nice to them, get a grip on your reality it's jail not vacation!!!!!

Chad Kautzer
Chad Kautzer

We should ask Dick Cheney. He'd say it's enhanced incarceration, which means, yes, it is most definitely torture.

Warren Cummings
Warren Cummings

if i ever went to jail i would beg them to serve out my sentence in solitary

Steve At Work
Steve At Work

They're probably concerned that after decades in the crazy box he will jab a pencil in the neck of the first correctional officer he sees. Why wouldn't he?

Tony Pricola
Tony Pricola

If he was going on a murderous rampage while locked up, yeah he deserves to go to solitary, but they didn't say he did. The correctional officers he killed were why he got locked up in the first place. They didn't say why he was in solitary. Plus you can't just KEEP him in solitary 30 consecutive years. They lock you up. You do something bad. They put you in solitary. After ____ amount of time, you're released into general population. Fuck up again and you're back in solitary. You don't just let someone rot in there as preventative measure. That's what the death penalty is for. I'm not saying he's a good guy and deserves mercy. I think the government wasted a fuckton of my money keeping him alive this long when he's obviously just wasted space. 30 years in prison is bad enough. They didn't even keep Manson in solitary while he was alive in prison. He did much worse than this dude did.

Erica Rosenthal
Erica Rosenthal

It's awkward that he was part of the Aryan nation with a name like Silverstein

WhyDontUGetIt
WhyDontUGetIt

The biggest threat posed to society are corrupt judges getting paid to protect a corrupt system. Our prisons are psychopath factories and Karma will continue to visit those who willingly participate in the revolving door of crime that this environment creates......Judges, prison guards, psychiatrists, and police all work together to keep this ineffective system operating in the manner it does today....At the end of the day, it is society that has to pay for the state's corruption and it's ordinary people that have to feel the wrath of these  mentally deranged convicts once they are released from their cages...

RustyShackleford
RustyShackleford

"poses too great a threat to other inmates, staff or himself to be allowed to circulate in the general prison population"

And yet, Dick Cheney remains a free man.

Nicki Knight
Nicki Knight

Don't feel bad for him at all! Or any other fucker that does something to get but in ADX. Frankly I think they should kill him just like a dangerous dog. Btw James Holmes hasn't been convicted there is a difference between jail and prison...

William Tanner
William Tanner

Yes they should have killed him when it happened just like they should have offed James Holmes on site. But no the justice system is a freaking joke. Phat phuc? What a joke. You must work for the police as an order follower huh? Just doing my job as I cavity search for a citizen having one tire with less air pressure in it. You must have been bullied in school huh? Yes solitary confinement for thirty years is cruel and unusual. Creating psychopaths in bulk.

Alec Revelle
Alec Revelle

why dont you stick to what this is about-two men with families working like most of us just trying to support our families got killed by a low life scum bag. Take your rants to another forum that intelligently discusses police brutality and I might take you seriously but until then you are just another phat phuc spewing stupid crap.

William Tanner
William Tanner

And then there's James Holmes who actually did kill innocent people who is getting the special treatment. Hmmm. Sounds fishy to me. What about the cops that kill innocent people. Oops sorry wrong house? It's ok you get suspended with pay. But he was grabbing for his chap stik. Alec Revelle. You also Fuck off.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

It is incontrovertibly Cruel ... but in the Prison Industrial Complex known as the U$A, it is not Unusual.


The evil SCOTUS has held that CRUEL punishments ARE allowed, and UNUSUAL punishments ARE allowed, so long as the punishment is not BOTH.


hth.



Joshua Gallegos
Joshua Gallegos

He's a killer, cruel and unusual punishment is perfectly acceptable.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... if you're lonely you can stay with me.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@David Findley "That is the biggest phalicy [sic] ever"


Reminiscing about those 10 long years in the pen, eh Davey?

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

Interesting take, Sher. Thanks for posting.

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Shonna Lynn. We're going to feature your post as an upcoming Comment of the Day. Much appreciated.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... oh, you'd be begging alright ...


michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

Thanks for weighing in, Christine. Much appreciated.

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

Thanks for posting, Half Aspen.

muhutdafuga
muhutdafuga topcommenter

Are you suggesting that we ignore the constitution?  They are rougher on prisoners in the conservative paradise of Iran.  If you don't like our constitutional protections, might I suggest you find a nice country like Iran to move to. 

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... if your parents didn't breed, maybe there wouldn't be so much ignorance.

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

Thoughtful post, Tony. Thanks.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... figures someone with a name of Rosenthal would point that out.


Are you (pl.) not God's "chosen" people?



muhutdafuga
muhutdafuga topcommenter

Because you really don't like the Constitution.  In the conservative paradise of Saudi Arabia and during the bush administration, torture was OK, it was what the baby republican JeeeEEEeeezussss wanted!

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

Strong words, Serene. Thanks for posting.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... including U$ Soldiers ?


noted.

muhutdafuga
muhutdafuga topcommenter

Dangerous?  How revealing that when frightened, how small minded people are willing to give up the Constitution.

michael.roberts
michael.roberts moderator editortopcommenter

A lot of readers share your opinions, Nicki. Thanks.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@Nicki Knight "Frankly I think they should kill him just like a dangerous dog."


You're still single, aren't you?



muhutdafuga
muhutdafuga topcommenter

I missed that part of the Constitution.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... to a perfectly morally bankrupt wretch such as yourself.

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