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Thomas Silverstein, America’s Most Isolated Prisoner, Dies at Age 67

by Matt Clarke

Instead of being “The Man in the Iron Mask,” federal prisoner Thomas “Tommy” Silverstein spent decades in prison as the man in a concrete box. On May 11, 2019, he was released from that confinement in the only way it seemed possible – by his death, which occurred at an outside hospital, reportedly due to complications related to heart surgery, at age 67. 

Silverstein had been imprisoned at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, the highest-security facility in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). 

Silverstein was 23 when he was sentenced to 15 years for three bank robberies. His charge partners were his father and cousin. Three years later, he was convicted of killing another prisoner, Danny Atwell, who had gotten crossways with the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), a white-supremacist prison gang. That led him to be confirmed as a member of the AB; he was convicted and sentenced to life, then transferred to USP Marion in Illinois – the highest-security federal prison at the time. That conviction was later overturned due to perjury by informants who had testified against him; however, in the meantime he was convicted of killing Robert Chappelle, a black gang member, at Marion in 1981, and received another life sentence.

Soon thereafter, Silverstein was convicted of murdering Raymond Smith, the leader of the D.C. Blacks prison gang, who had threatened to retaliate against him for Chappelle’s death and had made several attempts on his life. Despite this known animosity, BOP officials had housed the two in nearby cells. After Silverstein and another prisoner, Clayton Fountain, stabbed Smith over 60 times, they dragged his body around the unit as a message to other prisoners. Silverstein was again sentenced to life for that killing.

BOP guard Merle E. Clutts, 51, was assigned to the cellblock that housed Silverstein and Fountain, and told to restore order. Silverstein claimed Clutts began harassing him. On October 22, 1983, with another prisoner’s assistance, Silverstein removed his handcuffs, broke free from his two-guard escort and used a shank to fatally stab Clutts 40 times. Another guard, Robert Hoffmann, was murdered by Fountain hours later. 

USP Marion was placed on lockdown after Clutts and Hoffmann were killed, and remained on lockdown for the next 23 years. For murdering Clutts, Silverstein received yet another life sentence (there was no federal death penalty at the time), and transferred to USP Atlanta and placed in segregation. 

During a 1987 riot at that prison, Cuban detainees who took control of the facility and took over 100 staff members hostage turned Silverstein over to the FBI as a good faith gesture. He was then moved to Leavenworth and held in a special room dubbed the “Silverstein Suite” – a video-monitored windowless cell containing a bunk, desk, shower and toilet, with remote-controlled access to adjacent recreation areas about the same size as his cell. The idea was for Silverstein to never leave the “suite” and, indeed, only rarely was he allowed outside its confines. 

Silverstein was denied visitation and remained in his cell, located in the Special Housing Unit, until he was moved to ADX in July 2005, where he was placed in the most restrictive form of housing at that facility. 

Eventually, Silverstein came to regret murdering Clutts and strove to avoid conflicts with prison staff. He apologized to Clutts’ family in 2011. He became a gifted self-taught artist, practiced yoga, studied Buddhism and took anger management courses. He amassed a quarter-century of good behavior and positive evaluations by prison psychiatrists. Nonetheless, he remained in his concrete box at ADX.

“I didn’t come in here a killer, but in here you learn to hate,” he said during an interview with reporter Paul Earley. “The insanity in here is cultivated by the guards. They feed the beast that lingers within all of us.”

Silverstein became an ardent critic of the BOP’s reliance on solitary confinement. He filed a lawsuit challenging his long-term isolation, only to have a federal judge rule it was not “atypically extreme,” and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held his 31 years in solitary did not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” [See: PLN, April 2015, p.20]. 

Sadly, they may be right. Excessive use of solitary confinement may be cruel, but it is hardly unusual in the United States. Silverstein had been incarcerated since 1978, and had served more time in segregation than any other federal prisoner. “Drip, drip, drip,” he wrote of his time in solitary, “the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, constantly drip away with no end or relief in sight.”

There is now an end, and hopefully relief. Rest in peace, Tommy. 

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Sources: westword.com, peteearley.com, The New York Times