An inmate at the federal ADX Supermax prison in southern Colorado, who had been held in solitary confinement longer than any other federal prisoner, has died at age 67.

via San Jose Mercury News
Thomas Silverstein, 67, died in a Colorado hospital after being transferred from prison with a heart condition.

Thomas Silverstein died May 11 at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood. Silverstein, who had been held in solitary confinement for 35 years, was admitted to the hospital in February to undergo surgery, said Dan Pruett, Jefferson County chief deputy coroner.

Silverstein remained at the hospital and was in intensive care when he died, Pruett said.

In the 1980s, Silverstein was convicted of killing two inmates and a prison guard. The prison guard, Merle Clutts, was fatally stabbed Oct. 22, 1983, at the maximum security prison in Marion, Ill.

With no federal death penalty in place at the time of Clutts’ murder, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) placed Silverstein in indefinite solitary confinement, where he remained until being taken to the hospital in February.

“Don’t call it solitary; call it isolation,” said Pete Earley, author of “Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.”

Earley has known and corresponded with Silverstein for 32 years. For the past three years, Early has been working with Silverstein on the inmate’s autobiography.

“Tom Silverstein is an important figure because his killing of Merle Clutts in Marion really set the stage for Supermax,” Earley said. “He became a mythical figure in the bureau of prisons. He was seen by inmates as a superhero, a hero of the Aryan Brotherhood, refusing to bend to the BOP. In the eyes of the BOP, he became a hated figure.”

Silverstein entered prison in 1978 on an armed-robbery conviction. Over the years he was held in Marion; Leavenworth, Kan.; Atlanta; and Colorado. In Leavenworth, his cell became known as “The Silverstein Suite,” where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day. He also served time earlier in the San Quentin prison in California.

In July 2005, he was moved to Supermax in Florence to a soundproof cell. In 2007, Silverstein filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver seeking to end his isolation. The lawsuit, filed on his behalf by a team of lawyers from the University of Denver, ignited debate about whether prolonged isolation — Silverstein’s was indefinite — violated the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

“I was 23 when I was sentenced to 15 years for that robbery,” Silverstein wrote in a declaration as part of the lawsuit. “My share of the proceeds was a few hundred dollars. My life on the outside was over forever.”

In Leavenworth, Silverstein said life was divided along racial lines. He joined the Aryan Brotherhood and stabbed a black inmate to death in 1979. He was soon convicted in the deaths of two other inmates, although one conviction was overturned.

Shortly after Clutts’ murder, Silverstein was transferred to Atlanta, where he was kept in a windowless cell deep underground, and his life of isolation was underway. The cell was about the size of a king-size mattress, according to court records.

In the lawsuit, Silverstein said he was allowed to wear underwear but no clothes. A bright light buzzed over his head at all times. He was denied social visits and telephone calls. His only reading material was a Bible. In Atlanta for four years, Silverstein eventually was allowed art supplies and a radio that was limited to religious programs. He began practicing yoga.

Transferred back to Leavenworth, Silverstein had his own outdoor recreation area measuring 17 feet by 14 feet and sealed by 20-foot-high concrete walls topped with bars and wire mesh. Two surveillance cameras followed his movements 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He spent 15 years in the Silverstein Suite. By 2001, the BOP allowed Silverstein 300 minutes of phone calls per month. Guards typically would bring a phone to his cell.

In 2005 Leavenworth became a medium-security prison, and Silverstein was transferred to Colorado, where his new cell was 9 feet by 10 feet and his recreation area allowed him to walk 10 steps. Phone time was cut back to 15 minutes per month.

“Amazingly, he endured his total, ultimate isolation time,” Earley said. “While you don’t agree with what he did, there’s no justification of killing a prison officer, you have to marvel” at his resiliency.

Earley recalled receiving a communique from Silverstein written at 2 a.m. in which the inmate admitted that he should be getting sleep but he “had so much to do.”

“Imagine, in isolation and so much to do,” Earely said.

In October 2011, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer ruled against Silverstein’s lawsuit. In a 43-page ruling, Brimmer said Silverstein’s conditions were the same as other inmates’ at Supermax. Other Supermax inmates include Ted Kaczysnki, better known as the Unabomber; Terry Nichols, of the Oklahoma City bombing; and Ramzi Yousef, connected to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

In 2014 the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that three decades of solitary confinement did not violate his constitutional rights. The three-judge panel ruled that Silvestein’s claims of mental-health problems — anxiety, depression and memory loss — were mild and not proved to be caused by his extended isolation.

“His life story is an insight into the prison culture, where people are more at home in prison than in the outside world,” Early said. “He still is hated today by members of the BOP. At the same time, he was the most hated and most admired guy in prison culture. I knew him as a person.”