Thomas Silverstein, who was the longest-held federal prisoner in solitary confinement within the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for a period of 35 years since 1983 — has died. He was 67 years old.
According to The Denver Post, Silverstein passed away on Saturday, May 11, at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colarado. Dan Pruett. The Jefferson County chief deputy coroner said he had been admitted to the hospital in February to undergo surgery.
His wife, Renee Silverstein, said he died as a result of complications during heart surgery, with Pruett revealing that the 67-year-old was in intensive care at the hospital at the time of his death.
The sheer length of Silverstein's solitary confinement meant his incarceration was one that had been the talk of human rights activists, who criticized the BOP for their inhumane treatment of the prisoner. It was a conflict born out of Silverstein's murder of a prison guard.
He was first imprisoned at the San Quentin Prison in California in 1971, at the age of 19, after he was convicted of armed robbery. He was paroled four years later but was once again arrested for three armed robberies two years later. In 1977, he was sentenced to 15 years behind bars for the charges, to be served at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
It was here that his life would take a turn for the worse. At Leavenworth, Silverstein developed ties with the Aryan Brotherhood and reportedly became their de facto leader. Over the next three years, he was transferred to USP Marion, in Illinois, and convicted of three murders — one of which would later be overturned — including that of Correction Officer Merle Clutts.
Because there was no federal death penalty in place at the time, and Silverstein was already serving life sentences for the previous two murders, he was placed on indefinite lockdown — one that would last the rest of his life.
His security status was recorded as "no human contact," and his murder of Clutts would eventually inspire the design and construction of the federal supermax prison, the United States Penitentiary Florence ADX in Colorado, built to house the most dangerous inmates in the prison system.
At the prison, Silverstein was held in a "specially designed" 6 x 7-foot cell in Range 13, where he had very little interaction with others and was subject to a no-contact order at all times.
Speaking to Pete Earley, an author who had been in touch with Silverstein for a large portion of his solitary confinement and was working on the inmate's autobiography, a BOP official explained the punishment: "When an inmate kills a guard, he must be punished."
"We can't execute Silverstein, so we have no choice but to make his life a living hell. Otherwise, other inmates will kill guards too. There has to be some supreme punishment. Every convict knows what Silverstein is going through. We want them to realize that if they cross the same line that he did, they will pay a heavy price."
Silverstein had spoken out against what he described as a "form of torture" and even filed a civil lawsuit in 2007 that claimed his isolation was a violation of the US Constitution's 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But ultimately, his lawsuit was thrown out, and he continued to spend the last few years of his life in solitary confinement.