The Denver Post
It would be easier never to have heard of Tommy Silverstein.
The convicted bank robber is locked in the federal Supermax in Florence until 2095 for killing two fellow inmates and fatally stabbing a guard.
I don't defend the former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, considered one of the country's most dangerous prisoners. I'm far less interested in him than in his quarter-century in extreme isolation and in what those conditions mean about us and our system.
Silverstein, 57, has lived behind bars since age 20. He spent 26 years under a "no human contact order."
He did a year in a federal pen in Atlanta, where he was permitted no books or clothes. Then came a transfer to Leavenworth, where his 6-by-7-foot basement cell was infested with rats.
Next, he spent 15 years in another cell at Leavenworth known as the Silverstein Suite. He lived under constant surveillance and the buzz of 24-hour fluorescent lighting.
Guards refused to speak to him as a way of honoring the guard he killed.
Silverstein transferred in 2005 to a similar lockdown in the secretive Range 13 at Florence where only one other prisoner, World Trade Center bomber Ramsey Yusef, was housed. Each was locked in cages within cages in the most restrictive unit of the country's highest security prison.
Silverstein taught himself to read, write and sketch in prison. He never knew how long his isolation would last or what he could do to end it.
sick trip," is how he describes conditions about which he's suing the Bureau of Prisons for cruel and unusual punishment. There are good reasons why prisons use isolation, which prevents violence and provides a disincentive for inmates to kill guards.
But there are better reasons against it, one of which is it may amount to legalized torture. Social contact, the argument goes, is an identifiable human need. People — even the worst of us — need people.
American POWs call isolation as agonizing as physical abuse. Condemned worldwide, isolation units "impose pointless suffering and humiliation" and "reflect a stunning disregard of the fact that all prisoners . . . are members of the human community," reads a report by Human Rights Watch.
A bipartisan federal commission on prison policies deemed extreme confinement to be "expensive and soul destroying," and recommended that prisons "end conditions of isolation."
"When we think about people being waterboarded overseas by our government, the idea of sitting in a cell with three meals a day doesn't seem that bad," says Laura Rovner, professor at DU law school's civil-rights clinic. "But that doesn't account for the scars you can't see or the devastating human erosion."
Silverstein's case has sat for two years as prosecutors try to dismiss it in court. Meantime, Rovner and her students bring a level of human contact that he hadn't had since before most of the 20-somethings were born.
His gratitude comes weekly in letters to the clinic penned in meticulous handwriting and in sketches that are exquisite both in their pain and tenderness.
It's tempting not to look closely at the self-portraits, and not to let yourself feel the loneliness. It's easier not to think about the artist with the steady ballpoint and all the other prisoners whose lives we're draining of meaning.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
The Denver Post