Lawsuit Filed By Prisoner Held in Solitary Confinement for 27 Years

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A convicted murderer who has lived in solitary confinement for almost three decades is awaiting trial to determine whether his living conditions constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Tommy Silverstein—nicknamed “Terrible Tommy”–has been isolated since 1983 from the general population of the three prisons in which he has been confined, after a judge ruled that he have no human contact. Silverstein’s lawyers, who have University of Denver affiliations, filed a lawsuit in 2007, claiming that the conditions in which Silverstein lives are in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s stipulations against cruel and unusual punishment for prisoners.

The suit, which was filed in the federal district court of Colorado—Silverstein is currently housed in the Supermax high-security prison in Florence, Colorado—names the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as defendant and is currently awaiting trial.

Silverstein’s criminal history began in the 1970s, when he was a heroin addict who committed a string of robberies with his father. He received a 15-year sentence in a Kansas prison, where he killed a fellow inmate just two years later. Although a conviction for that murder was later overturned, Silverstein went on to kill two inmates, this time in a maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois. In 1983, he fatally stabbed 51-year-old prison guard Merle Clutts, which prompted authorities to confine Silverstein n a 6-by-7-foot cell in an Atlanta federal prison.

Silverstein, who is over six feet tall, was constantly monitored by surveillance cameras, and subjected to bright lights around the clock.

After a 1987 riot in which Silverstein was captured by Cuban inmates and used as a bargaining chip with prison authorities, he was transferred to Leavenworth, where he was housed in a 9-by-16-foot cell. He has been incarcerated at Supermax, which is the home of Unabomber Ted Kacynski and other notorious criminals, since 2005.

His attorneys have argued that since he admits his crimes and is remorseful for them, in addition to having demonstrated good behavior for over 20 years, he ought to be allowed to reenter the general population. The extreme and ongoing isolation he has endured, they say, can contribute to emotional problems such as depression and suicidal tendencies. Silverstein practices yoga, meditates, crochets, writes letters and creates artwork in order to pass the time and channel his energies.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons does not use the term “solitary confinement,” but instead terms the isolated cells “special housing units,” or SHUs. Over 11,000 federal inmates are confined to SHUs, some for punitive reasons and others, notably child sexual abusers or former gang members, for protection from the general population.

 

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