Thomas Silverstein, Hot House convict

Before I began writing about the need for mental health care reform, most visitors came to my webpage to read about Thomas Silverstein, a major character in my book, The Hot House. 
 He has been held in solitary confinement since 1983 — the longest any convict has been kept isolated by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
About once a year, I get a telephone call from a reporter from some national news organization asking about him. A couple of weeks ago it was CNN Writer/Producer Stephanie Chen seeking an interview.
I used to talk about Tommy, but not anymore.
Now, I tell reporters that they should visit Silverstein’s own website.
He doesn’t have access to a computer, but he has friends who correspond with him and post his replies.
The reason I stopped talking about Tommy to reporters was because nearly all of the stories about him and the Bureau of Prisons ended up being sensational tabloid nonsense. 
However, sometimes a reporter will write something about Silverstein that is interesting.  In late 2007, Alan Prendergast, a writer  for the Denver News published a series about the Bureau of Prison’s Super Max penitentiary. It is entitled The Caged Life and  it is worth reading.
Prendergast also wrote a story called  Fortress of Solitude
In that piece, he points out that the Bureau of Prisons has denied every request that has ever been made by reporters  to tour the Super Max prison where Silverstein is being held.  I am not certain if that is still true, but that “keep’em out” attitude certainly is different from when the BOP gave me free access to roam the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Here’s an excerpt from The Caged Life  about Silverstein.
The Caged Life
Is Thomas Silverstein a prisoner of his own deadly past — or the first in a new wave of locked-down lifers?
By Alan Prendergast
published: August 16, 2007
Excerpt
In the late 1980s, Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter, persuaded Bureau of Prison officials to grant him an unprecedented degree of access to inmates and staff at the Leavenworth penitentiary. Earley was allowed to walk the yard without an escort, to interview inmates without official monitoring, to talk candidly with veteran corrections officers about the dangers and frustrations of their work.
The resulting book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, is one of the most vivid works of prison reportage ever published. Among several unsettling portraits of career criminals and their keepers, the most memorable character is probably one Thomas Silverstein, who was then being housed, a la Hannibal Lecter, in a zoo-like cage in Leavenworth’s basement, where the fluorescent lights stayed on around the clock to make it easier to watch him. Wild-haired and bearded — the BOP would not allow him a razor or a comb — Silverstein spent hours talking into Earley’s tape recorder, describing his violent past and the petty torments he claimed the guards were putting him through in an effort to drive him insane.
Earley’s book made Leavenworth’s dungeon monster seem not only rational but quite possibly human. Granting a journalist unfettered access to him was a public relations blunder the BOP has been unwilling to repeat. Silverstein hasn’t been allowed to have a face-to-face interview with a reporter for the past fifteen years. When Westword recently asked to visit him, ADX warden Ron Wiley promptly denied the request, citing “continued security concerns.” But then, Wiley and his predecessors haven’t let any journalist inside ADX to interview any inmate since 2001 because of “continued security concerns” (see related story).
Although he readily agreed to an interview with Westword, Silverstein isn’t a huge fan of the press, either. He remains friendly with Earley, but he’s learned to be wary of hit-and-run tabloid writers following in his wake, eager to write about “the most dangerous prisoner in America.” Most of what the outside world knows about him, if it pays any attention at all, is the fragmentary image presented in The Hot House; he’s a captive of his own legend, like some prehistoric insect trapped in amber. His letters seethe with contempt for lazy “plagiarists” who have simply appropriated snatches of Earley’s account as well as for those who’ve produced long magazine pieces or cheeseball cable programs about the Aryan Brotherhood that largely rely on the lurid tales of government snitches.
“For some odd reason the media pees when Master snaps his fingers,” he wrote recently. “I wouldn’t call ‘em ‘mainstream’ any more cuz there isn’t anything mainstream about ‘em. They’re just lackeys for the powers that be.”
Silverstein’s response to the “injurious lies” spread about him has been to launch his own information campaign at www.tommysilverstein.com. That’s right — America’s most solitary prisoner, a man who’s been inside since before the personal computer was invented and has never been allowed near one, has his own website, maintained by outside supporters who forward messages to him and post his responses.
“He’s got a pretty impressive network,” says Terry Rearick, a California private investigator who has communicated with Silverstein by letter and phone over several years. After the two lost touch for a time, Rearick got a call from a woman in England on Silverstein’s behalf.
The same woman posts regularly on the website, where Silverstein himself duels at length with his detractors. (A similarly heated debate has ignited over the wording of Silverstein’s entry on Wikipedia; his defenders and his critics alternately revise the account to suit their competing versions of his crimes.) Some visitors to his site dismiss him as a textbook psychopath. But Silverstein contends that if people understood the grim context in which the killings at Marion took place, the snitch games and psychological warfare and organized violence of prison life, they wouldn’t be so quick to demonize him.
It’s a strangely disconnected argument — a garbled dialogue between cultures on different planets. Most of the visitors to his website know little about Silverstein’s world, just as he knows little about theirs. He’s been in prison for the past 32 years, and much of what he’s learned about life on the street since he was put in solitary in 1983 has come from reading or watching television. No American prisoner, not even Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, has ever been condemned to such a walled-off existence for such a long period of time. Many of Stroud’s years of solitary confinement were spent in relative ease at Leavenworth; he had not only frequent visitors, but also a full-time secretary. Even his seventeen-year stretch in Alcatraz allowed for much more daily communication with others than Silverstein has had.
“I’m amazed that he’s not stark, raving mad,” says Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, who’s corresponded with Silverstein for years and published some of his writing. “He’s been in total isolation for almost 25 years. The only people I can think of that have been held in anything remotely like this in modern times are some of the North Korean spies held in South Korea.”
Yet the no-contact conditions imposed on Silverstein are becoming less unique by the day. There are now 31 supermax prisons in the country, with more under construction, including Colorado’s own 948-bed sequel to the current state supermax, known as Colorado State Penitentiary II. They are costly on several levels — the operational expense per cell can be double that of a less-secure prison, and the rate of mental illness in solitary confinement far exceeds that of the general prison population — but lockdown prisons are all the rage with a vengeful public. Increasingly, they are being used not for short-term punishment (disciplinary segregation) but for long-term confinement of hard-to-manage inmates (administrative segregation), whose privileges keep shrinking. Colorado, for example, no longer allows journalists to interview its supermax inmates except by mail.
“The phenomenon is disturbingly common,” says David Fathi, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “If it’s disciplinary confinement, it’s finite — when you’re done, you’re done. But with administrative segregation, there’s a real lack of transparency about what a prisoner can do to earn his way out.”
In the federal system, the past decade has seen the rise of “special administrative measures,” or SAMs, which are imposed on terrorists or other inmates whose communications with the outside world “could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons.” There are now at least two dozen SAMs cases in federal prisons, including Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui, whose access to mail, phone calls, media interviews or other visits are extremely limited or banned outright. At present the restrictions must be approved by the U.S. Attorney General, but the Bush administration is considering changes that would allow wardens at ADX or other high-security prisons to designate inmates as terror threats and thus ban them from all media contact — even if they haven’t been convicted on terrorism charges yet, Fathi notes.
Silverstein isn’t a SAMs case. He still has his website and his mail (although he claims it’s frequently withheld or “messed with” in other ways). But he may be the prototype of what the government has in mind for other infamous prisoners — to bury them in strata of supermax security to the point of oblivion.
Responding in letters to questions about the psychological impact of his isolation, Silverstein struggles to find the right words. “Trying to explain it is like trying to explain what an endless toothache feels like,” he writes. “I wish I could paint what it’s like.”
In an article a few years ago, he called solitary confinement “a slow constant peeling of the skin, stripping of the flesh, the nerve-wracking sound of water dripping from a leaky faucet in the still of the night while you’re trying to sleep. Drip, drip, drip, the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, constantly drip away with no end or relief in sight.”


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • S. H. Cummings

    I read the Hot House and enjoyed it. It is the only book that I have ever read that really tells you what it is like to be inside a maximum security prison — and I should know. I did time at Leavenworth and met the author when he was there doing research. He got it right. It is not a place anyone should want to go and fortunately, I have been on the streets since 1989 without another arrest.

  • Tony L.

    Nice post, was interesting to read.

  • Alan

    I will be sending this on to Solitarywatch.wordpress.com. I think they are a good start in getting the word out. I am also frequently write on Tom's blog. Unfortunately most of what I write does not reach Tom. I continue to write to educate the public that happens upon the site.

  • http://prisonzombie.blogspot.com/ Renee

    I will add this link to my blog. My only wish is that mainstream media address the issue of supermax prisons ridiculous. The only time I have seen or heard of prisons or prisoners is pertaining to illegal immigrants and accused terrorists, never the 2,000,000 of our own incarcerated.

  • Joey W.

    Hey Pete,
    CNN finally ran the story that you cited. Here is the link:
    http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/02/25/colorado.su
    Notice that the writer didn't give you any credit. Do they ever?
    Ha

  • http://www.firstpagegoogleresults.com/ home builders website

    In the first place The Hot House is a remarkable piece of journalism, … Dallas Scott, Silverstein, and Norman Bucklew ….

  • http://prisonzombie.blogspot.com/ Renee

    I would like to use this peice on my blog.

  • snowwhite

    I was at Marion when Silverstyein was there. Hes a killer and always will be

  • http://www.tommysilverstein.blogspot.com Barri John

    How can Tommy still be a killer, (your comment) when he's been locked down since 1983, and hasnt had one report against him in all that time.

  • Dsimss

    I enjoyed reading Hot House. I spent time in USP Leavenworth 1995-1996 real penitintiary. Separates the men from the boys. Serious joint to say the least

  • Dsimss

    I enjoyed reading Hot House. I spent time in USP Leavenworth 1995-1996 real penitintiary. Separates the men from the boys. Serious joint to say the least

  • Etalonabm

    You are exactly right! Because he is LOCKED DOWN he cannot kill innocent staff or inmates!

  • Edwstn

    I had heard about Tommy Silverstein but had never read his story until today. Reading his story made me think that the prison officials are actually worse than the inmates. I’m not surprised.

  • Sandradd2000

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