Thomas Silverstein, a violent white supremacist who was believed to have been held in isolation longer than any other American inmate in a federal prison, and who personified a campaign against solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment, died May 11 in Lakewood, Colorado. He was 67.
His death, at St. Anthony’s Hospital southwest of Denver, was caused by complications of heart surgery, his wife, Renee Silverstein, said.
Silverstein had weeks ago been transferred to the hospital from a super-maximum prison in Florence, Colorado, which the federal Bureau of Prisons opened in 1994 to house terrorists, serial killers, drug lords and others considered incorrigible.
Silverstein was serving three consecutive life terms for the killing of two fellow prisoners and a guard while behind bars. He had been incarcerated continuously since 1975, originally on an armed robbery conviction. He was said to have joined the Aryan Brotherhood, the white nationalist prison gang, while serving time at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.
Journalist and author Wilbert Rideau, who served almost 44 years in prison on manslaughter charges, wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times in 2013 that by defying authority and protesting their punishment, Silverstein and inmates like him became “examples of abuse of power and sometimes a rallying point for their fellow prisoners, who know they could one day face the same fate.”
The volcanic behavior of prisoners like Silverstein toward fellow inmates and correction officers spurred the federal government to build so-called supermax prisons like Florence, where extreme lack of human contact reduced incidents of violence by convicts but also raised concerns about the effect of complete solitude on their mental health.
“Silverstein’s actions were responsible for ushering in a new era in modern-day corrections,” said Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter who interviewed him for his book “The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison” (1992).
Silverstein was held at Leavenworth for about 20 years in a specially-designed suite where day and night never varied: A fluorescent ceiling light remained on continuously to facilitate ceaseless video surveillance. Meals were delivered through a slot in the cell door. Visitors were severely restricted, and outgoing phone calls were capped at two a month.