Thomas Silverstein, America’s Most Isolated Prisoner, Dead at 67

Thomas Silverstein spent more than 35 years in solitary confinement (likely the longest of anyone in the world since the release of the Angola 3’s Albert Woodfox). What’s more, most of that time was spent in the most extreme isolation imaginable, under a “no human contact” order.

Because of his violent acts and gang affiliation early in his prison term, Silverstein received less public attention and sympathy than many others (excerpt from Laura Rovner and her students at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, who fought tirelessly for his basic human rights). But this man was undeniably tortured for decades by the federal Bureau of Prisons, which should be unacceptable regardless of his crimes. And his later decades in prison–spent doing artwork, yoga, and knitting–also suggest the human capacity for change that is ignored by such harsh punishments as LWOP and especially life in solitary confinement.

A drawing of his cell by ADX inmate Thomas Silverstein, who spent 36 years in solitary confinement.
Thomas Silverstein

Thomas Edward Silverstein, a federal prisoner whose ability to wreak havoc in even the most restrictive high-security conditions played a significant role in the creation of the modern supermax prison, died on Saturday, May 11, after more than three decades spent in solitary confinement.

Silverstein had been hospitalized in Lakewood for weeks with complications following heart surgery, according to information posted on a website maintained by friends and supporters. His death was confirmed by a U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman. Silverstein was 67.

Before his recent health problems, Silverstein had spent the past fourteen years as a resident of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, in Florence, Colorado — the highest-security facility in the entire federal system, where he was serving several life sentences. But his notoriety as “Terrible Tommy” stems from an earlier time at a prison in Marion, Illinois, when Silverstein was convicted of committing three murders behind bars — including the killing of a federal corrections officer.

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