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PLN editor quoted in Alan Prendergast article about BOP prisoner Tommy Silverstein

Westword, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN editor quoted in Alan Prendergast article about BOP prisoner Tommy Silverstein - Westword 2007

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

When the goon squad showed up at his place at five in the morning, Tommy Silverstein knew something was up. He wasn't accustomed to greeting guests at such an ungodly hour — much less a team of corrections officers, helmeted and suited up for action.

In fact, Silverstein wasn't used to company at any hour. His home was a remote cell, known as the Silverstein Suite, in the special housing unit of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. He'd been cut off from other inmates and all but a few emissaries from the outside world for more than two decades.

He stayed in the Silverstein Suite 23 hours a day. His interactions with staff typically amounted to some tight-lipped turnkey delivering his food through a slot in the cell door. The only change of scenery came when an electronic door slid open, allowing him an hour's solitary exercise in an adjoining recreation cage. Visitors were rarely permitted, and entire years had gone by during which he never left the cell.

But this day was different. Silverstein could think of only a couple of reasons why so many well-padded, well-equipped officers would be at his door, ordering him to strip for a search. Cell shakedown? Time for a game of hockey, with Tommy as the puck? No, that was a captain leading the squad. Something big.

A transfer.

So it came to pass that on July 12, 2005, U.S. Bureau of Prisons inmate #14634-116 left his cage in Kansas for one in Colorado. Security for the move was tighter than Borat's Speedo — about what you'd expect for a former Aryan Brotherhood leader convicted of killing four men behind prison walls. (One conviction was later overturned; Silverstein disputes the second slaying but admits the other two.) The object of all this fuss didn't mind the goon squad. He was enjoying the view — and hoping that the move signaled the end to his eight-thousand-plus days of solitary confinement. Maybe, just maybe, his decades of uneventful good behavior had paid off.

"They said for me to keep my nose clean, and maybe one day it'd happen," he recalled recently. "So I foolishly thought this was it. If you saw me in that van, you'd think I was Disneyland-bound, smiling all the way."

But the smile vanished after Silverstein reached his destination: the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, better known as ADX. Located two miles outside of the high-desert town of Florence, ADX is the most secure prison in the country, a hunkered-down maze of locks, alarms and electronic surveillance, designed to house gang leaders, terrorists, drug lords and other high-risk prisoners in profound isolation. Its current guest list is a who's who of enemies of the state, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, plane bomber Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera, abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph and double-agent Robert Hanssen.

When it opened in 1994, ADX was hailed as the solution to security flaws at even the highest levels of the federal prison system. Much of the justification for building the place stemmed from official outrage at the brutal murders of two guards in the control unit of the federal pen in Marion, Illinois, during a single 24-hour period in 1983. The first of those killings was committed by Thomas Silverstein, who was already facing multiple life sentences for previous bloodshed at Marion. The slaying of corrections officer Merle Clutts placed Silverstein under a "no human contact" order that's prevailed ever since, and it gave the Bureau of Prisons the perfect rationale for building its high-tech supermax. Although he never bunked there until 2005, you could call ADX the House that Tommy Built.

What greeted Silverstein two years ago was nothing like Disneyland. His hosts hustled him down long, sterile corridors with gleaming black-and-white checkerboard floors that reminded him of A Clockwork Orange or some other cinematic acid trip. One set of doors, then another and another, until he finally arrived at the ass-end of Z Unit, on a special range with only four cells, each double-doored. His new home was less than half the size of the Silverstein Suite and consisted of a steel slab with a thin mattress, a steel stool and desk, a steel sink-and-toilet combination, a steel shower and a small black-and-white TV.

Stripped of most of his small store of personal belongings, Silverstein had little to do besides take stock of his eighty-square-foot digs. The Silverstein Suite was a penthouse at the Plaza compared to this place. There were steel rings on the sides of the bed platform, ready for "four-pointing" difficult inmates. A camera mounted on the ceiling to record his every move. If he stood on the stool and peered out the heavily meshed window, he could get a glimpse of a concrete recreation cage and something like sky. So this was his reward for all those years of following the rules — 24-hour surveillance in his own desolate corner of the Alcatraz of the Rockies. He was no longer simply in the belly of the beast. He was, he would later write, "stuck in its bowels, with no end/exit in sight."

The double doors muffled sound from outside. But over time, Silverstein realized that there was one other prisoner on the range. He shouted greetings. The man shouted back. He asked the man how long he'd been in the unit. Four years, the man said.

Silverstein told the man his name. His neighbor introduced himself: Yousef. Ramzi Yousef. Convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the one that killed six people and injured a thousand. Nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda leader who recently confessed to planning that failed effort to bring down the towers as well as the 9/11 attacks.

His keepers had put Silverstein in the beast's bowels, all right — right next to the one man in the entire federal system more loathed than he was. Still, it was somebody to talk to. Shouting to Yousef was the first conversation with another inmate that Silverstein had managed in almost twenty years.

But talking wasn't allowed. Within days, a new barrier was erected in the corridor outside his cell, preventing any further communication between the two residents of the range. Inmate #14634-116's transfer to ADX was now complete.

Entombed, Terrible Tommy was alone again. Naturally.

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 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."

In a Darwinian world, predators have to adapt or die, just like their prey. Tommy Silverstein arrived in the federal prison system at a critical phase of its evolution, when the number of inmate assaults on other inmates and staff was rising sharply and officials were looking at the idea of control units as a way to neutralize the growing threat posed by prison gangs. Silverstein quickly became a symbol of the problem — and the inadequacy of the proposed solution. It's not a stretch to say that the Marion control unit helped to make him what he became, just as the mayhem that erupted there helped to reshape the American prison system.

Before he reached the nether regions of the BOP, Silverstein's criminal career had been thoroughly unremarkable. Born in 1952 in California, he'd grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in Long Beach, but he was bullied by other kids who thought he was Jewish. (According to The Hot House, Silverstein's biological father was a man named Thomas Conway, whom his mother divorced when Tommy was four years old; she later married a man named Silverstein.) As a teenager, he ripped off houses for money to buy drugs; his sister, Sydney McMurray, says he was battling a heroin addiction and problems with his volatile, controlling mother.

"We were taught never to throw the first punch, but never to walk away from a fight," McMurray recalls. "My brother started getting into trouble because he was running away from a violent environment at home. Then he got into drugs, and he became a brother I never knew."

At nineteen, Silverstein landed in San Quentin for armed robbery. Paroled, he was soon arrested again for series of robberies — pulled with Conway and another relative — that yielded less than $1,400. This time, he went into the federal system on a fifteen-year jolt. He was 23 years old, and his life on the streets was already over.

At Leavenworth Silverstein became closely associated with Aryan Brotherhood members who allegedly controlled the heroin trade inside the prison — close enough that when convict Danny Atwell was found stabbed to death, supposedly because he'd refused to be a mule for the heroin business, Silverstein and two other AB members were charged with the murder. In 1980, he was convicted at trial on the basis of shifting testimony from other inmates and sentenced to life in prison. A federal appeals court later ruled that much of the testimony should never have been allowed and threw out the conviction. But by that time, Silverstein was in the Marion penitentiary and facing more murder charges.

Marion opened in 1963, the same year that Alcatraz closed. It was intended to be not just a replacement for the Rock but an improvement, with a more open design and modern rehabilitation programs. Yet by the late 1970s, it had the most restrictive segregation unit in the BOP; not coincidentally, it was also the most violent prison in America, a dumping ground for gang leaders and crazies. Between 1979 and 1983, the prison logged 81 inmate assaults on other inmates and 44 on staff; 13 prisoners were killed. BOP reports issued in 1979 and 1981 proposed turning the entire facility into a "closed-unit operation."

Confined to a one-man cell in the control unit 23 hours a day, Silverstein says he spent much of his time learning how to draw and paint. "I could hardly read, write or draw when I first fell," he explains. "But most of us lifers are down for so long and have so much time to kill that we actually fool around and discover our niche in life, often in ways we never even dreamt possible on the streets. We not only find our niche, we excel."

Prison officials worried that Silverstein was finding his niche in other areas, too. Long-simmering disputes between white and black gangs had a way of coming to a boil in the control unit. In 1981, D.C. Blacks member Robert Chappelle was found dead in his cell. He'd apparently been sleeping with his head close to the bars and had been strangled with a wire slipped around his neck, plied by someone exercising on the tier. Silverstein and another convicted killer, Clayton Fountain, received life sentences for the crime; inmates who testified for the prosecution claimed the two had boasted of it.

Silverstein has always denied killing Chappelle. (Another inmate later claimed to have done the deed, but investigators found his confession at odds with the facts.) Yet even if he hadn't been convicted in court, the suspicion that he was responsible was sufficient to trigger more violence. Shortly after the slaying, the BOP saw fit to transfer one of Chappelle's closest friends, D.C. Blacks leader Raymond "Cadillac" Smith, to the Marion control unit from another prison. Within days, Smith had tried to stab Silverstein and shoot him with a zip gun. Silverstein and Fountain responded by cutting their way out of an exercise cage with a piece of hacksaw blade and paying a visit to Smith while he was in the shower. Smith was stabbed 67 times, in what Silverstein still describes as an act of convict self-defense.

"Everyone knew what was going on and no one did anything to keep us apart," he told Earley. "The guards wanted one of us to kill the other."

At the time, there was no federal death penalty for inmate homicides — and not much the system could do to Silverstein, who was already serving multiple life sentences in the worst unit of the worst prison the BOP had to offer. But some staffers, concerned about Silverstein's outsized rep among white inmates, apparently did their best to keep him in check. In the months that followed Cadillac's death, Silverstein began to regard Officer Merle Clutts, a bull-headed regular of the control unit, as his chief tormentor.

Silverstein has given different explanations about what Clutts did to deserve such attention. Clutts trashed his cell during shakedowns and withheld mail; he smudged his artwork and taunted him; he even tried to set him up for attack by other inmates, Silverstein has suggested. Silverstein claims he told Earley "the whole story," but only pieces made it into The Hot House. Earley won't comment, saying he no longer discusses Silverstein with other reporters because of past misunderstandings.

The BOP has denied that Clutts harassed Silverstein. Whatever the source of the feud might have been, there's no question that Silverstein became fixated on Clutts. One study by Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian suggests that prisoners in control units sometimes experience "the emergence of primitive, aggressive fantasies of revenge, torture, and mutilation" of the guards who watch over them.

Silverstein thought about Clutts, and he thought about the difficulties involved in getting to his enemy when he was allowed out of his cell only one hour a day, shackled, escorted by three guards.

Locked down for life, he had a mountain of time to consider the problem.

One day in solitary is pretty much like another. Prisoners have different strategies for filling up their days, but there are always more days to come.

In his cell at Florence, 54-year-old Tom Silverstein usually rises before dawn, catches up on letters and reads, waiting for the grand event that is the delivery of his breakfast. He goes to rec for an hour, comes back to the grand event that is lunch, showers and cleans his cell. Time for some channel-flipping on the small black-and-white TV, in search of something fresh amid the religious chatter and educational programs he's watched over and over. More reading, some yoga. Then dinner, more TV - he's a sucker for Survivor, Big Brother and other "reality-type shows" — and so to bed.

When he was in the Silverstein Suite at Leavenworth, Silverstein had access to paintbrushes, pens and other art supplies. At ADX, he's only permitted pastels, colored pencils and "cheap-ass paper," he reports; consequently, he hasn't drawn a lick since he's been there. He says that every few weeks, he's moved from the cell with the heavily meshed window to one with no window at all, then back again a few weeks later. There are rare, glorious interruptions in the routine — a visit with sister Sydney last May, an occasional lawyer checking in. Visitors sit in a booth outside the cell and talk to him on a phone; he sits shackled on the other side of a glass partition and talks back. But these dazzling bursts of conversation quickly fade into a muddle. Did the last lawyers come before or after his sister? Silverstein isn't sure.

"It's all a blur, a dream state of mind," he writes. "Like my memories. When I venture back to my yesterdays, it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction."

Yet there is one memory, one day that stands out from all the rest — the day that started it all. Twenty-four years later, Silverstein is still in the position of analyzing, defending and regretting the act that has defined his fate. But nothing can explain away the act itself, a murder that was meticulously planned and ruthlessly executed.

Marion wasn't designed to be a supermax. Control unit prisoners had to be shackled and escorted to the shower every day, and the guards permitted them to have brief conversations with other inmates in cells along the way. On October 22, 1983, Silverstein was on his way back from his shower when another inmate in a rec cage called over one of his three escorts — Merle Clutts. Now flanked by only two guards, Silverstein paused at the cell of one of his buddies, Randy Gometz, and struck up a conversation.

Before the guards knew what was happening, Gometz had reached through the bars, uncuffed Silverstein with a hidden key — and supplied him with a shank. Silverstein broke away from the guards and headed toward Clutts, now isolated at the far end of the tier. "This is between me and Clutts!" he shouted.

He stabbed the officer forty times before the dying Clutts could make it off the tier. Hours later, Silverstein's friend Clayton Fountain pulled the same handcuff trick and attacked three more guards in the control unit, fatally wounding Robert L. Hoffman Sr.

Two federal officers slaughtered in one day, on what was supposed to be the most secure unit in the entire BOP, sent the system into shock. The bureau's response was to forge ahead with the long-considered plan to turn all of Marion into a control unit while whisking Silverstein and Fountain into even more restricted quarters. (Fountain died in 2004 at the age of 48).

For years prison activists attempted to challenge the Marion lockdown in court, charging that the prison staff set about beating other prisoners and subjecting them to "forced rectal searches" as payback for the deaths of Clutts and Hoffman. In 1988, a federal judge ruled that the inmate accounts of staff brutality were simply not credible.

By that point, Silverstein and the bureau were already on the road that would lead to ADX — a place where communication among inmates, and physical contact between inmates and staff, could be strictly controlled and all but eliminated.

If the guard killings in Marion happened at any federal prison today, the perpetrators would almost certainly face the death penalty. Silverstein has suggested more than once that death would have been a more merciful option in his case.

"Even though we may not execute people by the masses, as they do in other countries, our government leaders bury people alive for life in cement tombs," he writes. "It's actually more human to execute someone than it is to torture them, year, after year, after year."

Silverstein's last taste of some kind of freedom came in the fall of 1987. Rioting Cuban prisoners broke into his special cell in the Atlanta federal penitentiary and set him loose. For one surreal week, he was able to roam the yard while the riot leaders dickered with federal negotiators over the release of more than a hundred prison staffers who'd been taken hostage.

Then the Cubans jumped him, shackled him and turned him over to the feds. Surrendering Silverstein had been high on the BOP's list of demands for resolving the situation, right up there with releasing all hostages unharmed.

Contrary to the bureau's expectations, Silverstein didn't butcher any guards during his precious days of liberty. He didn't harm anyone. He suggests the episode shows that he's not the killing machine the BOP says he is, and that he could exist in a less restrictive prison without resorting to violence.

The bureau isn't convinced. He killed Clutts.

Terrible Tommy says he's changed. He claims to have gone 21 years without a disciplinary writeup. Other long-term solitaries go berserk, smearing their cells with feces and "gassing" their captors with shit-piss cocktails. Not him.

"The BOP shrinks chalk it up as me being so isolated I haven't anyone to fight with," he writes, "but they're totally oblivious to all the petty BS that I could go off on if I chose to. I can toss a turd and cup of piss with the best of 'em if I desired. What are they going to do, lock me up?

"But I just have more self-control now, after 25 years of yoga, meditation, studying Buddhism and taking some anger-management courses. All that goes unacknowledged."

McMurray says her brother has learned a great deal about patience and suffering over the years. "He's more like the brother I knew on the outside years ago," she says. "I have spoken with the guards who deal with him every day, and they don't have a bad thing to say about him. It's the ones in administration who are trying to make it as difficult as they can for him.

"But my brother has a spirit that is unbreakable. In Leavenworth, at least he could draw. It's been more of a challenge for him in this situation, but he hasn't let it break his spirit."

The bureau doesn't care about his spiritual progress. He killed Clutts.

Silverstein has told reporters that he wants to apologize to the families of the men he killed, "even though it was in self-defense." He has recanted some oft-quoted lines from his interviews with Earley about "smiling at the thought of killing Clutts" and feeling the hatred grow every time he was denied a phone call or a visit. He says he regrets the grief he's caused and no longer seethes with hatred.

The bureau is unmoved by his repentance. He killed Clutts.

Silverstein has been cut off from the operations of the Aryan Brotherhood for decades. His story is still told among the faithful, in an effort to keep his memory alive among the younger members, but he disputes that the group is a white supremacist organization. His own paintings include an ethnically diverse array of portraits. "I think it's worth noting that Tommy is no longer a racist, if he ever was," says Prison Legal News editor Wright.

The bureau could give fuck-all. He killed Clutts.

Twice a year, prison officials hold a brief hearing to review Silverstein's placement in administrative segregation. For many years, the hearings were held in the corridor outside the Silverstein Suite in Leavenworth. Silverstein stopped attending because the result was always the same: no change. At ADX, he's taken to filing grievances, claiming that the move has left him more isolated, with fewer privileges than ever before.

"I am being punished for good conduct under ploy of security reasons," he wrote last year in a formal appeal of his situation. "The goal of these units is clearly to disable prisoners through spiritual, psychological and/or physical breakdown."

In his response, Warden Wiley pointed out that Silverstein is provided with food and medical care, "daily contact with staff members" and access to television, radio and reading materials.

"It's ridiculous to call a nameless guard that shoves a food tray through the hole in the door...a source of meaningful 'human contact,'" Silverstein fired back. "I request placement in general population."

He took his appeal to the regional office, then to headquarters, where it was swiftly denied. "You are serving three consecutive life terms plus 45 years for bank robbery and murder, including the murder of Bureau of Prisons staff," an administrator noted. "You are a member of a disruptive group and an escape risk. Your heinous criminal and institutional behavior warrant a highly individualized and restrictive environment."

Wiley declines to comment on Silverstein's treatment at his prison. Last spring, a group from Human Rights Watch was allowed to tour certain areas of ADX. The group wasn't let in Z-Unit, where Silverstein lives, or anywhere near A-Unit — the "hole," where most disciplinary cases are housed. But they saw enough to realize that the staffers who bring meals "do not converse regularly, if at all, with the inmates." Despite claims that clinical psychologists checked on prisoners every other week, "several inmates said they had not spoken to a psychologist in many months," and such conversations tended to be brief.

The group also reported that many ADX prisoners are trapped in a catch-22 predicament — they've been sent there directly after sentencing but have never been provided any opportunity to "progress" to a less restrictive setting because of the nature of their crime. Every placement review finds that the "reason for placement at ADX has not been sufficiently mitigated."

"No matter how well they behave in prison, they cannot undo the past crimes that landed them in prison, generally, and then ADX, specifically," Human Rights Watch director Jamie Fellner wrote to BOP director Harley Lapin.

Some crimes, it seems, are beyond redemption.

Silverstein got a copy of the do-gooders' report and immediately fired off a letter to the group, suggesting that they come see him in Z-Unit if they want the real story about the government's "failed and draconian penal system."

No one from the group has come to see him yet. Silverstein waits for them in his box within a box. He knows that the bureau just wants to bury him and that he turned the key himself. But he also knows he didn't build that box all on his own.

His earliest possible date of release is eighty-eight years away. He has nothing but time.