Thomas Silverstein: The Most Isolated Prisoner In US History Spent 36 Years In Solitary Confinement

Updated: Aug 5

Whilst serving prison time for armed robbery Thomas Silverstein was convicted of four violent murders whilst he was incarcerated. The last 36 years of his life were spent in solitary confinement.

Thomas Silverstein spent 36 years in solitary confinement
Thomas Silverstein spent 36 years in solitary confinement

Thomas Silverstein was labeled as a dangerous and extremely violent man, he was a lifelong criminal who spent the majority of his days behind bars. Whilst imprisoned he murdered four people. When he died in 2019 he held the record for the prisoner who had been held in solitary confinement for the longest amount of time in American history.

Silverstein had a rough childhood and was violently bullied from a young age, he was taught to respond in kind, and violence became the norm for him, even in his early days.

When he was 19 years old he was arrested for armed robbery, but his sentence was soon increased to life for the brutal murder of a fellow inmate. After another murder, followed by stabbing a prison guard to death, Thomas Silverstein was placed on indefinite lockdown and would spend 36 years in a soundproof cell where the lights would never turn off.

Whilst the Bureau of Prisons was trying desperately to decrease the number of violent incidents in the prison system, they built a custom cell in the ADX "supermax" prison in Colorado. This is where Thomas Silverstein would spend over three decades, where he was allowed no contact with other human beings. Silverstein described his confinement as literal torture, and the ACLU agreed with him.

“It’s almost more humane to kill someone immediately than it is to intentionally bury a man alive,” he said.

Thomas Silverstein Enters The Prison System

Born on February 4, 1952, in Long Beach, California, Silverstein's mother, Virginia had already divorced his father and remarried to a Mr Thomas Conway. In 1956, Virginia filed for divorce again, this time to marry Mr Sid Silverstein. Although now legally a Silverstein, Thomas always classed Conway as his dad.

As a youngster Thomas Silverstein was raised in a working-class neighbourhood and frequently bullied, often being mistaken for being Jewish.

One day when Silverstein's mother spotted a local boy named Gary who had been bullying her son, she dragged him into their backyard and forced her son to beat him for what he had done.

“I took one look at my mom and her black belt and I took one look at Gary, and there wasn’t any choice at all, I smacked him in the face as hard as I could.” Silverstein recalled.

His mother had unwittingly caused a vicious cycle of violence that would never cease, the following day Gary's father had seen Silverstein and dragged him back to his house for his son Gary to respond in kind.

Virginia was furious when she learned about what had happened, she drove over to the house and threw several bricks through their window - teaching her son that two wrongs do indeed make a right.

When Thomas Silverstein was 14 he stole a car and assaulted a police officer. For this crime he was sentenced to the California Youth Authority reform school, however, he later recalled that this taught him nothing apart from he had to stand his ground, violently if necessary.

“I hated authority, just like I hated bullies,”

Once he was released from his brief incarceration, Thomas Silverstein started using heroin. Silverstein would commit armed robbery to finance his new drug habit, he was arrested alongside his cousin, Gerald Hoff, and his father, Thomas Conway in 1971.

The 19-year-old was shipped off to San Quentin Prison, only be arrested again whilst on parole in 1975 - charged with two more armed robberies which yielded $11,000.

The ADX Florence "Supermax" Prison
The ADX Florence "Supermax" Prison

In 1977 Thomas Silverstein was sentenced to serve 15 years at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. The author of The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth, Peter Earley said that the state's response to Silverstein's actions would directly spur the proliferation of supermax prisons and the practice of solitary confinement. "Silverstein’s actions were responsible for ushering in a new era in modern-day corrections,” he wrote.

The Most Isolated Prisoner In American History

Whilst serving his time at Leavenworth, Thomas Silverstein joined the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang for protection. As with many members he was given some brutal tasks he must complete, one of which was killing Danny Atwell, a fellow inmate who refused to act as a drug mule and bring heroin inside the prison for the gang, Silverstein stabbed him to death. For the murder of Danny Atwell, Silverstein was handed a life sentence and transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.

In 1985 his conviction was overturned when reports surfaced that prosecutorial witnesses had perjured themselves. However, by this time, Thomas Silverstein along with another fellow inmate, Clayton Fountain, had killed another man, a member of the D.C. Blacks prison gang named Robert Chapelle.

The leader of the D.C. Blacks gang, Raymond "Cadillac" Smith was transferred to Marion during Thomas Silverstein's trial. The gang leader had the full intention of avenging the murder of Chappelle, however, Silverstein and Fountain got there first, they killed Smith, stabbing him 67 times. Thomas Silverstein now had two new life sentences hanging over his head, yet he still killed again on October 22, 1983.

Silverstein managed to unlock his cuffs using a homemade key and stabbed corrections officer Merle E. Clutts to death for allegedly destroying his artwork and bullying him. It was at this point the authorities started work on designing the federal supermax prison as a direct result of Silverstein's killings.

Thomas Silverstein was committed into solitary confinement in a cell that had the ceiling light constantly turned on to allow for uninterrupted video surveillance. Silverstein was allowed two monthly phone calls and his meals were passed through a small slot in his cell door. In 2005, he was transferred to the Florence "supermax" facility, Colorado.

Norman Carlson, who was the Bureau of Prisons director ruled that Thomas Silverstein was to have "no human contact" at the ADX facility. There was no federal death penalty at the time of Clutts' murder, Thomas Silverstein was housed in an 80 square foot cell and confined for 23 hours per day, he was allowed one hour per day to exercise inside a metal cage.

“Drip, drip, drip. The minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, constantly drip away with no end or relief in sight.” Thomas Silverstein's memoirs.

After being held in solitary confinement for 36 years, Silverstein fell ill following heart surgery. His time spent at St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver, Colorado, was his first escape from total isolation since the early 1980s.

Following his illness, Thomas Silverstein died on May 11, 2019.

Listen To Tom Silverstein's Interview With Peter Earley Here

Now you have learned about Thomas Silverstein, make sure you read about Edward Paisnel: The Beast of Jersey.


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