From Boston Globe: Colorado prison ‘a high-tech version of hell’

This article was published on April 26th, 2015 in the Boston Globe. Tom was quoted in it:

In a sworn statement as a part of a separate lawsuit filed against the Bureau of Prisons in 2011, Thomas Silverstein , who has spent more than three decades in solitary confinement after killing a guard at another federal prison, testified to the deprivation of going years without seeing “a single tree, a blade of grass, or any sign of nature.”

He described the outdoor recreation area at the ADX — where he can take 10 steps in either direction and 30 steps if he walks in a circle — as similar to standing “inside of a deep, empty swimming pool.”

“I couldn’t see any of the mountains, even though I knew they had to be close by,” he said.

He added: “Other than infrequent haircuts, strip searches, and medical examinations, the only physical human contact I have experienced in 28 years is when BOP officers handcuff me and escort me.”


Only in America

Only in America

By Tom Silverstein

In life, I feel, there are some things that one can never understand in any meaningful sense without first-hand experience. And no amount of verbalization or philosophization can ever do justice to describing the way one feels when it comes to such ordeals.

My experience of extreme seclusion with no human contact or meaningful interpersonal socialization for three decades, I believe, is just one of those things that only I will ever fully comprehend. It has been something so horrifying to the human mind that he only even remotely comparable parallel I can imagine is to be literally buried alive, not for a day or a year, but for an entire lifetime.

I alone truly know how terrifying to the human psyche this endless, utterly barbaric torture has been, and yet, since taking the matter to the courts, I have had to suffer through the stench of such pontifical puke as I never imagined a rational mind could spout.

How it is that these sheltered, robe-wearing, juridic casuists could sit up their high horses and explain away the 31 years of mental excruciation that I have endured day by unrelenting day, as though they could relate to it and therefore knew it to be neither cruel nor unusual, to me at least, is as high a height of hypocrisy as one could ever ascend.

In detailing how 31 years of no-human contact solitary confinement feels, the most recent Opinion from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissively swept aside any lack of interpersonal socialization I’ve experienced, by explaining that, indeed, I’ve had contact all along with prison officials on a daily basis when, for example, they have brought my meals or otherwise exercised their authority over me in a manner that called for physical propinquity like during thousands of strip searches when they eye-balled my anus after forcing me to spread my ass-cheeks and jiggle my genitals).

Forget about the fact that these people were extremely antipathetic and openly hateful towards me, the most reviled guard-killer in the BOP (Bureau of Prison), just the fact that they were real humans who I could, in theory at least, talk to, was enough in the mind of the court to disprove my claims of no-human-contact. And this insensibility to the true antagonistic nature of those guard-killer / prisoner-hater relationships exemplifies just how out of touch with reality the court really was.

It is beyond ludicrous to suggest that my isolation from human contact was alleviated by the contact I had with the very people who were turning the screw on my mental rack, day after agonizing day. This was not “human contact.” It was “dehumanizing contact.” And far from lessening the effects of my isolation, it exacerbated them because these people competed with each other to see who could rattle my cage the loudest (so to speak).
Another primary factor relied upon by the court in justifying my treatment was the numerous times I was “evaluated” by mental health professionals. Never mind the fact that virtually every single one of these so-called “evaluations” consisted of nothing more than a half-minute “Hi how are you?” to which I’d give the standard, albeit meaningless, reply of “Fine.” And having “examined” me in this fashion over a period of years, Dr. Denny informed the court that he was quite impressed with my apparent resilience in maintaining my sanity under such extreme conditions of confinement.

Ironically, it was this opinion by Dr. Denny regarding my “resilience” that the court fixated on in rejecting my claim of Cruel and Unusual Punishment, implying that it was my own ability to withstand the torture that prevented it from being cruel and unusual.

In other words, prison officials may feel free to torture one as much as they want as long as the individual is strong enough to bear it.

To me, the entire Opinion really begs the question of just how far prison officials can go in their inhumanity to man before the 10th circuit will call it “cruel and unusual?”
Consider, for example, the following quotation from the court:

We have held corrections officers are responsible under the Eighth Amendment “to provide humane conditions of confinement by ensuring inmates receive basic necessities of adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, and by taking reasonable measures to guarantee the inmates’ safety.”

I saw a futuristic movie on the SYFY Channel recently, about a space-based Supermax prison where prisoners were maintained in a state of suspended animation, hooked up to nutrition tubes and cryogenically preserved for the length of their sentences. This, or even Neo’s bubble-chamber existence in the Matrix, would pass Constitutional muster under the Tenth Circuit’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment standard. Food, clothing, shelter, medical care and safety-the “minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities”- if that is all the Constitution requires then we are truly not far off from induced vegetative unconsciousness as a Constitutionally acceptable form of punishment.

The point I am trying to make is that my case shows quite clearly that, when it comes to prisoners, the courts define humanity primarily in relation only to the human body and essentially disregard the human mind altogether. My being isolated from everyone but those who have openly hated me for 31 years was not a factor as far as the court was concerned. Indeed, they even went so far as to say this proved I was not deprived of human contact. How out of touch with reality does one have to be to even imply such an absurd notion? It really is one feature of the court’s Opinion that I will never be able to read without complete stupefaction. As if the only thing that prevented these people from giving me a hug was the bars of my cell.

I’m trying to think of a common example from everyday society that remotely exemplifies the degree of stress a human mind experiences from purely hate-based interactions- the tyrannical boss, the mentally abusive spouse, the irate mother-in-law; such things, while truly unpleasant and stressful, do very little justice as frames of reference to my unique experience as an object of perpetual animosity.

In no way am I suggesting that anyone (perhaps myself most especially) is constitutionally entitled to kindness or sympathy in any form. Passionless professionalism is perfectly appropriate for a prison guard. But my situation included quite the opposite of that. Instead of no passion at all, there was passion aplenty; hated, hateful and malicious. Quite often accompanied by a great many spit-laced meals and a myriad amount of other spiteful, vicious antics designed purely to antagonize me.

For the court to say the Eighth Amendment entitles me only to be kept alive with adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical attention is one thing. That may, indeed, be the extent to which our maturing society has progressed with its evolving standards of decency since the Constitution’s creation (the Supreme Court’s “Cruel & Unusual” measurement standard). And had the court stopped right there in its opinion of “how my life has felt” I would be far less incensed on this issue. But for the court to go from there, all the way to the absurdity of saying that the very people who have openly and actively reviled me every single day, equal, by essence of their presence, some sort of consolation to my isolation, bespeaks a level of misunderstanding so profound as to defy any attempt to explain it.

Only in America will you find a court conscientiously unaverse to espousing such sophistic hogwash. And only in America will you find a government system so engorged with hubris and inflated with its own self-righteousness that it cannot apprehend the degree of hypocrisy it takes to dish out the sort of torture I’ve endured with its one hand, while simultaneously using the pointed finger of its other hand to accuse the rest of the world of human rights violations that pale in comparison to its own. And when the duplicity of this “Sweet Land of Liberty” is exposed, “America, the Beautiful” will simply change its stripes to fit whatever occasion it seeks to justify.

Consider, for example, the recent exposé from Amnesty International entitled “Entombed: Isolation in the U.S. Federal Prison System” . In this scathing critique of the U.S. regarding its violations of international treaties (including the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ‘ICCPR’), Amnesty International, after detailing at length America’s solitary confinement human rights atrocities, went on to note that:

The USA has sought to limit its obligation under article 7 of the ICCPR and article 16 of The Convention Against Torture, by entering reservations upon ratification of treaties stating that it considers itself bound by article 7 and 16 only to the extent “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” means the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited under the U.S. Constitution.

In other words, what the rest of the world calls “torture,” and what to them is “cruel, inhuman and degrading,” may be cruel, but certainly not “unusual” for the U.S., because we are always (“usually”) doing it. And since the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit what is only “cruel” unless its “unusual” as well, as long as the U.S. keeps doing it, it will never be unconstitutional. So whether it be an hour’s worth of waterboarding, or 31 years-worth of extreme no-human contact entombment, in America it will never amount to what the rest of the world calls “torture,” so long as it’s par for our course of cruelties.
But only in America.

December, 2014


Tom Silverstein, Reg No 14634-116
U.S. Penitentiary Max.
P.O. Box 8500,
Florence, CO 81226-8500


Summary of a guestbook posting about Protective Custody (PC) housing

The following is a paraphrased account of Thomas Silverstein’s guestbook post on January 14th 2011 as a response to a viewer on his site. Originally on

Silverstein was first moved to a “Protective Custody” (PC) unit but was kept isolated from the others for the first few months. “D” unit was later reclassified as a “General Population” (GP) unit and a few high profile inmates joined him but most of the PC inmates remained.

He maintains that this is not safe for the PC population and the GP population is very uncomfortable with their presence there.

After years of isolation it took Silverstein a period of time to figure out how ADX operated.

When he realized who he was housed with he came to the conclusion that he was being set up in three ways.

First they seek to undermine his reputation by housing him with known informants (a practice that he has never heard of before). This makes other inmates question why he is being held there.

Secondly by surrounding him with informants the authorities hope to find a reason that they can point to keep him isolated. It doesn’t matter if the allegation is true or not, and he points out that these informants have every reason to lie in order to gain favors from staff but have nothing else to lose.

Thirdly by placing severely mentally ill inmates in adjacent cells they deprive him of rest. The howling and banging is continual and he points out that the lack of sleep hinders not only his but everyone’s ability to complete the step down program’s requirements. It also makes maintaining congenial interactions with staff difficult. Also it hinders their ability to complete the required educational classes.

He believes that there are two main reasons for mixing the mentally ill in with GP inmates trying to complete the step down program.

First staff hopes it will either drive him mad, hinder his ability to complete the program, or cause him to threaten the source of his discomfort any of which would give staff an excuse to keep him isolated.

Or he believes the staff may not want to admit that they are illegally housing the mentally ill.

He points out how informants manipulate the system to gain favors and how they attempt to involve him in their petty conflicts which incite.

He comments about the illogical shuffling of inmates between cells in a humorous account reminiscent of Abbott and Costellos’ Who’s on First skit. One of the cells has a plastic cover over the TV.

Unit “D” has been nick named Bombers row and this one cell is designed with two different inmates in mind. It seems the staff fears one of the two could build a bomb out of the electronics inside the TV but Tom asks “with what other ingredients?” Even the evil genius Ted Kaczynsk ake the Unabomber needed other ingredients. Right?

He signs off by pointing out that during the four hours it took him to write this all down the mentally ill inmate housed next to him, and connected by an air vent that allows the sound to freely enter his room, had never stopped ranting and raving in his multiple personalities. He points out that this is Cruel and Unusual Punishment and that it should not be allowed in any country. And I agree!

Federal Appeals Court Considers Tommy Silverstein’s 30 Years in Extreme Solitary Confinement

Hands behind bars, by Thomas SilversteinSeptember 25, 2013 by Jean Casella, on SolitaryWatch

Thomas Silverstein has been called “the most dangerous prisoner in America,” based on several prison murders that took place 30 years ago. He has also been called “America’s most isolated man,” based on the conditions in which he has lived during those 30 years–conditions which, Silverstein and his lawyers contend, clearly constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Silverstein’s closely watched lawsuit, a groundbreaking Constitutional challenge to solitary confinement, had another day in court yesterday as attorney Laura Rovner argued his case before a federal appeals court. A detailed story on the appeal and its significance appeared in the Colorado Independent, written by longtime solitary watcher (and now Independent editor) Susan Greene.

By law, you get 15 minutes to argue in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The rules are the rules.

Yet that rule comes across as painfully ironic in the case of a man who has spent a million times that limit — 15,778,470 minutes and counting – in prison isolation. Tommy Silverstein, 61, has lived in solitary confinement nearly half his life, and longer than any other prisoner held by the federal government.

Silverstein won’t be allowed to visit Denver’s Byron White Courthouse on Tuesday to challenge the U.S. District Court ruling that said he has been unharmed by living for 30 years alone in a cell that’s smaller than a wheelchair-accessible parking spot or a Chevy Suburban. Silverstein says he gets less than a minute per day of human contact, mainly in the form of officers passing food trays in and out of the slot in his cell door or asking “Rec?” — guard-speak for “would you like to go outside?” They mean for an hour in an isolated exercise cage known among prisoners as a “dog run.”

Silverstein is no choir boy. He robbed a bank as a young man. He was later convicted of killing two men in prison. And he led the Aryan Brotherhood, a national prison gang, through the early 1980s.

In 1983, he fatally stabbed officer Merle Clutts at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. That killing coincided with another murder of a guard by a prisoner that same day at Marion, which had replaced Alcatraz as the federal government’s highest security prison. Those murders punctuated a rash of prison violence that decade and led to a national movement to build supermax prisons made up exclusively of solitary confinement cells for prisoners who, like Silverstein, were deemed to be the “worst of the worst.” The U.S. Bureau of Prisons built its supermax, the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility – commonly referred to as ADX – in Florence, Colorado. Known as the crown jewel of the federal system, ADX is considered the most secure prison on the planet. No one has ever escaped.

Greene details the conditions in which Silverstein has lived for the last three decades in a series of supermax prisons. Those conditions were described by Silverstein himself in a lengthy brief, which we reported on here. Then Greene describes the issues at hand in the federal appeal.

Two top national prison experts said the conditions Silverstein has endured are the most severe they’ve ever encountered.

“Not only has he been subjected to the most extreme forms of isolation I have ever seen — placed in housing units that were literally designed to isolate him as completely as possible from other human beings — but he also has been confined in these places for an extraordinary length of time,” wrote Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied solitary confinement for 30 years.

Steve Martin, another noted prison expert, wrote: “The level of near total isolation from all human contact is unprecedented in my 38 years experience in corrections, which includes experience with numerous death rows and ultra-high security facilities across the U.S.”

Laura Rovner, director of the student law clinic at the University of Denver, is Silverstein’s longtime lawyer who has worked with several crews of law students representing him. On Tuesday, she’ll challenge a 2011 U.S. District Court decision that upheld the Bureau of Prison’s assertions that Silverstein’s decades in solitary haven’t deprived him of life’s basic necessities. Judge Philip Brimmer sided with the BOP’s lawyers from U.S. Attorney John Walsh’s office that the case shouldn’t go to trial.

Walsh’s office refused comment on the case.

The question before the three-judge appeals panel Tuesday morning will be whether there are factual issues in dispute that would warrant a trial. Among those are:

• The Bureau’s claim that 30 years in isolation haven’t harmed Silverstein. Experts who have evaluated him have found extensive evidence of depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, hallucinations, severe anxiety disorder, panic attacks that make his him breathless and shaky in the company of others, and paranoia that leads him to hear voices whispering to him through vents.

• The Bureau’s assertion that Silverstein is too dangerous to lessen the extreme solitary confinement conditions in which he is housed. Silverstein’s lawyers challenge this argument based on the two best predictors of a prisoner’s future dangerousness. One is age. At 61, Silverstein has statistically aged out as posing a risk of violence. Another predictor is recent behavior. His prison record has been clean for more than two decades.

Rovner will argue that Silverstein should have his day in court to determine whether 30 years in extreme isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Silverstein is not requesting anyone to lift his three life sentences. Rather, having spent years studying Buddhism in prison, he wants to demonstrate at trial that he has changed. He also wants a shot at working his way out of solitary and some day dining and playing checkers with other prisoners and hugging his two children.

“I am quickly becoming an old man. I spend most of my days crocheting items for my family and my legal counsel and working on my artwork. It is hard to reconcile the [Bureau’s] description of me as frightening and scary, when the people who see me here know I am a man peering through bifocals trying to count the number of stitches to make and afghan,” he wrote. “It’s hard, if not impossible, for me to prove what is actually in my mind and what is not. All I can do is ask that others look at my current behavior and explain that it reflects my intention never to act violently again, ever. I know the consequences – both to myself and others – that will follow. And, more importantly, I know that this is not who I wish to be.”

For Rovner and the dozens of D.U. law clinic students who over the years have revolved on and off of his case, Silverstein is an amiable and grateful client who crochets hats, mittens, scarves and blankets for them and their relatives. When he has art supplies, he uses pastels and paint to make them artwork.

That said, and despite his public apologies for his crimes, a three-time prison killer and former Aryan Brotherhood leader isn’t the most sympathetic figure in the growing national movement to end long-term solitary confinement. Silverstein’s case pivots not on redemption but on what, given all the research on the psychological harm of extreme isolation, is deemed to be cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners.

“The 8th Amendment is about what we as a society are willing to sanction as punishment. It has built into it this notion of evolving standards decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Rovner said. “The amendment doesn’t just protect people who are catatonic or floridly psychotic. It protects people from being harmed by the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities, especially for what has been an unthinkable period of time.”

In 2011, Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, issued a statement calling for an “absolute prohibition” of solitary confinement beyond fifteen days. He has asked, but not been allowed to tour ADX. The prison is the subject of a federal class action lawsuit about how it treats its mentally ill prisoners, some of whom starve themselves, self-mutilate to the point of cutting off their testicles or, as was the case with prisoner Robert Knott earlier this month, hang themselves with bed sheets.

Mental health professionals, state legislatures and human rights organizations have condemned prolonged isolation, which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a period greater than three to four weeks.

“Given that four weeks of solitary confinement was described as potentially harmful, the 30-year duration in this case compels scrutiny. If shorter periods of solitary confinement have resulted in psychological distress and symptoms, it is not unreasonable to assume that substantially longer durations provide a greater risk of serious health consequences,” several national groups and experts wrote the court on Silverstein’s behalf.

A division of the U.S. Justice Department, under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), has investigated and found violations of state prisons for the overuse of solitary confinement. Perhaps the greatest irony about Silverstein’s case is that solitary confinement as practiced by the Bureau of Prisons, also an arm of the Justice Department, is exempt from that civil rights division’s review.

Step-down Program Request Rejected by BOP

These are documents about denying Tom to be entered in a “step-down program” to prepare him for general population placement. Tom was “infraction-free” for 22 years. There is no reason of any violence that he should be denied at least a try-out in a SDP.

Sept. 16th 2011:

Intermediate Unit Referral Step Down Rejecction 9-16-2011

“Intermediate (J) Unit Referral” dated Sept. 16, 2011, rejecting Tom’s request to be entered in a Step-Down Program, without any reasonable examples, context or suggestions. Just a robotic response to a human being.


Tom’s response, Oct 27, 2011:

SDP Rejection response Tom 10-27-2011

Step-Down Program rejection response by Tom Silverstein, Oct 27, 2011

Tom’s request for “Administrative remedy”:

SDP Rejection Rq admin remedy 11-8-2011

Tom’s response on Nov 8, 2011, saying that he has not received any rule infraction for the alleged “activities,” and therefore he requests a transfer, because the staff refuses to prove to him what activity he was allegedly involved in, without having been given a ticket for it.

Tom was given the denial of his Administrative remedy request on Dec 7, 2011:

SDP rejection Response 12-7-2011

More of the same, even though Tom is in a highly segregated unit.







Federal Judge Rules 28 Years in Solitary Confinement Not “Extreme,” Dismisses Silverstein Case

Reblogged from: James Ridgeway and Jean Casella on SolitaryWatch, October 6, 2011

Thomas Silverstein, plaintiff in a potentially groundbreaking case challenging his more than 28 years of extreme solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order, has had his case dismissed by a Federal District Court judge in Denver.

Silverstein’s student attorney’s at the University of Denver law school had argued that their client’s decades of utter isolation in the depths of the federal prison system constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and also violate his right to due process. But Judge Philip Brimmer, in the ruling issued on Monday, declared that Silverstein’s conditions of confinement at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, aren’t “atypically extreme.”

Reporting in Denver’s Westword, Alan Prendergast notes that Silverstein’s “journey through the federal prison system has been anything but typical”:

[Silverstein] was convicted of four murders while in prison; one was later overturned. He’s now serving three consecutiive life sentences plus 45 years. The last killing, the 1983 slaying of a federal guard in the most secure unit of what was then the highest-security federal pen in the entire system, put him on a “no human contact” status that lasted for decades. For close to seventeen years he was housed in a specially designed, Hannibal-Lecter-like cell in the basement of Leavenworth where the lights were on 24 hours a day. In 2005 he was moved to a highly isolated range at ADX, as first reported in my feature “The Caged Life“…

Since Silverstein first filed his lawsuit in 2007, with assistance from student lawyers at the University of Denver, he’s been moved from his tomb in Range 13 to D Unit, which is considered “general population” at ADX. Inmates are still in solitary confinement and have meals in their cell, but they also have access to indoor and outdoor recreation and can shout to each other. That lessening in the general degree of Silverstein’s isolation seems to have been one factor in Brimmer’s decision to dismiss the former bank robber’s claims of enduring extreme deprivation and lack of any social contact.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials maintain that Silverstein’s placement in isolation is necessary because of his own extreme behavior — “plaintiff’s disciplinary record, in addition to the aforementioned murders, shows assaults of three staff members, a threat to a staff member, an attempt to escape by posing as a United States Marshal, and the discovery of weapons, handcuff keys, and lock picks in plaintiff’s rectum,” Brimmer notes.

But Silverstein hasn’t been cited for a disciplinary infraction since 1988, and even the BOP’s psychologists have rated the 59-year-old prisoner as having a “low” risk of violence for years.

On his official website, maintained by outside supporters — incarcerated since the 1970s, he hasn’t had much opportunity for surfing the Internet — Silverstein reports that he’s still being moved frequently from one cell to another to prevent any kind of ongoing communication with other prisoners.  “ALL they care about (obviously) is maintaining my ISOLATION, by any convoluted means necessary,” he writes.

Judge Philip Bimmer had set a court date for Silverstein’s trial in January, but has now ruled in favor of a motion by the federal Bureau of Prisons to dismiss the case. Silverstein’s lawyers, under the leadership of Laura Rovner at the University of Denver law school’s Civil Right Clinic, are consulting with their client and have not yet commented on the decision or their future plans. One possible next step would be an appeal of the judge’s decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

For more on Silverstein’s conditions of confinement, see America’s Most Isolated Federal Prisoner Describes 10,220 Days in Extreme Solitary Confinement. For details on the Silverstein case, see Fortresses of Solitude.

America’s Most Isolated Federal Prisoner Describes 10,220 Days in Extreme Solitary Confinement

May 5, 2011 by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, on SolitaryWatch

Thomas Silverstein, who has been described as America’s “most isolated man,” has been held in an extreme form of solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order for 28 years. Originally imprisoned for armed robbery at the age of 19, Silverstein is serving life without parole for killing two fellow inmates (whom he says were threatening his life) and a prison guard, and has been buried in the depths of the federal prison system since 1983.

In his current lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Silverstein contends that his decades of utter isolation in a small concrete cell violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as its guarantee of due process. (The lawsuit, brought by the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic, is described in detail in our article “Fortresses of Solitude.”) Update: On Friday, federal District Court Judge Philip Brimmer set a court date of January 23, 2012 for a jury trial in the Silverstein case.

In support of that lawsuit, Tommy Silverstein, now 59, has written a long “declaration,” the purpose of which “is primarily to describe my experience during this lengthy period of solitary confinement: the nature and impact of the harsh conditions I have endured in spite of a spotless conduct record for over 22 years, and my lack of knowledge about what, if anything, I can do to lessen my isolation.” After apologizing “for the actions that brought me here in the first place,” particularly the murder of corrections officer Merle Clutts, Silverstein contends that he has “worked hard to become a different man.” He continues, “I understand that I deserve to be punished for my actions, and I do not expect ever to be released from prison…I just want to serve out the remainder of my time peacefully with other mature guys doing their time.”

The bulk of the declaration is a detailed account of Silverstein’s experiences and surrounding in a series of what constitute the most secure and isolated housing in the federal prison system: in the notorious Control Unit at Marion, the supermax prototype; at USP Atlanta in a windowless underground “side pocket” cell that measured 6 x 7 feet (“almost exactly the size of a standard king mattress,”); at Leavenworth in an isolated basement cell dubbed the “Silverstein Suite”; on “Range 13″ at ADX Florence, where the only other prisoner was Ramzi Yusef; and finally in ADX’s D-Unit, where he can hear the sounds of other prisoners living in neighboring cells, though he still never sees them.

The following is from Tommy Silverstein’s description of his life at USP Atlanta:

The cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture.

My bed took up the length of the cell, and there was no other furniture at all…The walls were solid steel and painted all white.

I was permitted to wear underwear, but I was given no other clothing.

Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction on the side pocket cell, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was within it. In order not to be burned by sparks and embers while they welded more iron bars across the cell, I had to lie on my bed and cover myself with a sheet.

It is hard to describe the horror I experienced during this construction process. As they built new walls around me it felt like I was being buried alive. It was terrifying.

During my first year in the side pocket cell I was completely isolated from the outside world and had no way to occupy my time. I was not allowed to have any social visits, telephone privileges, or reading materials except a bible. I was not allowed to have a television, radio, or tape player. I could speak to no one and their was virtually nothing on which to focus my attention.

I was not only isolated, but also disoriented in the side pocket. This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world.

Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Frequently, I would fall asleep and when I woke up I would not know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours, and would have no idea of what day or time of day it was.

I tried to measure the passing of days by counting food trays. Without being able to keep track of time, though, sometimes I thought the officers had left me and were never coming back. I thought they were gone for days, and I was going to starve. It’s likely they were only gone for a few hours, but I had no way to know.

I was so disoriented in Atlanta that I felt like I was in an episode of the twilight zone. I now know that I was housed there for about four years, but I would have believed it was a decade if that is what I was told. It seemed eternal and endless and immeasurable…

There was no air conditioning or heating in the side pocket cells. During the summer, the heat was unbearable. I would pour water on the ground and lay naked on the floor in an attempt to cool myself…

The only time I was let out of my cell was for outdoor recreation. I was allowed one hour a week of outdoor recreation. I could not see any other inmates or any of the surrounding landscape during outdoor recreation. There was no exercise equipment and nothing to do…

My vision deteriorated in the side pocket, I think due to the constant bright lights, or possibly also because of other aspects of this harsh environment. Everything began to appear blurry and I became sensitive to light, which burned my eyes and gave me headaches.

Nearly all of the time, the officers refused to speak to me. Despite this, I heard people who I believed to be officers whispering into my vents, telling me they hated me and calling me names. To this day, I am not sure if the officers were doing this to me, or if I was starting to lose it and these were hallucinations.

In the side pocket cell, I lost some ability to distinguished what was real. I dreamt I was in prison. When I woke up, I was not sure which was reality and which was a dream.

In a summing up, Silverstein reflects on the physical and psychological effects of 28 years in solitary and on his own development as a self-taught artists and practitioner of yoga and Buddhist meditation. He reiterates his plea to be allowed into the BOP’s “Step-Down program” toward less isolated confinement. The complete declaration, which runs to 64 pages, can be read here.

Update: A declaration submitted as an exhibit in the case, by Dr. Craig Haney, one of the nation’s leading experts on the effects of prolonged solitary confinement, can be read here.