Murderer Dies After 35 Years of Solitary Confinement

Court had ruled isolation didn't violate inmate's constitutional rights
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 23, 2019 5:34 PM CDT
Inmate Who Spent 35 Years in Solitary Confinement Dies
Guard towers loom over the maximum security federal prison in Colorado called Supermax.   (Chris McLean/The Pueblo Chieftain via AP)

A murderer who spent more than 35 years in solitary confinement—thought to be the longest period in federal prison history—has died. Thomas Silverstein, 67, died May 11, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said. He was put in solitary in 1983 after killing a prison guard, and had little interaction with other people since then, per CNN. Silverstein first went to prison in 1978 on an armed robbery conviction, then was convicted of killing two inmates and a prison guard. He was moved among prisons, including Leavenworth in Kansas and San Quentin in California. In an Atlanta prison, Silverstein was held in a 6'-by-7' underground, windowless cell in which the overhead light was never turned off and surveillance cameras monitored him continuously. Eventually, he was sent to Supermax in Colorado; he died in a nearby hospital after undergoing surgery in February, the Denver Post reports.

Pete Earley, a writer who was helping Silverstein write an autobiography, said the killing of the prison guard "really set the stage for Supermax." The inmate had joined the Aryan Brotherhood while at Leavenworth. “He became a mythical figure in the Bureau of Prisons," Earley said. "He was seen by inmates as a superhero, a hero of the Aryan Brotherhood, refusing to bend" to prison officials. Silverstein filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2007 seeking to end his isolation, per the Post. In 2014, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit decided that being kept in solitary confinement for three decades did not violate his constitutional rights. (How Silverstein and another inmate changed the nation's prisons.)

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