Why you should care
Because you’re paying for it.
This is second in a series on the world’s most violent prisoners.
When Thomas Silverstein first went into solitary confinement, President Ronald Reagan was talking Star Wars missile defense systems, Michael Jackson’s Thriller had hit, and Al Pacino was playing Tony Montana in Scarface. Widely considered the most violent prisoner in America, Silverstein has been in his cell 23 hours a day for the past 32 years. Since 1983.
He first cruised into California’s notorious San Quentin prison at 19 in 1971 on an armed robbery beef. The next time was 1977, for three armed robberies pulled off with his biological father and a cousin. At the tender age of 25, he was looking at a 15-year ride at Leavenworth for a heist that netted them not more than $11,000. (Sure, that money would have come in handy for the very drug problem that fueled his interest in felony.) If he was lucky, Silverstein would get out around age 40. He soon discovered that prison is about the exact opposite of luck.
Especially when he joined the Aryan Brotherhood — Silverstein was his stepfather’s name — and the murders started.
The first he may or may not have done. But while the charges were later dropped, they weren’t dropped soon enough to keep him from drawing his first life sentence and being transferred from the relatively “cushy” confines of Leavenworth and shipped off to the much heavier federal prison in Marion, Illinois. And when he showed up at Marion — a place, despite the name, not known for nuance — the racial agita of the outside world followed. When his first life sentence was overturned, Silverstein had actually killed someone.
The someone? A D.C. Blacks prison gang member. Whom Silverstein had strangled.
And because this is how prisons sometimes work, though Silverstein continued pleading innocence, a higher-ranking member of the D.C. Blacks had vowed to kill Silverstein and tried on several occasions as they had been placed in cells next to each other. He tried right up until Silverstein and another inmate killed him.
Even then, it probably wasn’t that Silverstein had killed him — after all, killings happen in prison all the time. But that Silverstein stabbed him 67 times? And then dragged the man’s bloodied and broken body all around the tier like Achilles dragging Hector? Yeah. Major institutional cause for alarm.
Enter Officer Merle E. Clutts. His fateful job was to snap that unit back into shape.
Humans, even bad ones, are social beings. Take that away and what do you have?
Sam McBride, a paroled convicted murderer who spent time in solitary confinement
Which is where the stories start to diverge. Silverstein, who had gotten into art as a way to soothe his savage beasts (much like his U.K. counterpart Charles Salvador), had started to imagine that Clutts’ attempts to snap the unit back into shape were personal, involving as they did destruction of some of Silverstein’s artwork. One day out of his cell and on his way to shower, Silverstein let Clutts walk ahead, up in front of him, and as they passed another cell another inmate handed Silverstein a shank and uncuffed him with a crudely constructed key.
Clutts never made it off the floor. “I just go all the way off,” Silverstein said in a recorded jailhouse interview with Pete Earley. “We’re fighting and stuff, but I just keep stabbing him. All I see are his hands moving and I’m stabbing … it was like a big weight was lifted off me.”
Except it wasn’t. In the immediate aftermath — including another, almost simultaneous, stabbing of a corrections officer by someone else in the Aryan Brotherhood — Silverstein was transferred to another prison. Standard operating procedure. But what wasn’t so standard was him being slapped in a “no human contact” cell. As in 23 hours a day inside, and then one hour in an enclosed exercise yard where only the sky was visible.
“It’s pretty fucking impossible to keep your sense of proportion in there,” says Sam McBride, a now-paroled convicted murderer who himself was in solitary confinement for five months. “Humans, even bad ones, are social beings. Take that away and what do you have?”
“Though I know that I want to live and have always been a survivor, I have often wished for death,” Silverstein said in an Amnesty International report. “I know, though, that I don’t want to die. What I want is a life in prison that I can fill with some meaning.” Complicated in the face of considering what that might mean in light of life at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, or ADX, one of the so-called supermax prisons, where Silverstein is currently housed. Along with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, and Zacarias Moussaoui, a 9/11 conspirator.
“No one said they were nice guys,” says McBride, “but to not attempt some form of rehabilitation is not right.”
“The courts have decided it is right,” said Eddie Williams, a former cop and corrections officer. “And the reality of it is even in prison there has to be a clear system of punishments to correct behaviors. I mean, what kind of message would it send if you could stab an unarmed guard to death in the morning and take it easy in relative comfort at night?”
A message that since 1983 Silverstein’s had 32 years to think about. And his response, as unrepentant as it is erudite, concluded that “after some long, hard years in some of America’s most cruel and harsh prisons — Soledad, San Quentin, U.S.P. Leavenworth, Atlanta, Marion and Florence — I now know exactly why the Irish dramatist, novelist, poet and wit, Oscar Wilde, said after his imprisonment for homosexual offenses … that if you ever want to see the scum of the earth, go to your local prison and observe the changing of the guards.”
Curiously enough, places where you’d expect sympathy to run deep, white pride circles, it does not at all, despite the Aryan Brotherhood pedigree. “The AB sell dope, engage in prostitution both in and out of prison, and are well-known to act as enforcers for the Mexicans,” said John Smithy, a Stormfront member. “In short, they are criminal, opportunistic trash that take payments from, work with non-whites when and if that is profitable.”
Silverstein may be going nowhere, but he is nonetheless getting and garnering attention for his art, his sole contact with the outside world that doesn’t involve sentencing issues. His portfolio reveals an untrained but steadied eye, and the world he’ll never again know is taking notice. “Nice command of the form that bristles with an interesting sort of emotionalism,” says Michael Manning, artist and author of The Spider Garden graphic novel series, assessing Silverstein’s talent after perusing his work at our behest. “Who is he?”