Thomas Silverstein was convicted of four brutal murders while serving time for armed robbery — and then spent the last 36 years of his life in solitary confinement.
Thomas Silverstein was a violent, lifelong prisoner who murdered four people while imprisoned. And his death in 2019 marked the end of an era, as he was the longest-held solitary confinement prisoner in American history.
Silverstein was bullied as a child and was raised to respond in kind. At the age of 19, he was arrested for armed robbery but sentenced to life in prison for murdering an inmate. He was placed on indefinite lockdown after killing another person and then stabbing a guard to death, and he spent 36 years in a soundproof cell with no lights turned off.
The Bureau of Prisons built a custom cell in Colorado’s ADX “supermax” prison to reduce violent incidents. Silverstein went nearly three decades without interacting with other people. It was “literal torture,” according to the ACLU and Silverstein.
“It’s almost more humane to kill someone immediately than it is to intentionally bury a man alive,” he said.
Thomas Silverstein Enters The System
Thomas Edward Conway’s mother Virginia had already divorced his father and married Thomas Conway when he was born on February 4, 1952, in Long Beach, California. She divorced again in 1956 to marry Sid Silverstein. Though a Silverstein, Thomas always thought of Conway as his father.
Tommy Silverstein, a young working-class boy, was routinely bullied in his working-class neighborhood because he was mistaken for Jewish. When Silverstein’s mother saw a bully named Gary walking home from school, she dragged him to her backyard and forced her son to beat him.
“I took one look at my mom and her black belt, and I took one look at Gary, and there was no choice,” Silverstein recalled. “I smacked him as hard as I could in the face.”
As a result, the next day, Gary’s father spotted Silverstein and dragged him to his house, prompting Gary to respond in kind. Conway became enraged and drove over there, throwing bricks through the window, teaching her son that two wrongs made a right.
When Thomas Silverstein was 14, he stole a car and assaulted a police officer. He recalled learning nothing but violently standing his ground while incarcerated at the California Youth Authority reform school. “I hated authority, just as I hated bullies,” he explained. Silverstein began using heroin after his release.
Silverstein was arrested in 1971 along with his cousin and Thomas Conway for committing armed robberies to finance his habit. The 19-year-old was sentenced to San Quentin Prison, only to be arrested again while on parole in 1975 — for two more armed robberies totaling $11,000 in cash.
In 1977, he was sentenced to 15 years in the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. The state’s response to Silverstein’s actions, according to Peter Earley, author of The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth, 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 United States History
Silverstein joined the Aryan Brotherhood gang in Leavenworth for protection. He carried out their heinous orders, including the murder of inmate Danny Atwell for refusing to serve as their drug mule and bring heroin inside. Silverstein was sentenced to life in prison and transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.
When reports surfaced that prosecutorial witnesses had perjured themselves, his conviction was overturned in 1985. Silverstein and another inmate, Clayton Fountain, had already murdered Robert Chappelle of the D.C. Blacks prison gang at that point.
During Silverstein’s trial, the gang’s leader, Raymond “Cadillac” Smith, was quickly transferred to Marion. While Smith planned to avenge Chappelle, Silverstein and Fountain took the chance and stabbed him 67 times before killing him. Silverstein killed again on October 22, 1983, after receiving two new life sentences.
He stabbed corrections officer Merle E. Clutts to death with a homemade key after allegedly bullying him and destroying his artwork. As a direct result of Silverstein’s murders, officials began designing the federal supermax prison at this point.
Silverstein was placed in solitary confinement, with a light in the ceiling that was always turned on, allowing for continuous video surveillance. His meals were delivered through a slot, and he was only allowed two phone calls per month. He was transferred to Florence, Colorado, in 2005.
Silverstein was instructed by Bureau of Prisons director Norman Carlson to have “no human contact” at the ADX facility. Because there was no federal death penalty for killing a guard at the time of Clutts’ murder, Silverstein was confined to an 80-square-foot cell for 23 hours per day, with one hour for exercise in a cage.
Silverstein became ill after heart surgery after 36 years in solitary confinement. His brief stay at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado, was his first break from complete isolation since the early 1980s. However, as he wrote in his memoir, dying on May 11, 2019, may have been a relief:
“Drip, drip, drip. The minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, constantly drip away with no end or relief in sight.”