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America's most isolated prisoner described the horror of spending 10,220 days in extreme solitary confinement

America's most isolated prisoner described the horror of spending 10,220 days in extreme solitary confinement

Thomas Silverstein was serving a life sentence for three murders, including that of a prison officer

The prisoner who spent the longest time in solitary confinement out of all prisoners in the USA once described what his life was like with almost no interactions with others whatsoever.

Thomas Silverstein was described as America’s ‘most isolated man’ and was under a ‘no human contact’ order for 28 years of his sentence.

In total, he spent 42 years in prison, spending the final 36 years of his life in prison before dying in 2019 at the age of 69.

Silverstein was first imprisoned for armed robbery aged 19-years-old, but was then sentenced to life without parole for killing two other prisoners and a prison guard in brutal fashion.

In a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which was later dismissed in 2011, Silverstein argued that his decades of silent isolation within a small concrete cell violated US Constitutional laws on cruel and unusual punishment.

A prison photo of Thomas Silverstein.
Federal Bureau of Prisons

He wrote a lengthy ‘declaration’ in which he aimed ‘primarily to describe [his] experience during this lengthy period of solitary confinement’.

Silverstein went on to discuss ‘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’.

In that document, he first apologised for his actions that landed him in prison, specifically the killing of a corrections officer called Merle Clutts.

He continued: “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.”

Silverstein, who was a member of the white supremacist group, Aryan Brotherhood, murdered two other prisoners as well as Clutts.

But because of his murder of a fellow corrections officer, he said officers at his prison refused to speak with him out of respect to their former colleague.

During his time, he was kept in a variety of incredibly isolated and locked-down cells at various prisons, and at some times could hear other prisoners but not see them.

Of his time in USP Atlanta, he wrote: “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.”

He continued: “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 there 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."

Silverstein was kept in isolation for longer than any US prisoner. Credit Pexels
Silverstein was kept in isolation for longer than any US prisoner. Credit Pexels

Adding: “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…”

Silverstein's mugshot following an arrest for armed robbery in 1975.
State of California

As for his allotted exercise time, he said: “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…

“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.”

Whilst it sounds like an absolute nightmare beyond comprehension, it's worth remembering what Silverstein did, and the group he was affiliated with, before feeling too sympathetic.

Featured Image Credit: Long Beach Police/Getty Stock Images

Topics: US News, Crime, True crime