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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
America's most dangerous prisoner?
Silverstein graphic
BBC News Online's Chris Summers investigates the case of Thomas Silverstein, a man considered so dangerous he has been isolated from the outside world for 18 years.

Thomas Silverstein is often described by the authorities as America's most dangerous prisoner.

In the six years after he was jailed for armed robbery in 1977 he killed two fellow inmates - and stabbed to death prison guard Merle Clutts. He was cleared of a third murder.

Silverstein's drawings
Silverstein's pictures appear on Mr Earley's website
At the time, the murder of a federal prison guard was not a capital offence and Silverstein was sentenced to life in jail - the maximum term available.

After the murder of Mr Clutts, in Marion penitentiary in Illinois, he was placed on "no human contact" status.

Silverstein, now 49, spends his days in a specially-designed cell deep in the bowels of Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas.

The lights are allegedly kept on 24 hours a day for security reasons.

Guards refuse to talk to "Terrible Tom" out of respect for Mr Clutts.

At the time of Mr Clutts' death, Silverstein was one of the leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), the most powerful white gang in the US prison system.

Silverstein's victims
22 Nov 1981: Robert Chappelle of DC Blacks gang
27 Sep 1982: Raymond 'Cadillac' Smith, leader of DC Blacks.
22 Oct 1983: Merle Clutts, prison guard
Silverstein has always claimed Mr Clutts had been persecuting him but the prison authorities said he should have raised his grievances through the proper channels.

At Marion he was held in his cell for 23 hours a day but he took his one opportunity to kill the guard.

As he returned, handcuffed, from the shower block Silverstein walked over to chat to an AB friend, Randy Gometz.

Gometz suddenly produced a stolen key and unlocked Silverstein's cuffs.

Silverstein leaned through the bars and pulled a shank (improvised knife) from Gometz's waistband before stabbing Mr Clutts 20 times.

After the murder he was moved to a special cell in Atlanta, Georgia, but was freed by a gang of Cubans during a riot in 1987. He was recaptured - traded in by the Cubans - and moved to Leavenworth.

Tommy Silverstein
Silverstein says the Bureau of Prisons is being vindictive
For the past 14 years he has been kept in a special cell at Leavenworth, one of America's toughest jails.

But is the treatment meted out to Silverstein "cruel and unusual punishment" as forbidden by the eighth amendment of the US constitution?

Author Pete Earley, who wrote a book about Leavenworth called The Hot House, was given special permission to visit Silverstein in 1987.

Silverstein, who was originally jailed for armed robbery, told him he had been brutalised by his years in prison and said: "I didn't come in here a killer, but in here you learn hate."

He told the author: "The insanity in here is cultivated by the guards. They feed the beast that lingers within us all."

Mr Earley has corresponded with Silverstein over the last 14 years and told BBC News Online: "We've become friends. I'm not saying he's innocent, but he's smart, articulate and has some interesting views."


It has reached the point where the (white) inmates consider him a saint, on a par with Nelson Mandela, while the guards consider him to be the devil incarnate.

Pete Earley, author
Mr Earley said: "There is no reason for them to keep the lights on 24 hours a day. That's just done out of spite. They say it's so the cameras will work, but there is technology in place which makes a nonsense of that."

He said it was difficult for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to reduce security around Silverstein because it would be seen by prisoners as a "climbdown".

Incentive to behave

He said views of Silverstein have polarised: "It has reached the point where the (white) inmates consider him a saint or a martyr, on a par with Nelson Mandela, while the guards consider him to be the devil incarnate.

"What the BOP should do is move him to a supermax, such as the one in Florence, Colorado, and give him an incentive to behave. They need to make him less famous."

But Mr Earley believes it is unlikely Silverstein will be released into the wider prison population and says: "I'm convinced he's going to die in that cell."

Silverstein
Another of Silverstein's sketches
Catherine Morton, 37, who lives in Jersey, began writing to Silverstein last year after he was mentioned in a BBC documentary.

They have become pen pals and she says: "At the end of the day he is a human being. He is a victim of a system which brutalises people."

Ted Sellers, a black former convict who met Silverstein during 25 years spent in jail, said he became a "legend" at Leavenworth.

Sellers, speaking from his home near Detroit, told BBC News Online: "He is not as bad as they portray.

"Sure he is dangerous if they push him to the wall. But there were some dirty rotten guards at Marion.

"They would purposely screw you around. You are dealing with a person locked up 23 hours a day. Of course he's got a short fuse."

Leavenworth factfile
Apache Indian chief Geronimo held at nearby Fort Leavenworth after his capture in 1886.
The first federal penitentiary was opened on the site in 1906.
William Stroud, the man on whom the film Birdman of Alcatraz was based, held between 1916 and 1942.
Homosexual serial killer Carl Panzram hanged there in 1930 for killing a guard.
In 1987 about 700 Cuban criminals, part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, were moved to Leavenworth after rioting in a Louisiana camp.
Leavenworth's executive assistant, Claude Chester, told BBC News Online: "His circumstances and conditions are a result of his prior crimes and behaviour."

He denied that Silverstein was held under "no human contact" status and said he would see prison guards, medical staff and chaplains.

But Mr Chester said: "If there is no previous established relationship between an individual and a potential visitor our policy precludes visiting."

He denied the lights were kept on 24 hours a day and said: "Lighting is always appropriate."

Kara Gotsch, of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said she was not aware of Silverstein's case but was litigating on behalf of two other prisoners who were held in "supermax" jails.


His circumstances and conditions are a result of his prior crimes and behaviour.

Claude Chester, executive assistant, Leavenworth
She told BBC News Online: "In the supermax prisons inmates are locked down for 23 hours, and the one hour they are released for consists of solo recreation, usually in a concrete cage."

Ms Gotsch said they maintained that such a level of isolation was "cruel and unusual punishment" which is forbidden by the US constitution.

She said Silverstein may be a multiple murderer but said: "He is still entitled to protection by the constitution".

But she said being "tough" on prisoners was currently very popular among US politicians.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Pete Earley, author of a book about Leavenworth
"He has survived by feeding on the hate"
Pete Earley
"His case calls into question what is torture"
See also:

19 Feb 99 | Americas
'Race killer's prison boast'
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