Death, Yes, but Torture at Supermax?

Taken from: The Atlantic, June 4th 2012
Written by Andrew Cohen:

A new federal lawsuit alleges that officials at America’s most famous prison are legally responsible for the suicide of an inmate.

Jose Martin Vega was no saint. Convicted in 1995 of 15 counts of racketeering and armed drug trafficking, he was sentenced, at the age of 20, to four consecutive life sentences. Nine years after his conviction, and after a violent confrontation at another maximum security federal prison, Vega found himself at the United States Penitentiary — Administrative Maximum (“ADMAX” or “ADX”) near Florence, Colorado. As its name suggests, this lonely place is where America sends many of its most troublesome prisoners.

Vega first came to ADX on April 5, 2004. Six years and 26 torturous days later he was dead — at the age of 35. On May 1, 2010, using a bed sheet, Vega hanged himself in his cell in the control unit of the prison, an especially isolating part of the facility. Although Vega was not shackled when he hanged himself, the photos contained in the coroner’s report show an unconscious man shackled at the hands and feet while prison officials are administering rescue efforts. At ADX, in the control unit especially, even the dead or dying are shackled.

Fremont County Deputy Coroner Carlette Brocious estimated the time of Vega’s death at 9:10 a.m., but she noted in her report that “the scene of the death was ‘cleaned up’ when I sought to go out to the prison to finish my investigation. Therefore, I was unable to go to the scene of the death, see the cloth utilized as a ligature or talk to anyone other than the attending PA [physician assistant] regarding the decedent.” She had first seen Vega’s body hours later, at a local hospital, where it had been brought, still shackled, by prison officials.

Brocious also noted in her report that she talked with two prison health officials about Vega and was told by Mark Kellar, ADX’s health administrator, “that the decedent had a long psychiatric history. … As to whether or not the decedent had ever attempted suicide previously neither men could tell me.” That “psychiatric history,” and how ADX officials dealt with it in Vega’s case, is at the heart of an important new federal lawsuit that seeks to dig down deeper into ADX’s mental health policies and practices.

Why should we care about how our most difficult prisoners are treated? Why should we interfere with a “prison code,” expressed or implied, that emphasizes both the use of official force and the denial of official help to humiliate and ultimately control inmates? The answers are both simple and complex. Because we tell the world (and each other) that we are an enlightened nation of laws and not a medieval land of barbarism. Because even our harshest prison isn’t supposed to be the Tower of London.

THE PRISON

You probably know ADX better by its stage name, “Supermax,” the forbidding place that houses such criminal luminaries as Terry Nichols, Ramzi Yousef, and Ted Kaczynski as well as hundreds of other, less notable prisoners. When I visited the facility in 2007 as part of a media tour that was carefully choreographed by the Bureau of Prisons, I found the place sterile and soulless. But the hard-ass approach to incarceration was obvious, right down to the tiny circus-like cages where some of the men — one at a time, of course — are permitted to briefly exercise.

Today, Supermax is the most famous prison in America, a worthy if far less visible heir to Alcatraz out in California. When 60 Minutes did a memorable piece on ADX in October 2007, Scott Pelley interviewed one of its former wardens, a man named Robert Hood. Pelley asked Hood why he had been so excited to come to Florence when the job opportunity presented itself. “In our system,” Hood answered, “there’s 144 prisons. And there’s only one Supermax. It’s like the Harvard of the system.”

Read the rest here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/06/death-yes-but-torture-at-supermax/258002/

ADX Prison Transfer Didn’t Violate Terrorists’ Due Process Rights

From: FindLaw 10th Circuit Blog
By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 20, 2012

The ADX Florence supermax prison has been described as “the Alcatraz of the Rockies” and “a clean version of Hell.” It’s not surprising that prisoners hope to avoid the secluded facility in Central Colorado. But should transfer to ADX Florence come with due process rights?

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t think so.

Airplane hijacker Omar Rezaq and 1993 World Trade Center bomb conspirators Mohammed Saleh, Ibrahim Elgabrowny, and El-Sayyid Nosair — all of whom are currently incarcerated in the federal prison system — lost an appeal this week regarding their transfer to ADX Florence. The plaintiffs had claimed that they have a liberty interest in avoiding transfer without due process to ADX Florence, where they were formerly housed. The district court disagreed, finding that the plaintiffs lack a cognizable liberty interest in avoiding confinement at ADX.

The plaintiffs were initially assigned to general population units at U.S. penitentiaries. They were each subsequently transferred to the general population unit at ADX Florence between 1997 and 2003. The prisoners claim they did nothing while in custody to warrant increased confinement, and that the government offered no legitimate chance to show that they could return to lower-security prisons. The government said the nature of their crimes made the move necessary, reports The Denver Post. The plaintiffs did not receive hearings before they were transferred to ADX.

In the penological context, not every deprivation of liberty at the hands of prison officials is a constitutional issue because incarcerated persons retain only a “narrow range of protected liberty interests.” A protected liberty interest only arises from a transfer to harsher conditions of confinement when an inmate faces an “atypical and significant hardship … in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”

Read the rest here

Related Resources:

Rezaq v. Nalley (Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals)
Crumbling Prison Doesn’t Qualify as Eighth Amendment Violation (FindLaw’s Tenth Circuit Blog)
No Credit for Time Served, No Problem (FindLaw’s Tenth Circuit Blog)

Thomas Silverstein: Judge rules conditions at supermax not "extreme"

The following story from Denver Westworld shows that the judge in Tom Silverstein’s case is not informed about what solitary confinement can do to a human being. Maybe he does not have to be informed, but to us as ordinary persons it is very strange to see that a human being, who has been in extreme isolation since 28 years, is not allowed to live with lesser punitive restrictions. Because keeping a person locked up in a dungeon for years and then in a supermax where he is moved repeatedly in order to not be able to talk to others IS intentionally cruel and permanently punitive. The added drawing by Tom shows his cell that was specially built to isolate him to the utmost form all others, except for a few guards. So the question rises: what kind of “good behavior” can a prisoner in isolation show to make it out to general population again? Tom Silverstein went without a write up for years on end (since 1988). This alone makes it retaliation and torture, if he is not allowed to better himself!

For all who want to read about Tom’s life inside and others at Leavenworth Federal prison, please read the book The Hot House, by Pete Earley, a journalist who was allowed to go inside for a considerable amount of time and write a book about his findings.

We hope that an appeal is possible and that judges will see that isolating human beings from each other for such extreme amounts of time is only punitive and retaliatory and does nothing to correct someone. It is extreme revenge.

One more note: Tom is not allowed any visitors who have never met him since his incarceration, so that leaves him with very few visitors… Also, it is known to us that mail to Tom does disappear. So maybe these judges should check these important issues too.

From: Denver Westworld Blogs
By Alan Prendergast Wed., Oct. 5 2011

Federal judges in Denver are of two minds about the kind of punishment doled out at the supermax penitentiary in Florence. While one is allowing a Tanzanian terrorist’s complaint about the prison’s restrictions on his mail and visitors to proceed to trial, another has thrown out Thomas Silverstein’s lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment as a result of more than a quarter-century of solitary confinement.

Conditions at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, aren’t “atypically extreme,” Judge Philip Brimmer ruled.

Silverstein isn’t subject to the “special administrative measures” reserved for convicted terrorists at ADX, which severely limit their ability to communicate with any outsider, even family or legal counsel. But his journey through the federal prison system has been anything but typical.

A former Aryan Brotherhood leader, “Terrible Tommy” was convicted of four murders while in prison; one was later overturned. He’s now serving three consecutiive life sentences plus 45 years. The last killing, the 1983 slaying of a federal guard in the most secure unit of what was then the highest-security federal pen in the entire system, put him on a “no human contact” status that lasted for decades. For close to seventeen years he was housed in a specially designed, Hannibal-Lecter-like cell in the basement of Leavenworth where the lights were on 24 hours a day. In 2005 he was moved to a highly isolated range at ADX, as first reported in my feature “The Caged Life” (which also appears, with a coda, in The Best American Crime Reporting 2008).

Since Silverstein first filed his lawsuit in 2007, with assistance from student lawyers at the University of Denver, he’s been moved from his tomb in Range 13 to D Unit, which is considered “general population” at ADX. Inmates are still in solitary confinement and have meals in their cell, but they also have access to indoor and outdoor recreation and can shout to each other. That lessening in the general degree of Silverstein’s isolation seems to have been one factor in Brimmer’s decision to dismiss the former bank robber’s claims of enduring extreme deprivation and lack of any social contact.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials maintain that Silverstein’s placement in isolation is necessary because of his own extreme behavior — “plaintiff’s disciplinary record, in addition to the aforementioned murders, shows assaults of three staff members, a threat to a staff member, an attempt to escape by posing as a United States Marshal, and the discovery of weapons, handcuff keys, and lock picks in plaintiff’s rectum,” Brimmer notes.

But Silverstein hasn’t been cited for a disciplinary infraction since 1988, and even the BOP’s psychologists have rated the 59-year-old prisoner as having a “low” risk of violence for years.

Read the rest here

Federal Lawsuit Challenges 27 Years of Supermax Confinement

SolitaryWatcch.wordpress.com
March 26, 2010

by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

A suit brought by law students on behalf of one of the nation’s most most notorious supermax prisoners could break new ground in challenging long-term solitary confinement on Constitutional grounds.

Earlier this year, we wrote about the case of Thomas Silverstein, who has now spent 27 years in solitary under a “no human contact” order–and who recently sued the Bureau of Prisons with the help of the Civil Rights Law Clinic at the University of Denver. This week, a decision by a federal district court judge cleared the way for the case to move forward. Alan Prendergast, of the Denver weekly Westword, reported on these latest developments.

When you’ve spent your time since the early days of the Reagan years in a cell smaller than some people’s closets, progress tends to get measured in small, small increments rather than sweeping events.

But Thomas Silverstein, America’s most isolated federal prisoner, got some momentous news today. His lawsuit challenging his decades of solitary confinement is still alive.

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer has ruled that Silverstein’s case, which raises questions about possible constitutional violations in the way the U.S. Bureau of Prisons consigns prisoners to administrative segregation for years or even decades, can move forward — a decision that could have implications for other federal prisoners in solitary, too.

A bank robber who was convicted of killing two inmates while serving time in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, Silverstein was put under a “no contact” order after he managed to murder a correctional officer at the high-security pen in 1983. Since that time, he’s been in basement isolation cells with buzzing lights, in his own wing of the Leavenworth pen, and, since 2005, buried in the bowels of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX) in Florence…

Prison officials have contended that the extreme degree of isolation Silverstein has endured — including little or no communication with other inmates and entire years spent without leaving his cell — is necessary, in light of his violent history. But in 2007, law students at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law filed suit on his behalf, challenging his long confinement as cruel and unusual punishment and for lack of due process.

Brimmer’s ruling dismisses some of Silverstein’s claims against individual defendants, but leaves intact his Fifth and Eighth Amendment claims against the BOP. Although the case is still a long way from trial, DU law professor Laura Rovner views the ruling as a rare victory in civil-rights activists’ efforts to challenge the nature of solitary confinement itself.

In an email to Solitary Watch earlier this week, Laura Rovner explained the significance of the judge’s decision:

Probably the most significant part is the decision on the Eighth Amendment claim, as it is one of only two or three in the entire country where a court has held that solitary confinement alone is enough to state a claim for cruel and unusual punishment, even absent mental illness or other physical harm.

We anticipate and hope that this decision will have a positive impact on the ability of litigators across the country to challenge the disturbing trend of holding individuals in solitary confinement indefinitely.

Photo: Self portrait by Tommy Silverstein

Silverstein, who is now 57, is believed to have been held in complete and continuous isolation for longer than any other federal prisoner. The suit filed by Rovner and her students alleges that the government’s “deliberate indifference has resulted in Plaintiff suffering deprivations that cause mental harm that goes beyond the boundaries of what most human beings can psychologically tolerate.”

The full text of the judge’s decision in the case can be found here.

For more on Tommy Silverstein, see Alan Prendergast’s 2007 article The Caged Life.

America’s “Most Isolated Man” Sues the Bureau of Prisons

Article written and published on SolitaryWatch, on 21 January 2010



by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

Tommy Silverstein has spent 26 years in federal supermax prisons under a “no human contact” order. Now, with the help of students at the University of Denver’s law school, he is one of a handful of prisoners who are challenging long-term solitary confinement on Constitutional grounds.

Silverstein, now 57, was first sent to San Quentin for armed robbery in 1971, when he was 19. By age 23 he was in Leavenworth, where he was active in the Aryan Brotherhood. After his conviction for the murder of a fellow prisoner (which was later overturned), he landed in the control unit of the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. There he was convicted of killing two more prisoners, and then a guard, whom he managed to stab while being walked, in shackles, back from the shower. Back at Leavenworth, ”Terrible Tommy” was placed in a remote underground cell known as the “Silverstein Suite,” where he remained until 2005, when he was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum in Colorado, better known as ADX.

Alan Prendergast has been reporting on ADX for more than a decade for Denver’s weekly Westword, and in 2007 he wrote the definitive piece on Tommy Silverstein, called “The Caged Life.” As he describes it:

Located two miles outside of the high-desert town of Florence, ADX is the most secure prison in the country, a hunkered-down maze of locks, alarms and electronic surveillance, designed to house gang leaders, terrorists, drug lords and other high-risk prisoners in profound isolation. Its current guest list is a who’s who of enemies of the state, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, plane bomber Dandenis Muñoz Mosquera, abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph and double-agent Robert Hanssen.

When it opened in 1994, ADX was hailed as the solution to security flaws at even the highest levels of the federal prison system. Much of the justification for building the place stemmed from official outrage at the brutal murders of two guards in the control unit of the federal pen in Marion, Illinois, during a single 24-hour period in 1983. The first of those killings was committed by Thomas Silverstein, who was already facing multiple life sentences for previous bloodshed at Marion. The slaying of corrections officer Merle Clutts placed Silverstein under a “no human contact” order that’s prevailed ever since, and it gave the Bureau of Prisons the perfect rationale for building its high-tech supermax. Although he never bunked there until 2005, you could call ADX the House that Tommy Built.

Even within ADX, Silverstein is in a special restrictive unit where only one other prisoner, World Trade Center bomber Ramsey Yusuf, is housed, and where there is virtually no contact with prison staff. The man once branded “America’s most dangerous prisoner” is now described, on a web site maintained by his supporters, as its “most isolated man” (which, with the exception of terrorism suspects held under SAMs, he may well be).

Silverstein claims he is also a changed man. He has taught himself to read, write, and draw in prison, and is an accomplished artist. He says he’s learned self-control, and he hasn’t had a disciplinary writeup in 20 years. “The BOP shrinks chalk it up as me being so isolated I haven’t anyone to fight with,” he wrote to Alan Prendergast, “but they’re totally oblivious to all the petty BS that I could go off on if I chose to. I can toss a turd and cup of piss with the best of ‘em if I desired. What are they going to do, lock me up?”

But students at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, who filed a suit on his behalf in federal court in late 2007, aren’t claiming that Tommy Silverstein is now a nice guy. They’re arguing that his conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and also violate his Fifth Amendment right to due process. The suit filed by Civil Rights Law Clinic at DU, which has also represented other ADX inmates, alleges that the government’s “deliberate indifference has resulted in Plaintiff suffering deprivations that cause mental harm that goes beyond the boundaries of what most human beings can psychologically tolerate.”

Read the rest here.

Drawings by Tommy Silverstein