The Artist Who Lives in Isolation 24/7

Thomas Silverstein entered the federal prison system in 1975 after he was convicted of 3 bank robberies. He was just 19 years old. In 1978, he was convicted of murder for killing an inmate who had run afoul of the Aryan Brotherhood, the most feared white gang in prison. Silverstein, who was a member of the AB, was sent to the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, the harshest in the country at the time. It wasn’t long before he murdered another inmate, after which he was placed in solitary. He was stripped down to his boxer shorts and the lights in his cell were kept on 24 hours a day. Shortly after, security cameras were installed in his cell and two guards were posted outside his cell to watch him around the clock. After 6 months, Silverstein was given a few privileges, such as a television set and drawing materials. He immediately began drawing, becoming a self-taught artist. In 1989, the prison placed him at the end of the Special Housing Unit (SHU) — a “prison inside a prison” — where a special cell built just for him was dubbed the “Silverstein Suite.” He was kept in his cell for 23 hours a day, allowed into a recreation cage for one hour a day. There’s a visiting room attached to the recreation cage, but since the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t allow Silverstein to have visitors, it’s never been used. His whole world consists of 3 rooms — his cell and the 2 recreation cages. The only time he sees other humans is when food is brought to his cell. He has been kept under “no human contact” conditions since 1983. The government reviews Silverstein’s isolation status every 6 months, but so far has seen no reason to move him into general population. He is considered in sound mental condition despite his long term segregation and lack of visitors. Once a month, a prison psychologist visits Silverstein to ask how he's doing. If Silverstein shows anger or complains about his conditions, the psychologist knows that he is “mentally stable,” since that reaction is considered a normal one. Meanwhile, Silverstein occupies his time by drawing, and it turns out that he’s a pretty decent artist.