Category Archives: Crime and Punishment

Where is the Moral Line With Solitary Confinement?


Link to article:

Tommy Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for the past 27 years, longer than anyone else in the federal prison system, his lawyers say.

He is locked up at the high-security prison in Florence, Colorado, known as Supermax. The lights are always on. Guards who slip him food through a slot in his cell door usually ignore him. A few times a week, he is permitted to exercise in the recreation room — alone. Visits with his family and his lawyers are conducted through Plexiglas.

Silverstein’s isolation is the result of an unusual no-human-contact order issued by a judge in 1983, after he murdered a guard at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Marion was known at the time as the most rigorous confinement in the federal prison system.

Silverstein has referred to his solitary existence as “a slow, constant peeling of the skin.”

His attorneys, who are affiliated with the University of Denver, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in 2007, alleging that the such prison conditions violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. The lawsuit, filed in the federal district court of Colorado, is awaiting trial.

At Supermax, Silverstein, 58, practices yoga and meditates in his cell. He might catch an episode of “the Sopranos” or a reality show on the black-and-white TV in his cell. It’s his only way to see the outside world.

Recently, he’s learned to crochet, and he fills much of his time writing letters.

The article goes on for quite some time. He’s a convincted murderer, and then killed a prison guard. Is 27 years of no human contact too harsh?

He can visit with lawyers and family and friends occasionally through plexiglass, but on a limited basis.

He has a TV.

He crochets and meditates.

His sister claims he has become wiser.

However, while this guy seems to have the mental fortitude to hold up, many psychologists say this kind of deprivation of any reasonable human contact can drive someone crazy. He and his lawyers claim the death penalty would have been preferable, despite his ability to stay sane.

Where is our moral line on this? I don’t have a good answer, it’s more a “food for thought” thing. He has killed three people in prison. His “solitary confinement” isn’t the traditional kind, it’s more of a “no physical human contact” confinement. Is this akin to torture?

I just had a conversation with my 13-year-old daughter this morning, saying that one of the most difficult questions I personally deal with as a Christian. All persons are made in the image and likeness of God, and need to be treated with the dignity that their humanity deserves. However, that needs to be balanced with the need for justice. Society needs to punish violators of the law not just as a matter of justice, but also to deter others from committing crimes. Society also needs direct protection against violators of law.

There is black and white and gray everywhere in this debate. Some crimes are so reprehensible that there is universal agreement that prison time and punishment is necessary. Black and white. Some crimes are the subject of debate as to whether or not they should even be crimes, and then further to what extent they should be punishable. Grey. Some treatment of prisoners is universally – or nearly so – that they are cruel and unusual. Black and white. Others, like the situation here, can be debatable. Grey.

As a society, we really need to take these questions to prayer and weigh both sides. The balance may move or may never be achieved.