Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Supermax Lawsuit

Law students at my alma mater, the University of Denver College of Law, are hard at work representing an inmate who's been held in solitary confinement for more than 24 years. A federal lawsuit filed against the United States government alleges the incarceration of inmate Tommy Silverstein amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Silverstein has been in prison since 1975 and in solitary confinement since 1983.

Silverstein is held in isolation at "Supermax," the U.S. government's maximum security facility in Florence, Colorado. Affectionately known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, most individuals at Supermax are kept for at least 23 hours each day in isolation. They are housed in a 7 x 12 ft room built behind a steel door and grate. The remaining free hour is spent exercising alone in a separate concrete chamber. Prisoners rarely see each other, and the inmates' only direct human interaction is with correctional officers. Visitation from outside the prison is conducted through glass with each prisoner in a separate chamber. Church services are broadcast from a small chapel.

The suit alleges the government's "deliberate indifference has resulted in Silverstein suffering deprivations that cause mental harm going beyond the boundaries of what most human beings can psychologically tolerate. " (For a taste of Silverstein's writings go here.) The suit is prosecuted by law students Steven Baum and Amber Trzinski who are practicing under an order permitting student lawyers to appear in federal court with prior approval. During my years at DU I don't remember law clinic students involved in such an ambitious project.

Although I understand the need for maximum security facilities to house dangerous inmates, I also recognize the importance of the federal judiciary examining the practical, long-term impact of the government's policy of keeping fellow human beings totally isolated from social interaction with other people. I wish Steven and Amber luck in this endeavor and pray they get some mileage from their efforts.

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