How a 1983 Murder Created America’s Terrible Supermax-Prison Culture

This 1995 file photo shows the super-maximum-security federal prison in Florence, Colo.

Photo by Bob Daemmrich/AFP/Getty Images

On Oct. 22, 1983, inmates aligned with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang murdered two corrections officers at the United States Penitentiary near Marion, Ill. The reverberations from those killings are still being felt in the American prison system. The murders sent Marion into lockdown for 23 years, ushered in the era of the modern Supermax prison, and normalized the chilling idea that the only rational way to deal with violent or notorious prisoners is to lock them up in small, isolated cells and throw away the key.

In 1983 Marion was the toughest penitentiary in the federal prison system. The maximum-security complex housed some of the country’s most violent inmates, and the worst of those were put in Marion’s “control unit.” Getting placed in the control unit was akin to being buried alive. Inmates were confined to their small cells for almost 23 hours a day. When they left their cells, they were shackled, guarded, and under constant surveillance. The conditions there echoed the commandant’s line in The Great Escape: “We have, in effect, put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch that basket very carefully.”

Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain were two of those prisoners who bore watching. In 1981 Silverstein and Fountain were charged with killing a black inmate named Robert Chappelle in the Marion control unit. (They allegedly strangled him in his cell during an exercise period.) As an encore, Silverstein and Fountain killed Raymond “Cadillac” Smith, a friend of Chappelle’s who had sought to avenge his death; according to former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley, the two men “stabbed [Smith] 67 times and then dragged his body up-and-down the prison tier so that other prisoners, still locked in their cells, could see the bloody corpse.” In the wake of these murders, Silverstein thought he was being unduly harassed by Marion corrections officers, especially a guard named Merle Clutts. As Earley wrote, “Silverstein became obsessed with Clutts and spent months plotting his murder.”

The plot resolved quickly. On Oct. 22, 1983, a shackled and guarded Silverstein was released from his cell to take a shower. While in transit, another prisoner slipped Silverstein an improvised knife and a handcuff key. After freeing his hands, Silverstein stabbed Clutts approximately 40 times, killing him. Several hours later, Fountain used similar tactics to kill another guard, Robert Hoffman. The message the two men sent was clear: Even the tightest security restrictions weren’t enough to control them.

Marion officials accepted the challenge. Five days later, guards sent a message of their own, locking down the prison and allegedly exacting a measure of revenge against its inmates. In 1990 a former Marion C.O. named David Hale discussed the aftermath with Mother Jones:

I can’t describe to you—I never seen beatings like that. At least fifty guys got it, maybe more. I was only involved in seven or eight, but there was beatings every day there for a while. I had inmates ask me how long this madness was going to last. And I said, from what I seen, it better be a permanent lockdown, because when you beat a man like that, he’s gonna retaliate.

Putting Marion in permanent lockdown was an idea that had been discussed for years, and now it came to pass. For the next 23 years, the entire penitentiary effectively became a control unit. Making no pretense of rehabilitation, prison officials focused on exerting physical and psychological dominance over inmates, the vast majority of whom were permanently confined to their tiny cells, sleeping on concrete beds to which, if they caused trouble, they would be spread-eagled and chained. They were allowed 90 minutes of recreation per day, which was usually taken in the hall outside the cell. (“By comparison, in the rest of the federal prison system prisoners spend an average of thirteen hours per day out of their cells,” the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown reported in 1992.)

The conditions were brutal, and regularly denounced by human rights groups, which deemed the isolation strategy a form of torture. In 1987 Amnesty International said that “There is hardly a rule in the [United Nations] Standard Minimum Rules [for the Treatment of Prisoners] that is not infringed in some way or other” in Marion.

From the government’s perspective, however, the harsh tactics were effective. “There is no way to control a very small subset of the inmate population who show absolutely no concern for human life,” former Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Norman Carlson told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998, justifying the decision to put Marion into lockdown. “[Silverstein and Fountain] had multiple life sentences. Another life sentence is no deterrent.” After 1983 Marion’s rate of inmate murders and assaults dropped significantly, and it became one of the safest penitentiaries in the federal system.

It also became a model. Today nearly every state features at least one dedicated control-unit facility, specifically designed to house notorious or recalcitrant prisoners. The most famous of these is the Supermax facility at ADX Florence, in Colorado, where notorious inmates like Ramzi Yousef, Ted Kaczynski, and Zacarias Moussaoui are confined in a setting that resembles Marion, but allows for even less human contact. And there are plenty of others. There’s the Pelican Bay SHU in California, for instance, where conditions are so bad that inmates filed a class-action suit charging Eighth Amendment violations. Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison, home of Beltway sniper Lee Malvo, is a place where, according to Human Rights Watch, “racism, excessive violence, and inhuman conditions reign.” The Marion lockdown was the test case that made these other facilities possible; that helped normalized indefinite administrative segregation as a viable penal strategy.

Marion came out of lockdown in 2006, when the prison was downgraded to a medium-security facility. Clayton Fountain, though, spent the rest of his life in isolation in a Missouri prison. He became a lay member of the Trappist order of monks, was the subject of a book called A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk, and died in his cell in 2004. Thomas Silverstein is now kept at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Colorado. He has been held in solitary confinement since 1983, longer than any prisoner in the federal system. As Alan Prendergast wrote in Westword in 2007, Silverstein’s fate “may be the prototype of what the government has in mind for other infamous prisoners—to bury them in strata of supermax security to the point of oblivion.”

As I wrote earlier this month in a story about indefinite solitary confinement, control-unit prisons are popular in part because they appeal to law-and-order types, and in part because most people don’t generally care about what happens inside prisons. They really don’t care if a bunch of terrorists and murderers don’t get to play basketball or eat in a dining hall. Boohoo.

Indeed, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Thomas Silverstein. But it is also hard to argue that the conditions in which he is held are anything less than torturous, or that indefinitely detaining inmates in control-unit prisons should be acceptable to citizens in a democracy. As a former Marion guard told Mother Jones in 1990, “When I took administration of justice, they told us—and I believe this, though apparently the people at Marion prison don’t—you judge a society by how it treats its lowest members. Now them people at Marion are the lowest members, and if we’re to judge this society on the way they’re treating them, boy, we’re pretty pitiful.”