Academics and Research

DU law clinic files federal Supermax lawsuit

The Sturm College of Law Student Law Office filed suit Nov. 28 in federal court against the U.S. government, alleging the incarceration of longtime inmate Tommy Silverstein amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Silverstein, 55, has been in prison since 1975 and in solitary confinement since 1983. 

Convicted of killing two inmates and a guard while incarcerated, Silverstein is held in isolation at the government’s administrative maximum facility in Florence, Colo., known as “Supermax.”

The length of time in solitary is the longest since Robert Stroud, the legendary “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who died in 1963 after 42 years in solitary. But even Stroud was allowed to interact through bars with other inmates. Silverstein is allowed no human contact and is kept inside a soundproof cell.

The suit alleges 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.”

Visiting Professor Dan Manville and Associate Professor Laura Rovner are working with law students Steven Baum and Amber Trzinski, who will practice under an order that permits student lawyers to appear in federal court with prior approval. Earlier this year, Rovner led a team of student lawyers, overturning a federal Bureau of Prisons rule barring inmates from publishing articles and stories under their own name.

Manville says participating in any of Sturm’s law clinics places heavy demands on students but pays big rewards. Students are required to sign up for a full year and to commit at least 20 hours per week to the clinic. But they get the chance to write briefs and argue cases in court in front of judges and against professional attorneys.

“They get to put into practice everything that they have learned in the classroom. They actually litigate,” Manville says. 

Students wrote the suit Manville filed in federal court. All he did was supervise and question each step they took to make them think through their problems and find their own solutions.

Silverstein’s case is unique because he has been in solitary so long, and the case is likely to raise many complicated questions. It probably will not go to trial for at least a year, Manville says.

Manville, who joins Rovner at the clinic this year, has worked for the National Prison Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and in private practice, specializing in prisoners’ rights.

The government reports the Supermax facility in Florence, Colo., houses offenders requiring the tightest controls. The Washington Post notes other inmates held there include “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “Unabomber” Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

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