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Home > Publications > Quill > Winner: Alan Prendergast, Westword


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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Winner: Alan Prendergast, Westword

“The Caged Life”

Jim Poyser

When the goon squad showed up at his place at five in the morning, Tommy Silverstein knew something was up. He wasn’t accustomed to greeting guests at such an ungodly hour — much less a team of correction officers, helmeted and suited for action…

Silverstein could only think of a couple of reasons why so many well-padded, well-equipped officers would be at his door, ordering him to strip for a search. Cell shakedown? Time for a game of hockey, with Tommy as the puck?

In “The Caged Life,” Alan Prendergast examines the evolution of America’s highest-security prison, ADX (U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum), and the treatment of its most isolated inmate, Thomas Silverstein, who’s been in solitary confinement for 24 years.

Because access to ADX is virtually nonexistent, Prendergast pointed out, “much of the reporting involved court and government documents, Human Rights Watch reports, interviews with Silverstein associates and staff sources, heavily monitored correspondence with prisoners, and FOIA requests which revealed that no journalist has been permitted inside ADX for more than five years, contrary to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons stated policy of evaluating media requests on a case-by-case basis. The intense restrictions … present such a logistical nightmare that few reporters even try to pierce it.”

The judge lauded the piece as “Fascinating. Spellbinding. In this story of a prisoner in solitary confinement, Prendergast has proven himself to be a master storyteller capable of providing a window into a world — and person — that most of the rest of the world probably doesn’t remember or knows exists. With tenacity bordering on OCD, Prendergast succeeded in penetrating the prison walls of a man in isolation, even though authorities wouldn’t physically let him in.”

The judge added “the great ending left me breathless.”

Shortly after the Aug. 16 publication of “The Caged Life,” ADX officials allowed the first press tour of the facility since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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