Con Heir

Meet a truly dangerous prisoner. Literate. Political. Published. His teacher: the Birdman of Alcatraz.

"I'm going to come across to you as being an absolute extremist, a fanatic, that sort of thing," Carey says, his voice as raspy and oracular as that of John Huston narrating the Bible in some cheesy Hollywood epic. "But I'm not a hypocrite. I won't shoot the con on you. I've got nothing to gain by it."

Carey is one of the last of a dying breed of old-time convicts, polite yet persistent, and one of the last living links to Stroud and his suppressed manuscript. But he's no fossil. With his acid-tongued anti-government rhetoric, his constant squawking about Orwellian conspiracies and malfeasance in high places--from the BOP's efforts to censor prisoners' mail to several recent brutal inmate deaths in Florence and elsewhere that he believes involved some degree of official culpability--he sounds like a cell-house version of the militia movement. Like the black-chopper boys, like the legendary Birdman, he's chosen the mantra of vengeance: Don't get mad; get even.

"When I got out the first time," he says, "my dream was one thing. I wanted revenge. I wasn't going to go up on a tower with a machine gun and shoot a lot of innocent people. That isn't civilized. But I knew I had to write a book."

In a conversation once, I asked Stroud if he couldn't have gained his freedom from prison many years earlier had he but given in to the officials to the amount I indicated in the tiny space between my forefinger and thumb. He arose dramatically from the chair in which he was sitting at the library table and said, "Of course I could have. But then I wouldn't be Robert Stroud!"

--When the Doors Break!

James Carey first laid eyes on the Birdman in the library of the Federal Medical Center in the early 1960s. Assigned to a job in the library after months in the hole, Carey soon encountered a pale, thin, elderly character who, with his bald head and beaklike nose, bore an uncanny resemblance to a baby bird--a newborn buzzard, perhaps.

Stroud, who'd recently been transferred from the soon-to-be-closed Alcatraz, was enjoying a degree of freedom he hadn't experienced in decades; at Springfield, he was allowed to mingle with the general population for the first time since 1916 and to work as a bookbinder. His reputation as a tough hombre and a self-made scholar, a thorn in the side of the entire BOP, preceded him, and Carey was eager to make his acquaintance.

"I made it my business to talk to him," Carey says. "What a mind. This man could go back to the first dynasty of China and bring you up to date."

Carey had a hunger for the kind of education Stroud could provide. The way he tells it, it was his desire for learning that had landed Carey at the Federal Medical Center in the first place; he had been sent there for psychological evaluation because of his "adverse behavior" while in prison, including his insistence that he be allowed to take college correspondence courses.

Born and raised in Detroit, one of nine children in a bustling Irish Catholic family, Carey had drifted from job to job with little purpose. He'd joined the Army at seventeen, too late for World War II and too early for Korea; in 1950 his unit headed home from Japan only four days before North Korean troops poured across the 38th parallel. After his discharge, he worked in a utility company, as an oiler on a ship, and at several other odd jobs before returning to Detroit, "where I exercised my American birthright to fail in business." Having borrowed money from friends to open a hamburger stand, Carey fell in with an ex-con who convinced him to try to shore up the struggling operation with petty burglaries and safecracking.

The crime spree netted Carey a five-year federal sentence and two concurrent state sentences of three to fifteen years. In 1957, at the age of 27, he entered a federal prison in Indiana. He soon ran afoul of officials there over his attempt to obtain correspondence courses from the University of California that hadn't been authorized under the BOP's education program. Officials intercepted his mail; Carey's response was to refuse his work assignment. He was sent to the hole, then to a strip cell, an experience he describes in detail in his book:

These special cells were kept in blind darkness and were without running water; a round hole in the floor served as a toilet which could only be flushed from outside the cell. By merely refusing to step on the flush button, the guards were able to add to a prisoner's discomfort; he was thus compelled to eat his bread and water in the midst of the offensive odor of his own excrement...My attitude qualified me for one of the strip cells, and I am proud of the fact that I broke all previous records by remaining in that strip cell forty-eight days without ever uttering a complaint.

Carey viewed the contest of wills as a crucial matter of principle--his right to pursue an education without bureaucratic interference. The BOP hierarchy, though, saw it as insubordination, possibly complicated by mental illness. Diagnosed as "antisocial with a sociopathic personality" by a prison doctor, Carey was shipped off to the Federal Medical Center, where the conflict escalated.

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