Con Heir

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

Carey, of course, rejects the suggestion that his hero was a con artist and a predator. In between prison terms, he has visited Alcatraz four times since he met Stroud, seizing the opportunity to challenge the tour guides' official spiel about the evil Birdman with his own reminiscences about an unvanquished spirit and his unceasing quest to develop the mind.

"The irony is, this guy was more of a Christian than any Christian I met in prison," Carey says. "He would never hesitate to help another prisoner. He could have got out of prison if he played the game, but he refused to do that."

About 15 years ago, the FedBOP discontinued allowing prisoners to receive Christmas packages from home, and they did this ostensibly to cut off the flow of drugs. The real reason was that Christmas packages were something very personal, something a prisoner's loved ones had personally purchased, wrapped, and mailed. A federal prisoner must never be allowed to think he has human worth, or that he is someone anyone could love. We are to be constantly reminded in every conceivable way that we are nothing...

--letter from James Carey

Carey says he's fared better as an author than as a jailhouse lawyer, but in 1964 he won a major victory from the court system. Transferred from federal to state custody, he had challenged Michigan prison officials' refusal to credit the five years he'd already served in federal prison, even though two courts had ordered the state and federal sentences to be served concurrently. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and the threat of further legal action prompted the state to release Carey on parole.

He emerged not triumphant, but bitter and broke, having already served more than seven years as a first-time offender convicted of a non-violent offense. He was fired up to write a book about his struggles with the BOP, about Stroud and his battles, blowing the lid off the whole rehabilitation "game." But he was also, he insists, trying to go straight.

"I wanted to make a go of it," he says. "I wanted to become a member of society. But what I saw in the 1960s was the whole social fabric coming apart at the seams. I saw people who were in government doing such devious, treacherous things, and the public didn't have any idea what was going on."

He moved in with a widower uncle in Detroit, whose business was situated directly in the path of a proposed freeway. Carey was soon deeply embroiled in a battle over condemnation proceedings that pitted a handful of low-income families in the targeted neighborhood against city leaders and developers. "I was so infuriated by what they did to these people," he recalls, still seething at the memory. "We lost in a blaze of glory. I knew then: Forget the courts; that isn't how things get done."

The experience prompted Carey to seek out Donald Lobsinger, head of a stridently anti-communist organization called Breakthrough. An ex-GI and city employee, Lobsinger was well-known in Detroit for disrupting anti-war rallies, a tactic that earned him a string of arrests for disorderly conduct. Carey was drawn to Breakthrough's grassroots organizing efforts and its right-wing fervor, which reflected to some degree his own increasingly reactionary beliefs.

Lobsinger remembers Carey as the guy who managed to get a Breakthrough float honoring the late, red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy into the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade, under the auspices of an Irish social club. The float caused an uproar and another arrest for Lobsinger.

"Jim was a pretty good guy, and he had a hell of a sense of humor," Lobsinger recalls. "Everybody liked him. I think Breakthrough offered him an outlet for some of his frustration, a way to get back at these people. But his motivation was different from ours."

Now retired, Lobsinger remains active in Michigan politics; in 1994 he was the Republican candidate for Congress against U.S. Representative David Bonior, the Democratic minority whip, and pulled a surprising 38 percent of the vote despite spending only $18,000 on the campaign (Bonior spent more than $1 million). A favorite target of Detroit newspaper columnists (one referred to him as a "nut case" when he ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary against Bonior last year), Lobsinger says he's "dedicated my life" to fighting communism. It was a message that, back in the 1960s, appealed to a wide range of people, many of whom believed the country was on the verge of a civil war.

After the 1967 Detroit riots, Lobsinger says, "we really did think that armed conflict in the United States was possible. We looked at the riots as dry runs for a violent revolution. And we did tell people to arm themselves."

Lobsinger says he lost touch with Carey almost thirty years ago. A passionate speaker at rallies, at some point Carey decided that an effective counter-revolutionary movement would require more than Breakthrough could offer. It would require financing. So he dropped out of the anti-communist parade and began to talk to like-minded individuals about robbing banks.

"Lenin said that if you want to be a revolutionary, you should run a bank," Carey says. "Stalin went to Siberia for robbing banks. The problem with [groups like Breakthrough] is that they're for the status quo. We were preparing for the day when we'd have to have a militia against the government and we'd have to go underground."

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