Con Heir

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

--letter from James Carey

Curiously, his conviction for the Cleveland bank robbery wasn't the end of Carey's criminal career. Despite the long sentences he and his partner received, they were both back on the streets by the mid-Eighties. Carey says he doesn't know why he received parole so soon but suspects it had something to do with the violent, "illegal" nature of his arrest.

In any case, Carey's final bout with freedom didn't last long. In 1987, at the age of 57, he was back in federal custody--and soon convicted of robbing banks in Kentucky and Wisconsin. This time he got sixty years. "I just sat through the proceedings," he says. "I didn't even pay any attention."

A middle-aged man who persists in robbing banks, despite a string of arrests and even getting shot for his trouble, would seem to have chosen prison as his permanent address; but with typical contrariness, Carey claims the BOP played a role in his return to the "banking business." When he and his partner were in prison, he says, officials kept them apart, but parole was another matter.

"They gave us both parole to the same halfway house in Cleveland," he says, chuckling. "He was in the next room. What are they telling us?

"I believe the whole parole system is a fraud. You get out, and you're full of hostility and you want revenge so desperately. They put you in a halfway house down the block from some minimum-wage place. Then you're car-pooling to some factory with six other guys, and they're all ex-cons, drinking beer in the car. I don't drink anymore, but I could have been picked up for violations at any time. The game is rigged."

Back inside, Carey resumed his role as gadfly and self-styled eminence grise, firing off letters to newspapers, offering a running account of life behind the walls--the Carey version. During his frequent trips to the hole, he claims to have had his writing equipment and three manuscripts seized by guards, including a book he was writing on English grammar for prisoners. These days, he says, he's been reduced to sharpening his pencil stub with his teeth.

A prisoner at the federal supermax penitentiary in Florence, who did time with Carey in the hole in Missouri several years ago, remembers him as a "dear old man" and a "walking encyclopedia" who never hesitated to stand up for other prisoners. He had become a kind of elder of the tribe, a two-legged reminder of the old convict code and the days of Robert Stroud, when men in solitary would empty the water out of their toilets and use them as intercoms to advise each other on their legal briefs.

The old days were probably never as good as convict nostalgia would have you believe, but they may well constitute a golden era compared to the violent, overcrowded federal prison system of the 1990s. When Stroud was sent to prison in 1909, the number of federal penitentiaries in America could be counted on one hand and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons wasn't even born. By the time Carey did his first stretch, half a century later, there were more than two dozen federal prisons scattered around the country. Today the BOP presides over an empire of ninety prisons and contracts with hundreds of private halfway houses; swelled by drug convictions, the federal inmate population has more than quadrupled in the past fifteen years and now hovers near 100,000.

Carey views the rising tide as proof of the failure of American corrections to educate or rehabilitate its charges. "Prison used to be a pit stop," he says. "No more. Prison has become a subculture. These people have adopted a warped set of values. Rehabilitation is a lip-service thing. Drugs are acceptable. And the guards are much worse. The guards can beat you up, and you're not supposed to snitch on them."

In recent months Carey has taken an active interest in the case of Kenneth Trentadue, a minor parole violator who died under suspicious circumstances in a federal segregation cell in Oklahoma in 1995. Prison officials claim that Trentadue hanged himself in his supposedly suicide-proof cell, but the battered body that his family received--after refusing the warden's offer of a quick cremation--bore numerous wounds and bruises, from the top of his skull to the soles of his feet. His brother, Salt Lake City attorney Jesse Trentadue, has amassed considerable evidence that suggests Kenneth was fatally beaten by a team of corrections officers; he has accused the BOP of stonewalling a federal investigation into the death and has sued the government.

When GQ ran an account of the alleged coverup last fall, Carey wrote a letter to the editor quoting Lord Acton ("Absolute power corrupts absolutely") that was published in the magazine. He's since been in correspondence with Jesse Trentadue--another factor, he believes, in his being consigned to the hole in Florence last spring.

Closer to home, Carey has found plenty to write about in the murders of two fellow inmates at the Florence high-security penitentiary in January. The body of cocaine dealer Frank Melendez wasn't discovered for two to three days after he was strangled in his cell in the special housing unit, despite frequent inmate counts; his mother has told reporters that Melendez's cellmate "put him like he was standing up" when corrections officers inspected the cellblock. Five days before Melendez was found dead, white separatist Maynard Campbell was stabbed to death in his cell, reportedly by two other inmates; his cellmate was also knifed but survived. No one has been charged in either of the deaths, which are being investigated by the FBI.

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