Con Heir

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

James Carey is in the hole again.
He moves slowly into the visitors' room, hands cuffed and tethered to his waist, his stride reduced to a shuffle by the shackles around his ankles. He sports a full head of hair, whiter than a new pair of Keds. A grin flashes in his wizened Irish face. He looks older than his 67 years--and about as dangerous as a Pekinese on a short leash.

An assistant to the warden explains that Carey must be shackled every time he leaves his cell at the Florence Federal Correctional Institute because he's in administrative segregation--a state of lockdown that prisoners call "the hole." Technically, Carey shouldn't even be at the FCI, one of the least restrictive of the four federal prisons huddled two miles south of the town of Florence; he is considered a high-security inmate. But last spring he was thrown in the hole at the federal penitentiary across the road and then, for some reason, transferred to the FCI.

The warden's assistant doesn't know why Carey was put in segregation in the first place, and if she did, she says, she couldn't divulge that information. Why prisoners wind up in the hole is one of the sacred mysteries the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) doesn't care to reveal to outsiders.

Carey is a veteran of the hole. He's spent more than half of the last forty years in one prison or another, and much of that time was spent in segregation--not because of escape attempts or violent behavior, but because of his relentless criticism (and often outright defiance) of the goals and practices of the federal penal system. His latest infraction, he says, stems from a letter he wrote to the editor of the Denver Post questioning the circumstances surrounding the recent suicide of a Florence corrections officer. The letter was confiscated by penitentiary officials.

"It never even got out of the institution," Carey says. "I dropped it in the mailbox on March 6. On March 7 they told me they were going to put me in the hole for a while.

"They put me in with a guy, a real psycho who beats you up. They give him cigarettes, whatever it takes. See, if he beats you up, whatever they do to you after that, you got no lawsuit. This guy kept saying to me, 'I hate to do this, but I got my cousin coming.' But then--I don't know why--they shipped him out of there and sent me over here."

That's the Carey version. In prisons, there are always at least two versions of every story: the official version and the inmates' version. It's best to be skeptical of the inmates' version, but the official version often has its problems, too. Carey has made a life's work out of challenging the official version--hence his frequent trips to the hole.

Currently serving a sixty-year sentence for bank robbery, Carey won't be eligible for parole until 2029, the year he would turn 99. He doesn't expect to reach that day, but that hasn't tempered his cantankerousness one bit. "When I first got into the federal prison system," he says, "I ran into this mind game they were playing. And it was at that point that I said, 'I am through playing games. For once, I am going to stand for something.'"

Writing has been Carey's way of striking back at a corrections bureaucracy he regards as inhuman, corrupt and tragically inept. Over the years he's cranked out countless pain-in-the-ass letters to the editor, several articles for right-wing publications needling the Bureau of Prisons, and an acerbic book that has become a minor classic in the annals of prison literature, When the Doors Break! First published in 1981 and recently reissued with a new foreword and afterword, Carey's book is the story of a wayward young man whose experiences behind bars left him so embittered that he turned to radical politics, robbing banks, writing subversive tracts and worse.

In some respects, Carey has followed in the footsteps of his boyhood heroes, Al Capone and Willie Sutton. But he found his true mentor 35 years ago while doing time at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri: double murderer Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Stroud, who overcame a severely limited education to become one of the world's leading authorities on the diseases of birds, battled federal prison officials for more than fifty years; most of that time he spent in solitary confinement, including eleven debilitating years of isolation on Alcatraz. At the time he befriended Carey, the 1962 Burt Lancaster movie (based on Thomas Gaddis's biography, Birdman of Alcatraz) was about to make Stroud an international celebrity. And Stroud was waging war against the BOP over his right to publish a 2,000-page manuscript he had written that dealt with the history of the federal prison system--a book that remains unpublished three decades after his death (see sidebar, this page).

Like Stroud, Carey has used his time in prison to educate himself, to read voraciously and write voluminously. And, like Stroud, he's clashed frequently with prison authorities but has refused to deviate from his course, charting what he sees as the downward spiral of a prison industry heading for disaster.

"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.

Prison officials in Springfield wanted to administer shock treatments to Carey, but his family refused to sign the necessary paperwork. Although at one point he was allowed to pursue his correspondence courses, his studies were abruptly terminated when guards seized his textbooks, citing a new rule against "fire hazards" that prohibited inmates from having more than five books in their cell. (Carey had twelve.) He sued the warden for the $92.89 he'd invested in the course he could not complete; he lost.

The official prison education programs he encountered were a "sham," Carey says now. The textbooks were often outdated or scarce, the skills taught too elementary to be of use to men coming out of prison. Yet he persisted, eventually becoming a teacher's aide himself, helping others with their grammar and their reading skills.

"I take pride in the fact that I did help prisoners," he says. "The only way to beat the prison system is to develop the mind. You can't resist them physically, and the courts aren't any help. So why not develop the mind? But they try to hamstring you."

Actually, federal officials did Carey a favor in sending him to the medical center, since it was there that he met the champion mind-developing inmate of all time. Carey heard pieces of the story from Stroud himself; only later, though, did he come to appreciate the scope of what the Birdman had accomplished.

In 1909, shortly before his nineteenth birthday, Stroud had killed a man in Alaska in an argument over a few dollars--money that may have been owed to Stroud for the services of a prostitute he provided. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Seven years later he stabbed a guard to death in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in an altercation over his visiting rights; the slaying earned him a death sentence, soon commuted to a bizarre sentence of "life in solitary confinement" after his mother doggedly pleaded his case before the Wilson administration.

Confined to the bowels of Leavenworth, Stroud launched a successful canary-breeding operation with the warden's blessing. When his birds began to die of mysterious illnesses, Stroud read everything he could get his hands on--anatomy, biology, chemistry--and developed patent remedies that he marketed by mail. Working with crude tools (it would be years before he was allowed access to a microscope), he researched and wrote two books on avian diseases that were, at the time, the most authoritative works in their field; in fact, they were just about the only works of their kind.

Despite his growing reputation, or perhaps because of it, in 1942 the BOP took away Stroud's birds and shipped him to Alcatraz. But Stroud was a skillful manipulator of friend and foe alike, and his bird-fancying supporters mounted a campaign to free him that only grew in force as the years rolled by. In 1959, under pressure from the clamor of publicity and a lawsuit by Stroud challenging the unique nature of his confinement, the BOP reluctantly moved him to Springfield. He was soon suing the government over his lengthy treatise on the history of penology in the United States, which officials had let him write but were determined not to see published.

In Stroud, Carey found not only a friend but an exemplar, a man who seemed to have found the secret to preserving his own identity within the bleak, dehumanizing cave of prison. "In spite of everything he had suffered, he was not cynical or bitter," Carey recalls. "He was an inspiration to me. Here I was, thinking this whole thing was lunacy and feeling sorry for myself; but when I saw what this man had gone through and the attitude he was able to develop, then I gradually began to put things into perspective."

Stroud's fame reached mythic proportions with the release of the somewhat fictionalized movie about his life, featuring Burt Lancaster's memorable portrayal of the convict as a kind of gentlemanly scholar who had utterly rehabilitated himself in spite of the system. The BOP did what it could to counter that image, leaking sordid details of Stroud's prison record to friendly reporters and hinting that his bird business was actually a cover for a moonshine operation.

Stroud died of a heart attack at the age of 73, the day before President Kennedy was assassinated. But the battle over his memory continues; three years ago a woman named Jolene Babyak published a book, Birdman: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud, debunking the earlier Gaddis biography and branding Stroud as a creepy sociopath whose bird research was deeply flawed and who exhibited a lifelong sexual interest in adolescent boys.

The daughter of a former associate warden at Alcatraz, Babyak clearly set out to write an apologia for the BOP. Yet her portrait of Stroud, unflattering as it is, only serves to underscore the kind of threat he posed to authorities, having accomplished so much in brazen defiance of their rules. That his research was primitive, by modern standards, is hardly news; late in life, Stroud himself admitted that the development of antibiotics had made his work "irrelevant." As for his character, Babyak's account of the eccentricities he developed while imprisoned on The Rock--a penchant for raw meat eaten without benefit of utensils, a fondness for shaving his entire body and other weird rituals--is as much an indictment of the government that kept him in solitary confinement for 43 years as it is any reflection on the man himself.

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."

Carey offers only the vaguest details concerning how and when he began to rob banks. How much of it had to do with politics rather than the simple lure of big wads of cash is anybody's guess. Judging from his book and other comments he's made, Carey seems to have a more elaborate rationale for his actions than the typical bank robber, including a longstanding quarrel with bankers and banks, the Federal Reserve, the American currency system, and every president since Abraham Lincoln.

In the early 1970s Carey spent fifteen months in jail on a charge of auto theft, but investigators were unable to develop sufficient evidence at that time to nail him on suspected bank robbery. For the next decade he moved from place to place: busing tables in San Diego; joining the tourists in San Francisco on the boat to Alcatraz; working as a waiter in the men's grill of a Phoenix country club, where he doled out cocktails to the likes of Barry Goldwater. He called himself George Jay Goodson, and every once in a while he got together with one or two partners, put on a disguise and robbed banks.

"The man who strongly influenced me, as to the technique, was Willie Sutton," Carey says. "I would not rob a K-Mart or a grocery store. You're running against the possibility of pregnant women and children."

Yet bank robbery is hardly a victimless crime. Carey's record indicates he never shot anyone, but he was armed, and he specialized in the most terrifying form of bank heist--the takedown, in which the robbers hold the entire place at gunpoint while rifling every teller station and, if possible, the vault.

Carey claims he was involved in as many as fifteen such robberies, never yielding a take of less than $50,000. He insists the jobs went smoothly: "When you go in and yell, 'This is a stickup! Everybody on the floor!' the American people are so conditioned from television viewing that that's what they end up doing." Still, the risks were formidable, the number of people involved in the operation a virtual guarantee of eventual arrest and conviction.

"I made some blunders," Carey admits. "I'm not a superbrain. The sad part is that there's no college you can go to to take a course in bank robbery. Everything you do, you have to write your own manual."

The percentages caught up with Carey in 1981. That spring he published his prison opus, When the Doors Break!, through a vanity press. A work of mordant wit and unbridled outrage, WTDB offers a through-the-looking-glass tour of a prison system drowning in its own bureaucratic excesses, a place where right is wrong and wrong is right, where contraband drugs and inmate rape are tolerated but having too many books in a cell invites swift retribution.

Like other books by self-taught men, the book is written in an ornate, vocabulary-building prose style. But the breadth of its author's reading--references to Dickens, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky rub up against quotations from the writings of Carey's arch-nemesis, former BOP director James V. Bennett--is truly impressive, as if Carey had aligned himself with prison critics through the ages. Even the title carries a whiff of menace, of scores yet to settle. "When the doors break," Carey explains, is the threat convicts used to mutter to one another when locked into their cells at night, promising retribution the next day.

"I had to wait until the doors of prison broke open for me for the last time before I felt qualified to attempt the writing of this book," Carey wrote in his preface. "In a radio interview following my release, I publicly vowed that so help me God I will never again surrender to the courts and their imprisonment. Death is my preference to such an existence."

Less than three weeks after the book was published, an unarmed Carey opened the door of his motel room in Phoenix and was shot in the thigh by FBI agents who had come to arrest him. Bleeding profusely, he was rushed to a local hospital.

Thirteen months later, in a courtroom in Cleveland where Carey was on trial for bank robbery, his attorney asked an FBI agent why his team had gone to the motel heavily armed and blasted Carey as soon as he opened the door.

"We did so because of things Mr. Carey wrote in his book," the agent replied.

Sentenced to fifty years on two counts of bank robbery, Carey set about revising his preface in a cell in the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, California. "I have no desire to upbraid my own book," he wrote, "but candor obliges that I issue a caveat that it does not contain anything so slanderous, scurrilous, or salacious as to warrant federal cops to go gunning for its author."

The fact is, unless you (society) are prepared to take certain risks...namely, to set a limited time on the sentence a man must be confined for in these tombs...and offer him realistic opportunities for his self-betterment by offering earlier release as an incentive...then you might as well execute every prisoner who has a sentence over five years. It is a simple matter of economics. Our penal systems have been allowed to serve as spawning areas for a subculture, one which is alien to the standards of our so-called free society.

--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.

Carey knew Campbell and had spoken to him in the prison dining hall the night he was killed. The two men shared certain anti-government sentiments, including a belief that the Articles of Confederation provided more protection for individual liberty than the U.S. Constitution and should not have been abandoned. Carey considered Campbell, who had written passionately about the "massacre" at Ruby Ridge and was serving eleven years for stealing timber and threatening the lives of federal officials, a kindred spirit; he rejects news reports that suggest Campbell was murdered because he informed on other inmates.

The night Campbell died, Carey says, a spotlight had traced the separatist's movements from the dining hall back toward his cellblock, as if pointing him out to people in the shadows. "I believe it was an assassination," he says. He adds that he has also written to Campbell's attorney: "I got a statement out with regard to what went down."

The truth about any violent death behind bars may never be known. There are too many versions of what went down, too many ways to entomb the secrets every prisoner--and every keeper--must carry. But even condemned men have a choice. They can despair, or they can develop the mind. They can curry favor, or they can embrace principle. They can perish, or they can publish and then perish. Like the Birdman, Carey has made his choice.

"I know I'm going to die in prison," Carey wrote to Westword a few weeks ago. "The only thing I fear is that at some weak moment, while they are laughing while they stomp on me, that I [will] beg for mercy. I want above all to die with the honor of cursing them down to my last breath. If another prisoner stabbed me fifty times, I would not testify against him. No matter how much I might hate him, I could not live with myself for helping these people get a conviction."

Shortly after that letter was written, Carey was moved from Florence to the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City--the same prison where Kenneth Trentadue died. He is expected to be there only a few weeks before he is shipped to another, as-yet-unidentified penitentiary. His privileges are minimal, but he does have access to a golf pencil and scrap paper.

The letters keep coming.

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