Con Heir

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).

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast