I’ve spent more than 22 years of my life living in a 6-by-9-foot concrete box, deep in the heart of Texas. Think about that for a second. Why have I been put here? Well, originally I was sent to prison for insurance fraud. Four prison escapes later, I’m now serving a 144-year sentence in solitary confinement. If I die in here, it will just mean moving into a smaller box.
The crazy thing is all of my crimes and any disciplinary cases I’ve incurred while in jail have all been nonviolent. In spite of that, I’m being held indefinitely in solitary, partly to make sure I can’t escape again and partly, I believe, to punish me for the embarrassment I’ve caused the state of Texas.
In 2010, a movie about my life, “I Love You Phillip Morris,” was released, starring Jim Carrey as me. But there’s a lot more about my life in prison that you didn’t see in that movie.
After I escaped from Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Texas, police found me in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they arrested and captured me for the final time in 1998. Prison officials there shackled me and flew me back to Texas, where I was reprocessed into the state prison system. I was greeted by a crowd of jubilant officials and told, “Get out of ’em. Rub your hands through your hair. Lift your arms. Open your mouth wide. Move your tongue from one side to the other. Lift your penis; now your nuts. Turn around and spread your ass cheeks nice and wide. Squat down and cough. Stand up. Lift you left foot up. Lift you right foot up. Turn back around. Put these boxers on. Go sit in the barber’s chair.”
Next, it was time for fingerprinting, photographs, a physical, psychological screening and an interview with a sociologist. The interview with the sociologist was the highlight: “Where have you been since you left our custody? What were you doing? Who were you with? Were you in contact with Phillip Morris? Did you do drugs? Drink alcohol? Are you still a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l?”
The entire intake process took about three hours. Normally it would take two to three weeks. It’s hard to tell if they were putting on a show for the prison staff or just trying to move on from my escape as quickly as possible. Then there was an encore of getting naked and searched again before I was loaded into a van for my five-minute ride over to the Michael Unit’s solitary confinement building. That’s where I would spend the next 13 years of my life.
Supper that first night back in jail was “cat food.” Texas Department of Criminal Justice “cat food” is chopped ham, mayo, pickle and boiled egg, scooped onto a tray like a dip of ice cream. Texas prides itself on only spending about $2 per day to feed each of its 145,000 captives. They used to serve real milk, now we only get powdered. Fresh vegetables are the stuff of dreams. Before I fell asleep that night the words, “you’re really fucked now,” lingered in my mind. They were going to put me so far behind bars that life would be close to unbearable. They would try and make certain I never escaped again.
Texas’ solitary confinement, then and still to this day, virtually isolates me in a closed cell except for the opportunity to walk around in a pen for two hours, Monday through Friday. While I refuse the “cage at the zoo” opportunity ― I’m too proud, even after 22 years ― my daily shower is something I always take advantage of. Cleanliness, for me and my cell, has become my obsession. I think it’s a reaction to all the feces-throwing, public masturbation, and the general lack of hygiene typical of men who have nothing to live for ― the ones I’m surrounded by 24/7.
Currently, I’m housed in the Texas Death Row Building, at the Polunsky Unit, with prisoners sentenced to death for capital murder. They moved me here in 2011 after rethinking the most secure place to keep me. Ricky Smith, another serial escapee, and I were sent here after David Puckett, an aggravated assault convict, escaped from a Michael Unit prototype in Beaumont. They must have figured the prison design there was flawed or that word would get out about how Puckett broke out. Anyway, the death row prisoners are mostly very quiet and well-behaved.
The perimeter of this building is covered in razor wire, with sensors and cameras everywhere, and a high-tech electric fence. The cells are 6 feet long and 9 feet wide with three solid concrete walls, a stainless-steel wall with toilet/sink combo, a steel frame bunk and locker and a steel door with two narrow windows so the guards can see inside the cell. At the top of the back wall of the cell is a narrow window that is sealed shut, but it allows some natural light to enter. A small table is attached to the wall, next to the bunk. I use the table for eating, writing, typing and storage. The floor is concrete, and the walls have chipped and peeling white paint. Texas no longer budgets funds to pay for paint on cell walls. We’re allowed to buy a $20 Chinese radio from the commissary to listen to music and National Public Radio station KUHF 88.7 FM that broadcasts out of Houston.
Meals are served to me through a narrow food slot toward the bottom of the steel door. Human contact is nonexistent, except for when a guard holds my arm while escorting me to either a visit, medical appointment or to the shower. Some react to the lack of human contact by feeling unloved and unworthy of love, which can lead to a downward spiral into depression. In my case, the lack of physical human contact is almost a blessing, since it was always my obsession with lovers that got me into trouble. My need to take care of them and be with them was the motivation behind all four of my escapes. Going “cold turkey” has at least let me quit that self-destructive behavior.
Visits with family and friends take place behind thick Plexiglas. They can visit me on either Saturday or Sunday for up to two hours. When they do pay me a visit, we have to use a handset to talk to one another and all of our conversations are recorded. Hand restraints are used whenever staff escort me to a different area of the prison. Hand and leg restraints are used when I go to the medical building. Strip searches are mandatory whenever I leave my cell. If you have a problem with nudity, the Texas prison system is not the place for you.
Solitary confinement is designed to weaken and destroy a human being. It’s a perverse form of retribution. Over the years, I’ve known 21 men that have died by suicide from hanging, cutting their jugular vein or femoral artery or overdosing on prescription medications. The sign of impending suicide is usually when a prisoner throws all of their personal property out of their cell. Other than that, they are typically quiet about their intentions until it is too late. I’ve also witnessed hundreds of self-mutilations. Cutters will shred their arms, legs, face or neck. Some have cut out their testicles and thrown them out onto the floor outside their cell. A death row inmate once plucked out both of his eyes.
I have not been immune to the effects of 22-plus years of solitary. About four years ago, I was diagnosed with recurrent major depression and prescribed Prozac. My body is now broken in more ways than I can list, with my spine and hips the chief casualties due to the discomfort of my surroundings ― no chair, nothing to support my back except the cell walls ― and the restrictions placed on my movement. I am obese because of the poor quality of the food I’m given and the near-impossibility of exercise. Were my survival instincts weaker, I too might have succumbed to self-harm.
“Solitary confinement is designed to weaken and destroy a human being. It’s a perverse form of retribution. Over the years, I’ve known 21 men that have died by suicide from hanging, cutting their jugular vein or femoral artery, or overdosing on prescription medications.”
Long ago, before and in anticipation of my first stretch in prison, I once tried to take my own life. These days, every ounce of my energy is invested in staying alive and sane. Unlike others, I’m blessed with the love of my family and friends. Linda and David, my best friends from Houston, come to visit me nearly every weekend. My friend Helen visits me twice a year from Oslo, Norway. My daughter, Stephanie, travels from the East Coast several times a year so she can spend time with her dad. She deserves all of the credit for my change in behavior. It’s because of her that I stopped trying to escape. The power a daughter has over her father is strong. She helped me see that my actions weren’t just hurting me, they were hurting her as well. All of my escapes had been acts of unthinking selfishness. In order for me to stop hurting the ones I love, they had to stop.
The movie “I Love You Phillip Morris” (originally a book), a couple of Discovery Channel documentaries, and now my new book, Life After Phillip Morris, have generated thousands of kind and thoughtful letters from all over the world. They have played a big part in helping me stay sane. Writing books with notable journalists, the first with Steve McVicker and the second with Laurence Watts, has been a fantastic way to maintain my mental health here in solitary. Both of these men have challenged me to become a better writer and person. They’ve also given me time to consider who I am and how I got here. It’s a daily battle though, full of regret, flashbacks, self-doubt, paranoia, boredom, self-loathing, questioning and futility. There are days when I break down and cry. My daily life, if you can call it that, is barely worth living. It is only the future that gives me hope.
I’m now almost 61 years old. Do I belong in prison? Yes, I do. I understand and accept why I’m here. I most definitely do not belong in solitary, however. That is a cruel and unusual punishment completely disproportionate to my crimes. It’s also unnecessary. Setting aside my decision to give up trying to escape, escaping is now a physical impossibility for me. My spine is now so impacted that I have to be pushed around in a wheelchair whenever I leave my cell. Escaping also makes no sense now that I have served so much time. Because all of my crimes were nonviolent, I may make it out of here legitimately one day, on parole. That is an infinitely better option for me than trying to escape again.
In my opinion, solitary confinement should only be reserved for the most violent of inmates and should never be used for more than two years at a time. It destroys the human spirit. Put simply, it makes men mad. It is the only legal form of torture in today’s prison system, but it’s a slow maltreatment of the body and mind that, in the short run at least, leaves no visible signs. That’s why it’s permitted. Plus, society tends to view anything that happens to inmates in prison as no more than they deserve. Prisoners, however, aren’t necessarily evil or beyond redemption. All too frequently they are just people who were dealt a bad hand in life and played it the best way, or the only way, they knew how. If we expect prison to rehabilitate offenders or if we expect inmates to reintegrate into society once they have done their time, the less broken they are when they finally come out, the easier that will be.
Steven Jay Russell is a gay, four-time prison escapee, conman and thief, currently serving a 144-year prison sentence for nonviolent crime. The first half of his life was made into the film “I Love You Phillip Morris,” which starred Jim Carrey as Steven and Ewan McGregor as his boyfriend, Phillip. Steven Russell’s new book Life After Phillip Morris, which carries on from where the film ends, was published on July 13, and is available exclusively on Amazon.