The following comes from widely known, multiple prison escapee Steven Jay Russell, 56, who is currently serving a 144-year sentence in administrative segregation at the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit on Texas death row. Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough, describes Polunsky as “the most lethal [death row] anywhere in the democratic world” and “the hardest place to do time in Texas.” Russell, who is the first person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for prison escapes, has spent the last 17 years in solitary confinement, where he will likely remain for the rest of his life.
Russell painstakingly orchestrated each of his four escapes – all non-violent, executed without a hostage or gun – by forging documents which he planted in the system, manipulating prison officials and impersonating court system officials and doctors. And all four times, he simply walked out of the prison doors, embarrassing the Texas prison system in the process. Russell has stated that he did it all in order to be with his lover, Phillip Morris, whom he met in 1995 while both men were incarcerated at the Harris County Jail. His story is recounted in the movie I Love You Phillip Morris, in which he is played by Jim Carrey. He can be reached by writing: Steven Russell, 00760259, Allan B. Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351. –Lisa Dawson
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For more than 17 years, I’ve lived in a concrete box no larger than my late father’s closet. Most likely, I will continue to live in this concrete box until I’m granted parole or die. Living among other offenders in general population will never occur based on the opinions of at least 10 Texas Department of Criminal Justice wardens who have supervised me since my convictions for theft by embezzlement and non-violent escapes. My total term of imprisonment is 144 years. No, I have never committed a violent act or ever possessed any type of weapons in either my criminal or institutional history. I’ve never damaged state property by digging a tunnel or knocking a hole in the wall of my cell. I always walked out the front or back door of the jail or prison without taking any hostages. So, I am writing this essay from my cell which is located in the death row building at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Death row building? Yes. I share a pod with Texas offenders who are sentenced to death.
Remember George W. Bush? He was the president who told the nation and world that the United States of America does not torture our prisoners. Did I miss something last week or did I actually hear FBI director-designate James Comey admit to Senator Al Franken that prisoners at Gitmo were shackled in a standing position for seven days at a stretch to deprive them of sleep. TDCJ does things a bit different. They have what’s called the “Intensive Cell Searches” wherein an inmate cell is searched every hour of the day and night subsequent to that offender assaulting a guard. This little program goes on for months at a time right here on the Polunsky Unit. For those of us who walk out the front door, TDCJ has “Intensive Cell Moves.” For my first five years of solitary confinement in the concrete box, I was required to exchange cells with another inmate at least once every 72 hours. With more than 17 years of Solitary Confinement or Administrative Segregation now done, I graduated to cell moves once every two weeks. Why is moving around a big deal? Try moving into a different cell behind a mentally ill inmate who leaves special little treasures of poop in the cell. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That’s a great combination with the poop left behind.
Have I become a loony tune after so many years of isolation? There are times when I question my sanity. I’ve seen some people in Solitary who could not take the isolation and would hang themselves and check out of this world. Overdosing on psych medications is another preferred option as it is less dramatic. One man took the plastic face off his radio, sharpened the plastic on the floor of the cell, and cut the jugular vein out of his neck. Altogether, I can recall 13 suicides that have occurred during my time in Ad Seg. Others who can’t deal with the reality of their situation will take a razor blade and cut their arms or chest or even their face. Their reasons for doing so can be as simple as a guard taking their radio…because they did not possess property papers and made the mistake of taking the opportunity to recreate in one of our cages in the dayroom. Guards do not like inmates who come out of their solitary cells and recreate or shower whenever given the opportunity. That involves work, and guards do not like to work. Why don’t you shower in the cell today. You have a thing with hot water.
Isolation? How about not touching another individual for years or even decades? Think a hug is not important to a father and his daughter? What are prison officials creating for both the father and daughter? I got lucky! I got a big ole hug from my little girl right before the judge sentenced me to 99 years for walking out the front door of the Estelle Unit in Huntsville. I also got a handshake from a friend who stuck his hand out from the food slot of his cell while my handcuffs were in front of me. No, neither of these acts were allowed by the folks who run our state and prison. It was luck.
In California, it is my understanding that if you murder another inmate, you are given a five year sentence in Ad Seg. In Texas, Chris Peoples did six years in Seg for killing his cell mate. I’m working on 18 in Ad Seg for walking out that front door. We have indeterminate sentences in Ad Seg in Texas.
Ad Seg and death sentenced inmates incarcerated at the Polunsky Unit are not allowed to discuss their mental health or physical issues with either the medical or psychiatric staff without two guards who escort us to the visit listening in to everything that is discussed. That includes meetings with the prison psychiatrist which is conducted via video cameras. In other words, the psychiatrist is not physically in the room. Only the guards and inmate who is supposed to be discussing their mental health issues in a confidential manner. Can you imagine the chilling-effect this policy has on what’s not discussed vs. what’s discussed?
I believe that long-term (more than 2 years) solitary confinement is torture. I set the limit at two years because some inmates have killed their cellies. In my opinion, those type (sexual or physically assaultive) inmates should always be kept in a general population cell by themselves or housed with another equally assaultive inmate as their cellie. Keeping them in Ad Seg only makes the situation worse.