Voices from Solitary: 144 Years for Prison Escapes

Polunsky Unit Cell | Solitary Confinement

A cell at Polunksy. Minutes Before Six

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

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

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.

Comments

  1. masteradrian says:

    17 years in solitary confinement……… inhuman, torture, and above all a matter of uncivilized practice by the authorities!

    An end must come to locking up people in solitary confinement, regardless of what someone has done!
    No individual deserves to be locked up without any contact to other human beings, and no individual has done anything that worse that makes it acceptable, correct or even thinkable possible to be locked up without contact to other fellow human beings!

    Breaking out of prisons is right, even a duty, of prisoners, and being punished for that action is normal, were locking up in solitary confinement for such act is not acceptable!
    Adding time to the sentence is an option yes, locking up in solitary confinement not!

    Embarrassing authorities by, as in this case, walking out the prison’s doors without the use of any violence, exposing the systems failures and faults should be reason for punishing the authorities responsible for the failures and faults, must be reason for punishing the authorities, not the individual able to expose the failures and faults!

    Authorities should be grateful for the efforts this guy has done to expose the failure of the responsible authorities, for exposing the inaccuracy, the inability and the obviously present stupidity on the part of the responsible authorities to maintain rules, safety and execution of sentences!

    When what is written in the article posted is correct, and I have no reason to doubt the correctness, Steven J. Russell deserves the Medal of Freedom, at least be honored by the supervising authorities, for this exposing the inabilities of the wardens, the guards and the whatevers of the prisons he escaped from!

    Solitary confinement: the most cruelest of cruelest forms of torture ever!

  2. Now “if” the Brother is being totally truthful. This is just the type of isolation that is completely unjustified by any standard of moral decency. Where is ACU and every radical attorney in the Country. Where is the Spiritual Community, no matter what your religious beliefs are. Why is a guy sentence like this; because he does not want to be locked in a box? This it the type o man you get out, this is the type of poster man for the wrongs of isolation and the inhumanity to man..

  3. Stephen is being very truthful about everything he says. I visit a loved one at Polunsky who is also in Ad Seg locked in isolation for 19+ years and he has told many of the same accounts. How do you justify slowly torturing a man who went into the system mentally stable and then insist this isolation would not force him to eventually go crazy over time? The US is a big offender of abuse of prisoners. They just do it on the down low and because they are inmates the public could care less. Guards take on this career by choice knowing the risks. That doesn’t give them nor the system the right to abuse another human.

  4. John L . Rienbeck says:

    Please keep one thing in mind these are convicted felons. Make no mistake if it were you or your family that was robbed, raped, threatened with a deadly weapon you would be the first to cry out to society, ” lock them up and through away the key.” I live in Florida and we have to no nonsense laws so we can simply shot these guys, but not so in other states. You can let them out one day, but do you want them for a neighbor or maybe dating your daughter? I doubt it very much. Would you hire them? Would you lend them money? Be honest with yourself. You may feel its not fair to put them in a box for over 17 years…but were they thinking about whats fair when they were robbing, raping, and sticking a deadly weapon in someone’s face. Think not. Many of us live an honest, and law abiding manner and we should not have to suffer with these felons running around getting a second chance at doing their crimes again. A non – violent offender always has a chance at re-entry into society and we will have to deal with that. However, in the state of Texas the violent -offenders very seldom get a second chance.

  5. Ken Walker Jr. says:

    I agree that we must face the fact and not lose sight of who , what and where was done. NO i do not want these people as a neighbor, and I would certainly not invite them in my home for any reason. I do believe in second chances and even third chances for the non-violent offenders. Non-violent offenders most of the time only hurt themselves. The violent offenders are the con men, the cheats, the guys who think they have everything figured out, they also think they are smarter then the rest of the world. If they were so smart why are they in prison for half of their lives. I am a resident of Texas and its very true about the prisons here and will always be that way. Most politicians take pride in the strick laws towards criminals. Its a feather in their cap. The harder the better. When politicians get ready for re election the first thing they usually touch on is “strict jail time for the repeat offenders”. Repeat offenders / three stricks your out sounds good to me and my family.

  6. Not to beat a dead horse but i want to add something based on a comment left after my original one. I’m so tired of hearing “if it happened to you or if it was your relative”….. I live in New Jersey and I grew up in New York City. I AM a victim of a family member being shot and killed on the city streets and i have experienced my own set of violence towards me YET I still do not think it justifies putting mentally ill inmates in solitary and drugging them up to sleep as a means of solving the problem and keeping them off the streets. The same goes for people committing crimes when they were in their twenties and are now grown adults and the crime was not murder. There are inmates who have committed horrible acts of crime against children etc. and yes they deserve to be behind bars for the rest of their lives depending upon the crime but putting them in solitary for 2 years to life is ridiculous and for those inmates who DO get paroled and put into GP they WILL be your neighbor at some point because the wonderful system and government does not do enough to treat these people before releasing them or using the “step down” program to help acclimate them back into society. My biggest issue is that they ARE at some point released back to their families and by that time have suffered with non-human contact and abuse with pepper spray etc.etc. So being a “victim” i can say that in spite of what happened to my relative i still think solitary is abused in this country.Especially in the great state of Texas. Its all about keeping the beds filled in Ad Seg and getting that Government funding!! Tables turned…if it was your loved one who committed a crime that wasn’t murder and he/she was put in solitary for 20 years you would think differently. Murders get out of jail much quicker than the people put in Ad Seg for attempted escapes…and that is a Fact not an opinion. btw…the guy who killed my relative only served 25 years and was out to enjoy his life and a new wife at the age of 45. He never spent a day in solitary.

  7. masteradrian says:

    Indeed, these guys are convicted felons, otherwise they would not be in prison, I agree.
    BUT…. justice is about punishment, not about revenge!

    Solitary confinement is considered worldwide as a form of torture, taking away the possibility of social interaction with other human beings is torture, and is illegal!

    And no, I do not care about what kind of laws there are in Texas, or anywhere else inside or outside America, justice is about punishment for a crime, and justice can, may and shall never be about revenge!

    In my opinion those who call for revenge are as bad as the one who did the crime, as they lack the ability to see justice as a way of punishment, and just follow their hate, not even their sorrow or pain!

    And yes, I have experienced that people close to me, very close to me, were subjected to practices that I was unaware human beings could do to another human being, but I am proud to say that I have been able always to remain a human being, and not turn into the animal they were towards the ones they subjected to their crimes!

    No one who hates enough to isolate a human being from other human beings can feel real pain and such a person does not know what suffering is!

    And, people who defend solitary confinement are, as said before, equal to the ones put in solitary confinement, and should be subjected to the same punishment and be brought into the same position, my opinion!

  8. Dot Goodwin says:

    There is much truth to what Steve Russell has to say. My brother was convicted of Assault w/ DW twice. He commited the same crime while he was out on bail. Now he sits in solitary. He had nothing else on his record . He had a few traffic violations but nothing near a felony. My family and I have written letters, talked with many agencies, lawyers, law enforcement and over the past 20 something years we have a file the size of a large phone book. The response stems from politicians, wardens, reporters, friends, relatives and even letters from other inmates. My brother is has been in there since 1987. I cannot believe he has been in solitary that long.The sentence he recieved was 60 years.
    Everytime he has come up for parole we hold out breath and pray. The treatment in there is terrible. He needs medical care badly and he is ignored. He is afraid to eat the food, and as much as he wants to get to GP he is scared to death of having a roomate. He has been pepper sprayed so many times it has affected his eyesight. He is handcuffed everywhere he goes and the scars on his wrist from the handcuffs look like tatoo’s. His record is clean. No write ups except for one in 1995 when he vomited all over a guard because he was so ill and they accused him of doing it on purpose. In four years he will have done half his sentence and we have hope he may get a chance at parole.

  9. karen kissel says:

    Yet another VERY HARSH slap in the face by “American Justice”!
    What in the Hell, what in God’s name are the “powers that be” thinking? When did America – Land of the FREE and the BRAVE, cease to exist? The Government claims to be on “shutdown”, at present? But sadly it has been SHUT DOWN since solitary confinement became acceptable in any prison or facility. PLEASE I can take no more of this OUTRAGE, what can I do RIGHT NOW TODAY, to help? My name is Karen Kissel and I am in Huntington Beach California. I have a dear friend in solitary in Pelican Bay, a very good friend in Soledad (luckily not in solitary), and another very good friend in Theo Lacey, none of their sentences or circumstances are reasonable or right and the very worst situation of the 3 is the fine young man that is in solitary and has been since, I believe 1998! And for the most unsubstantiated of accusations-aka-charges? It infuriates me to hear of the blatant inconsistencies and lack of justice or constitutional rights? More people need to get involved and Solitary Watch is one of the most valuable, reputable and informative publications out there and I am proud to have the privilege to receive e-mails from.

  10. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    http://www.texasobserver.org/1394-book-review-the-master-manipulator/

    These excerpts from a review on a book:

    “Russell pulls off what he does not only because of his own intelligence but also because of others’ incompetence. Failing to do thorough background checks or leaving prison guard-posts empty to take cigarette breaks suggests deeper institutional problems.

    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was so gagged on Russell’s case because his repeated escapes made it look so damned stupid.

    How, after all, do you resist the arrogance of a man who says,
    “The only reason I have remained incarcerated is so that Steve can finish his book”?

    God help the good men and women of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
    They’re going to need it.”

    I always said the only way to truly escape prison is to use the system to free you.

    To quote Randall Terry “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

    So they take their revenge.

  11. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    Hell the man had himself declared legally dead so he could have just gone straight if he had kept a low profile. But the man just couldn’t shake his addiction to “Phillip Morris”.

    Hasn’t he heard that their cigarettes are bad for your health?

    Even if he had the cosmetic surgery to alter his appearance before attempting his next con, investigators would not have recognized him.

    Below is a good Youtube video on the case.

    Notice at the end of the 3rd part he says:

    “Every system has its weaknesses. It’s just a paying attention sort of deal.”

    Then he is asked, “Have you spotted some in here”

    Russell chuckles then replies, “YES!”

  12. endsolitaryconfinementnow says:

    @masteradrian:

    “No one who hates enough to isolate a human being from other human beings can feel real pain and such a person does not know what suffering is!

    And, people who defend solitary confinement are, as said before, equal to the ones put in solitary confinement, and should be subjected to the same punishment and be brought into the same position, my opinion!”

    Very well said. I had a friend who died in solitary confinement. After his death, my last letter to him was returned to me by the mailroom, stating: “Discharged”.

  13. Eileen Rolan from Oregon says:

    May I say here that I have been a victim in the past and also have a family member in Livingston. I live in Oregon and travel to see him every other month. Situation is very difficult but he robbed two convenient stores with a gun (that was not loaded). He has been in Solitary since 1990 and was given 30 years. He attempted an escape in 2001 and failed – but because of that they are determned to make him do all 30. We are hoping since he has been free of any write ups, and all has been stable maybe when he comes up for parole hearing in june 2014 he has a chance of getting out. We keep our hopes up!
    He has been lucky. He has not had any trouble, nor has he been sick. Must keep in mind he is there to be punished, not a country club and he understands that. We love him and support him, yet we still agree with the sentence handed down. He did a terrible thing and he is serving his time. If he has to do ALL 30 we will have to live with that. If you are handed a sentence for your crime you should plan on doing all of it. Getting out early is highly unlikely. We know other men that had to serve all their time and finally after 20/30 years were released.

  14. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    Two new examples in FL:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57608125/judge-on-convicted-murderers-set-free-forging-my-signature-not-hard-to-do/

    “An escape from prison would present a challenge to any inmate, but Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34, didn’t have to scale walls or fences. Guards led each of them right out the front gate, Jenkins on Sept. 27 and Walker on Oct. 8.

    John Miller told the “CBS This Morning” co-hosts that it most likely would not have been the prisoners who created and filed the documents for their early release.

    Just how the inmates managed to create the documents is now the focus of a Florida department of corrections internal investigation.”

  15. The voting citizens of Texas either agree with the solitary situation or ignore it. Therefore the lawmakers who could change it see no need to. How you get apathetic or unsympathic people to change their minds and hearts is now beyond me after years of trying. I guess we just keep going on and on.

  16. I just watched a documentary about Steven Jay Russel and I am deeply disturbed. He never raised a hand to anyone, his sentence it extreme and I wish there was something we could do about it. I did see a petition on his behalf but that was back in 2010. For all I know now, he may have already taken his own life. I don’t think I would have the stamina to stick it out. I really feel for Steven. All I can do is pray for him!

  17. I just watched your thing I almost got away with it. They’re just mad because you out smarted them that many times. There’s people who take a life and only do 10 years sometimes and you never harmed a soul. There’s no way you should have to do more then 20 -30 years. That is so messed up. I’m gonna ad you do my prayers. I hope you get paroled or you find away to escape again. I’m gonna watch that movie about your life. I ignored because it was in the homosexual section on Netflix but now that I know what its about I’m gonna watch it. I’m adding you to my prayers. Hang in there dude I know you will see the outside of a cell again. be blessed

  18. rodger delming says:

    Prison sentences obviously do not solve greed and selfishness. In many ways, the survival instinct that occurs in the prison atmosphere actually accentuates it. But there is one thing prisons have proven to be useful for; separating which greed and selfishness gets punished, and which does not. The egos and reputations of the ‘Powers that Be’ play a large role in this, and in the decisions made when doling out who gets what punishment or torture.
    Case in point; Steven Russell. What ever you do, don’t embarrass the State. That is worse than murder. The State must not blush. In torrents of anger the ‘Powers that be’ will froth at the mouth and descend upon you by decreeing the best learned torture techniques discovered by the CIA; Non stop light and confinement that might as well be straight-jacketed swaddling. Without any violence at all, at any time during any crime, incarceration, or escape, Steven Russell has paid for the embarrassment he caused the State, so far, with 18 years in Solitary Confinement – The Box.
    America does not care about Justice. It cares about it’s own self importance.
    If a person really has a deep understanding that each one of us is literally and biologically made out of the world itself, and that each one of us is not separate from the entirety of the universe, then from that awareness it is impossible to abandon those who have fallen; Because essentially, “they” are “us” or “me”. While each of us has a personal responsibility to do no harm, one can not ignore the responsibility societies as a whole have, in regard to the ever present negligence and violence inherent in the currently existing cultural structures world wide.
    After endlessly cleaning dead bodies out of the river, one would think we might consider sending someone upstream to figure out how to prevent people from falling into “crimes” in the first place. There is so little time and energy invested in creating institutions and solutions for those who might be considering one crime or another. And there is so little time spent sharing the vast amount of knowledge that has been learned about the psychological effects of abandonment and trauma. Instead, our airwaves are primarily filled with the perpetuation of greed, fear, more violence and the worship of selfishness. Imagine if we took only a small portion of the monies being spent to keep people locked in shoe boxes and began investing in programs directed specifically toward offering alternatives to “Crime”. Imagine a Nationwide Public Radio Station specifically dedicated to those who might be considering a crime, offering a new paradigm that wasn’t based on fear, judgment and punishment, but on Possibilities, Education, and Community.
    Since the State has no right to put people to death; it has no right to make people suffer such abhorrent isolation of years and years confined in a small box.
    Yes, society has a need to protect itself from harm. Yes, there are cost’s involved. Surely though, we can come up with more creative solutions than doing MORE harm.
    All of Steven Russell’s vast, creative and non-violent talents are going to waste.
    It’s easy to lock men up. It’s much harder to learn from them.
    rodger delming

  19. Catalina says:

    It is ridiculous that in this day and age that torturing others is not only acceptable, but is now standard protocol. Why is Steven, who is a non-violent offender (who never even damaged TDCJ property in any of his escapes) sentenced a ridiculous amount of time, when there are repeat violent offenders who received lesser sentences? The isolation inflicted on Death Row and Administrative Segregation inmates does not only punish them, but punishes their loved ones as well. What happens to those inmates if they become exonerated? Imagine the mental anguish inflicted amongst someone, then releasing them back into society. The current prison system seems to be designed to break down one’s mental stability, not rehabilitate. It’s a fact that it costs about 3x as much to house someone on Death Row/Admin Seg. Just imagine how much taxpayers would save if the prisons did exactly what they were SUPPOSED to do-rehabilitate, instead of over sentencing and over punishing.

  20. I have to wonder why you may think he didn’t commit a violent act. First place when you try to escape from a prison or at least try you put everyone at risk. Someone could get shot. Maybe the wrong person. This is a very manipulating man. He has been a con man all his life. They probably keep him in solitary because he is to dangerous to the system espeially being around other inmates. To much of a risk. Who knows what he would talk another inmate into doing. He is a crook, a liar, a thief, an embezzler , a con man and still manipulating every chance he gets. Frankly, he is a very disgusting human being. Have you seen the interviews online. He will die in prison.

  21. MARTIN MCNALLY says:

    OKAY, STEVE GOT 144 YEARS FOR A NON-VIOLENT ESCAPE .. MANY PEOPLE GET LIFE WITHOUT FOR NON-VIOLENT WEED CASES… SO, WHERE DO WE GO WITH THIS ??? STEVE IS ONE SMART DUDE… SO THEY PUT HIM IN SEGREGATION FOR LIFE ??? WHO’S FUCKED UP HERE ??? STEVE OR THE PRISON SYSTEM AND POWERS THAT BE ???? IT’S CLEARLY THE POWERS THAT BE RUNNING THE PRISON SYSTEM IN TEXAS !!!! STEVE ESCAPED THE WAY IT SHOULD BE DONE; WALK OUT THE FRONT DOOR WITH ASSISTANCE FROM STAFF… NOBODY SHOULD GET MORE THAN 5 YEARS FOR A NON-VIOLENT ESCAPE.. I GOT LIFE, 75 YEARS, 5 YEARS AND 5 MORE YEARS — CONSECUTIVE TO THE 2 LIFE SENTENCE THAT I HAD.. FOR A VERY VIOLENT ESCAPE ATTEMPT—DURING MAY 1978.. AND I DIDN’T GET OUTSIDE THE PRISON.. THE TEXAS AUTHORITIES SHOULD PLACE STEVE IN GENERAL POPULATION SO HE CAN DO HIS TIME… OH, I GOT OUTTA PRISON IN 2010. YEAH, I LEARNED LAW AND REVERSED A LOT OF CONVICTIONS…AND MADE PAROLE AFTER 26 YEARS GOOD CONDUCT… DID 37 YEARS — FLAT — IN FEDERAL PRISONS..

  22. It gets very tired after awhile reading these post. Enough already. They are criminals not school teachers..they deserve everything they get. They new the consequences. They took a chance, and got caught. So they escaped a few times and you think that is smart? The idiots are in jail for the rest of their lives. When you get sentenced in Texas you get sentenced and there is NO early out. They know and they still commit the crime. Smart? are you an idiot? Look where they are for the next 20 years or so. Russell is a disgusting human being. If he were in GP he be dead.

Leave a Reply