If a prisoner is serving a sentence of 144 years in prison, they must be some sort of monster, right? A serial killer, at the very least? Steven Russell is serving that sentence in a maximum security prison in Texas for a non-violent crime.
He answered some questions from Gay Star News about the situation in which he finds himself.
Russell’s life story became a Hollywood movie in 2009. It showed how Russell, originally from Virginia, left his wife and daughter when he realized he was gay.
Relocating to Miami, he soon began living a life well beyond his means. This, in turn, led to his fraud and conman activities.
He landed in jail on insurance fraud charges in 1995. During his stay, he met and fell in love with a fellow prisoner, Phillip Morris. Russell managed to escape and embarked on more audacious con jobs. This included posing as a lawyer to get Morris released, in order for the two to be reunited.
However, police again caught up with him, leading to more spells in prison and more escapes.
Sentenced to 144 years in prison
In total, Steven Russell, 60, has escaped from authorities on four occasions. Morris was released from prison in 2006. Russell, however, received a total sentence of 144 years: 99 years for the escapes and 45 years for his scams.
In the movie, I Love You Phillip Morris, Russell was played by Jim Carrey, while Ewan MacGregor played Morris. The film played Russell’s somewhat incredulous life as a black comedy. What’s not funny is the fact that he’s likely to be in prison until he dies. He is also kept alone in solitary confinement.
Russell life story pre-life sentence was told in the book, also called I Love You Phillip Morris, written with the journalist Sean McVicker.
Russell’s second book, Life After Phillip Morris, co-written with Laurence Watts, carries on from where the 2009 movie ends. It went on sale on Amazon last month.
Driving 1,500 miles to meet Steven Russell
Watts, originally from the UK but now based in San Diego, tells GSN that he initially made contact with Russell after he saw the movie of his life.
‘I had seen the film and was intrigued as to what happened next. I was living in California at the time and drove 1,500 miles to see him in Texas. In the years that followed he and I corresponded by letter, writing the book together.
‘It took a long time, but we got there in the end.’
Watts describes the process of writing the book as ‘incredibly difficult. Russell is detained in solitary at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. It also houses the state’s death row inmates.
‘Steven and I essentially wrote to each other by letter for many years. That kind of slow communications takes a lot of patience. I would email Steven, my emails would be printed out and handed to him, and he would write back by regular snail mail.
‘The nice thing about it was that our conversations were always thoughtful and considered. I now have a box full of hundreds of letters from him.’
Russell has been kept in solitary because of his escape attempts. His legal representative, H.P Williams, tells GSN there’s is no knowing how long he might be kept this way.
‘As he ages there is a possibility he will be moved to general population but it is obvious he is not trusted by prison officials.’
Through Watts, Steven Russell answered a series of questions for GSN by letter
It’s been a while since I Love You Phillip Morris came out (2009). What have you been doing in the meantime?[Steven Russell] I spent quite a bit of time trying to respond to all of the letters that the film prompted. It turned out to be a full-time job from 2009-11. I also participated in a number of media interviews and three television documentaries about my life.
Laurence and I were writing back and forth during this time, with me describing what life was like after the film. We began to discuss writing Life After Phillip Morris and in the end that’s what we did. After all, my life did not end after the film was released.
In the book we cover my life in solitary, death row, Phillip moving on with his life, and the drama associated with living in a maximum security prison.
You haven’t escaped prison since your fourth escape in 1998. Have you turned over a new leaf or is security so tight now that it’s impossible?
My daughter, Stephanie, is responsible for the change in my behavior. When she visited in 1999, she asked me to put a stop to my crime wave.
Prison escapes happen from time to time. Why aren’t prisons as secure as they are meant to be?
Most people that work in prisons are lazy and do not do their job in a responsible manner. All of my escapes could have been prevented if staff had done their jobs correctly.
You’re being held in solitary confinement. Why?
Because prison officials believe it’s the most secure place to keep me. I personally believe they’re also trying to punish me for the embarrassment I’ve caused them and the State of Texas.
You’ve been in solitary now for 22 years. What is it like? How is that legal?
I’m completely isolated from everyone. The only time I leave my cell is for a daily shower, visits or medical appointments. The cell is 6’x9’ (54 square feet) with three concrete walls and a metal door.
Above my bunk is a narrow, but wide, sealed window so that some natural light can get into the cell. The cell door also has two narrow windows so that prison staff can monitor what I may or may not be doing.
I sleep on what appears to be a thin exercise mat. Underneath the mat is a narrow steel frame with lockers on the bottom/inside. I have a steel table, concrete floor, and stainless steel combination toilet/sink.
When I leave my cell, I am placed in hand restraints. I am now on psychotropic medications due to recurrent major depression.
Is solitary legal? Now that Trump and the rest of his bigots control Texas state government, The Supreme Court of the United States, and Congress, it is legal.
Remember that the conservatives of the Supreme Court view our US Constitution as it was written in the 1700s when slavery was legal. Justice Kennedy and the Democratic appointees would have been more receptive to a challenge based on the 8th amendment (which deals with excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment). That opportunity has now passed.
Has your predicament ever left you feeling suicidal?
Yes. During my first two years of being in solitary.
You’re housed on Death Row, even though you’re not going to be executed. Do you believe in the death penalty?
No, I don’t believe in the death penalty. For the record, the death-sentenced prisoners actually behave better than those being held in the solitary as punishment for misbehavior in general population. On that note, I haven’t had a disciplinary case in the last eleven years.
What effect did the film I Love You Phillip Morris have on your life?
There was an overwhelming response of love and kindness toward me after people saw the film. I received thousands of letters from all over the world.
Do you have any contact with Phillip Morris now?
We’ve not had any contact since December 2010. Most likely, he has moved on with his life. I know I have.
Do you keep up with world events/news and how?
Yes, I subscribe to The New York Times and a multitude of magazines. I also have a radio and listen to the BBC and National Public Radio on a daily basis.
Donald Trump has pardoned people of late. Has it occurred to you to ask him for a pardon?
Trump does not have the power to pardon prisoners with state convictions. He can only pardon or commute the sentences of those with federal convictions.
Have you resigned yourself to spending the rest of your life in prison?
Yes, if it is necessary. My life did not stop when I came to prison. I remain as busy as ever doing all the things I can to stay active.
Do you think you will ever be released from prison?
I hope so. I have never committed any act of violence or possessed any weapons, and because of that I am eligible for parole consideration.
If you are ever released, what are you most looking forward to?
Quiet! Prisons are very loud. The noise is quite irritating to me.
What’s it like being gay in prison?
When I was in general population, years ago, all of the gay prisoners lived in housing together. I never had any problems with straight prisoners due to my size at the time (i.e. 6’1” and 200lbs). Smaller gay guys went through hell because we ate with general population and went to work and school with the straights. After my crime wave, everyone treats me like a celebrity.
If you wanted to impart any life advice to people reading this story, what would it be?
Be out and proud! If people cannot deal with your lifestyle, that’s their problem. Don’t allow anyone to rent space in your brain.
Do you have any problems with other prisoners, or are you allowed pen pal relationships with people on the outside?
I can go outside with another prisoner and talk. There are two cages in the outside prison yard where that can happen, although we remain separated. It’s the only place in this unit that can be quiet. I try to go outside with all the cute guys. We have a few on this pod.
And yes, I’m allowed to have pen pals (Steven Russell, Polunsky Unit, #760259, 3871 FM 350 South, Livingston, Texas, 77351-8580, USA). We are allowed to write to anyone unless they are a victim to a crime that we were charged with and convicted of.