Interview: Steven Russell on infamy, escaping prison and Phillip Morris

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Steven Russell was originally imprisoned for fraud. Four successful, non-violent, love-fuelled prison-escapes later and he has achieved infamy. His life is immortalised in the film ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’, in which he is portrayed by Jim Carrey. He is currently serving a 144-year sentence in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility. Laurence Watts interviewed him by exchange of letters.

Moviegoers love a good crime flick. We love a good chase and we love to watch hapless police being given the run-around by criminals and conmen. We especially love it when these words appear on screen: based on a true story.

Hollywood knows this. Thus, Phil Collins played Great Train Robber Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster and Leonardo DiCaprio played forger and impersonator Frank Abagnale in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. What was different about Jim Carrey’s decision to play fraudster and escape artist Steven Russell in 2010’s I Love You Phillip Morris was his character’s sexuality: Steven Russell is gay, on screen and in real life. How involved was he with the movie?

“Not at all,” he tells me. “Phillip was involved extensively. He was released in November 2003. Ewan McGregor spent a few days with him at his home in Arkansas. I’ve only seen bits of the movie during media interviews, but from what I’ve seen the movie looks awesome. After the film was released my mail increased from about five or six letters a month to thousands.”

Russell’s infamy began on March 13th 1992 when he escaped from Harris County Jail, Houston, Texas. When Russell had been sentenced a month earlier he knew that if he remained in prison he would never again see his lover, Jim Kemple, alive. Kemple had AIDS.

“Keep in mind that Texas was asking me to serve ten years for insurance fraud, another six months for passport fraud and Virginia wanted 90 days of jail time from me for theft,” says Russell. “By the time I was to get out of prison, Jim would be dead.”

Russell decided to escape. He studiously observed the prison’s guards, acquired a t-shirt and some red sweat pants and stole a Walkie Talkie. When the time was right he changed out of his prison jumpsuit, into his new clothes, walked past the prison guards, into the visitors’ area and out through the front door.

“My first escape worked because I used that portable police radio to tap on the window of the guard’s picket. The guards thought I was an undercover police officer. It was such an adrenaline rush. Those first moments of freedom felt amazing. Best of all I knew I would get to see and take care of Jimmy. He lived another 26 months after my escape.”

Russell and Kemple fled to Mexico City, only returning to America because of money issues and Kemple’s health. Russell spent two years on the run with Kemple, caring for him as his health deteriorated. Eventually the police tracked Russell down in Philadelphia. He was back in custody. Kemple died a few weeks later, which devastated Russell.

In the spring of the following year, 1995, Russell met Phillip Morris in the prison law library. Morris was serving time for automobile-related theft. They fell in love. By the end of the year they were both paroled and set about building a life together. Eager to provide for Morris, Russell falsified his resume and got a job as the CFO of a health management organisation called NAMM. During the four months he worked for them, in early 1996, he stole $800,000. Why wasn’t going straight an option for him?

“The HMOs put Jim and I through hell during his illness,” says Russell. “They wouldn’t cover the cost of certain treatments. At NAMM I watched executives badger their medical directors to put pressure on network physicians to get patients out of the hospital as soon as possible because otherwise it would affect their bonus. That got my revenge genes all greased up. I decided to make NAMM pay for their deeds as well as the other HMO’s deeds towards Jimmy.”

Russell was back in jail at the end of May 1996. Pending trial and facing a 45-year sentence for theft, his bail was initially set at $900,000. Russell decided 45 years was simply too long to serve. Impersonating a judge, he called the district clerk’s office and reduced his bail amount to $45,000. Once free on bail, he fled. It was his second escape. Three days later however he’d been caught and was back in jail.

His third escape happened five months later when he again walked out the prison’s front door. This time he was dressed as a doctor, having dyed a white pair of prison scrubs green using water and Magic Marker pens. He and Phillip fled to Mississippi, but were arrested within ten days.

Russell’s fourth and final escape was his most audacious. He falsified his medical records, lost a huge amount of weight and faked the symptoms of late stage AIDS. Believing he was about to die the authorities admitted him to a hospice near San Antonio on special needs parole in March 1998. Next, Russell called the hospice from an internal phone, impersonating a doctor specialising in experimental AIDS treatment. He had himself taken away from the centre to take part in the fictitious treatment and later declared himself dead. He was free. Did he feel bad about the fraud? After all, his former lover died of AIDS.

“No,” says Russell. “In Texas, an escape from custody can be prevented using deadly force. An escape will never be successful unless you use the least intrusive means of escaping. I viewed the AIDS blast of 1998 as the safest way for everyone involved to accomplish my goal of escaping.”

Since Russell is once again behind bars it goes without saying that he was recaptured. He was caught because he refused to let go of something law officials could track: Phillip Morris. Because of his track record Russell is now kept in what is effectively solitary confinement. It wasn’t always like this for him. What is prison generally like for gay men?

“It’s not easy being in prison if you’re gay,” says Russell. “If you aren’t willing to fight, it’s going to be hell. The vultures, who consider themselves straight, are going to try and have sex with someone who is openly gay.”

I mention Britain’s Kray twins, both of who spent more than 25 years in prison for racketeering. While Ronnie Kray was openly bisexual before his imprisonment, his twin Reggie reportedly started having relationships with men only after many years in prison. Can prison change someone’s sexuality?

“No,” answers Russell. “I happen to believe that if a man has sex with another man in prison then he is either gay or bisexual. Coming to prison did nothing to change his sexual proclivity.”

Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale served just five years in jail. He was released on condition he assist federal authorities counter the types of forging he had perpetrated. Would Russell consider a similar deal consulting on prison security?

“I think it would be an excellent career,” he says. “However prison officials think they know everything and would never accept advice from an ex-con. That’s why you’ve never heard of it happening.”

With no further escapes in the last 13 years, the additional security Russell is now placed under might be said to be working. It is however hard to see what danger he still poses to society. Does he hold out any hope that he might one day be released?

“It’s not something I spend much time focusing on,” he says. “Don’t take that to mean that I’m a negative person. I just realise the odds are against me. The folks who run this state took what I’ve done personal. Right now though, I’m doing just fine without all of the drama my prior life afforded me.”