11.28.10

Gay Prison Movie's Real-Life Con

Steven Russell, played by Jim Carrey in the “gay prison” movie, I Love You Phillip Morris, is serving 144 years in prison after four escapes. He talks to Nicole LaPorte from behind bars.

Steven Russell, played by Jim Carrey in the “gay prison” movie, I Love You Phillip Morris, is serving 144 years in prison after four escapes. He talks to Nicole LaPorte from behind bars. Related: Gina Piccalo profiled Phillip Morris, Russell's great love, who says of Russell: "I could just beat him to a pulp. But I love him." Read the story.

“All right, this needs to be flat, but you can take a stainless steel razor blade, cut it like this…”

Steven Jay Russell is sitting across from me, behind a bulletproof window of glass, using his finger to make a cutting motion. We are in prison. In the middle of Texas, where on the other side of the gates, there are cowboy churches (“Come As You Are”) and signs that say “Stop the Porn and Be Reborn—Jesus.”

“Just get your indentation in there, and then you take some Ajax, a pair of shoelaces, go like this with it, it cuts the metal”— and voila!

That, Russell says, is how to make a knife. The kind of knife that an inmate would craft in order to, say, attack a guard and escape jail.

Russell is something of an expert both at being in prison—he is currently serving his 10th year of a 144-year sentence—and getting out. Over a five-year period back in the 1990s, he broke out four times from a number of Texas correctional facilities, always in very colorful ways (once he dyed his prison whites green and pretended to be a doctor; another time, he faked having AIDS), and always because he wanted to be united with his lover, a man named Phillip Morris. Every jail-break occurred on a Friday the 13th—the day Morris was born. 

About the first time he met Phillip Morris, Russell says, “I was just tryin’ to get laid!”

Gina Piccalo: The Man Who Fell for 'King Con'Russell’s tale is the stuff of pulpy, romantic fiction, and not surprisingly, it was turned into a book, by Steve McVicker, and now a movie, starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, which comes out on Friday. I Love You Phillip Morris has already been released in Europe, and was supposed to come out earlier this year in the U.S., but was delayed because of distribution issues. The stall inevitably led to rumors that no commercial-minded studio wanted to touch a “gay prison movie,” which opens with a penis-shaped cloud, but Roadside Attractions, which is releasing the film, hopes that this outréness will pay off come Oscar time.

In the movie, Carrey plays Russell, but really he’s playing Jim Carrey. Unlike McGregor—who spent time with Morris in order to perfectly mimic his gentle, Arkansas patois and coquettish mannerisms—Carrey never met his subject, and his over-the-top-zany performance does not capture the vulnerable-seeming man who’s sitting across from me.

Now 53 years old, Russell has a pale, pudgy face and speaks softly, in a Southern accent. (He grew up in Norfolk, Virginia.) He has twinkly blue eyes that are astoundingly playful for a man who spends 23 hours a day alone in a prison cell, and he is a master at cracking himself up. Midway through a sentence, he’ll stop and have to remove his wire-framed glasses, cover his eyes with his hand, and laugh it out. Then he’ll resume the story. He is always telling stories.

“Let me tell you a story,” he is saying now, into the old-fashioned, black telephone receiver, which is how we’re communicating. (FYI, talking to an inmate in prison is exactly the way it looks on TV and in movies.)

“This guy—another prisoner—asked me, ‘How do you break out?’ We’re talking back in 2000. So he starts writing me these notes. So I tell him exactly how to do it, exactly how he could get out of there. And this fool—”

He stops. He is laughing too hard to talk.

“He”—now he is practically choking—“ He kept the notes!

“And he got caught with them, we’re talking years later. And so one day this guy comes to me and says, ‘We’ve got a case for you.’ I was in my cell drinking hot chocolate. I said, ‘A case for what?’ He said, ‘Attempted escape.’ I started laughing right there. I said, ‘I didn’t attempt to escape.’ He said, ‘All this advice you gave somebody.’

In the end, Russell had another year added to his sentence, but even so, to him, the story isn’t about being bitter, it’s about gaining yet more insight into human behavior, a subject that fascinates him: 

“It’s just funny,” he says. “Because, it’s like, people can’t memorize anything!

He erupts into howls.

Part of what is so disarming about Russell is that he has never physically hurt anybody, in or out of prison, so he is not scary in a Jack the Ripper kind of way. All of his arrests, which began with insurance fraud back in 1992, stem from white-collar crimes, which generally involved Russell—who has an IQ of 163—outwitting the kind of person whom he would describe as a moron.

In the notebook that he keeps with him and fastidiously fills with musings, facts, and figures (including the NASDAQ and Dow Jones daily indexes), he once wrote: “The real problem with security people is they’re basically ignorant and maybe just plain stupid.”

He says he would never have written that today, claiming to have gained more respect for the system now that he’s older, but there is no question that Russell thinks—probably correctly—that he is smarter than everybody around him.

Even in his relationship with Morris, which began in 1995 when the two met in the Harris County Jail law library (Morris was arrested for not returning a rental car), Russell admits that he conned his future muse into falling in love with him.

“I spun a tale,” he says, explaining how he told Morris, a more naïve soul, that he was an attorney, even though he has never been to college. “Because I wasn’t interested in getting in a relationship with him. I had bad things on my mind. I was just tryin’ to get laid!

“But then it turned out to be really good.”

They were really good for a while. Once out of prison, the men led an extravagant life (matching red Mercedes and Rolexes), funded by Russell’s latest con—he faked a resume and fast-talked his way into a job as the CFO of a managed health-care company in Houston. He embezzled $800,000 from the company before being caught and tossed back in jail.

Morris also had to do more time, but has been out since 2003. He and Russell no longer talk.

“Phillip is on my visiting list,” Russell says quietly. “But I haven’t encouraged him to visit. It would only cause him problems.”

(Morris has spoken openly about how he resents being lassoed into Russell’s shenanigans, and seems to have his own reasons for not visiting.)

“I’ve talked to parole and basically been told that if I ever do get out, that that would be one of the stipulations—that I have no contact with him.”

And how does Russell feel about that? “There are things in life that you don’t agree with, or you don’t like, but you gotta accept. And that’s one of them for me.”

Something else he says he has come to accept is the fact that, in a best-case scenario, he won’t be out of prison for almost 20 years.  

“I can make my parole, and I probably will, eventually. But I’ll be old. I’m old already, but I’ll be older.”

His voice becomes so soft it’s almost hard to hear him, and a shadow passes over his eyes. “You can’t do anything about it. You can’t. You either let it drive you crazy and you stay angry and you turn at night… This is something I’ve had to mature to. I did it to myself. But if I react to it in the wrong way, then I’m giving in. So I look at it as giving in. Because—that’s it! You did it.”

Despite this very rational level-headedness, it’s impossible not to ask Russell if he doesn’t ever think about another jail-break. But he insists no. Those days are over: “I’ve put too much time in, and I’ve changed.”

But when asked if he could break out, he lights up, and instantly says, “Oh, yes! Yes!”

The shadows are gone. His eyes are dancing.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.