Prison sweet prison

Horace Caraker doesn't belong in federal prison. But he likes it there, and he'll threaten a president if it means going back.

After 40 years spent in and out of state and federal prisons, after 40 years bouncing between Rusk State Hospital and Terrell State Hospital and Parkland Hospital's psychiatric wards, Caraker insists he finally wants out. And "in a Greyhound bus instead of a pine box," he begs in his letter to Buchmeyer, insisting he's a dying man who wants to spend his last years out in the free world. He swears he'll get a job, swears he doesn't drink anymore, swears he's through threatening to assassinate presidents.

For some reason, Caraker doesn't want much of the contents of these letters revealed, because he's afraid these letters will put him behind bars for life. Maybe he's afraid someone will misunderstand the part about how a real crazy man would get into federal prison by "going inside an Indian reservation and shooting all the palefaces he saw" or doing "something similar to what Timothy McVeigh did in Okla City." Now, he's not talking about himself, no sir. That's just a hypothetical. All he does is make phone calls.

It's mentioned to Caraker that he is already behind bars, and that he is here today because he wants to be. He flashes a sad grin and says those days are over.

Horace Caraker refers to himself as a career criminal, then stops and changes it. "no," he says, "I'm a career get-in-prisoner."
Martin Menocal
Horace Caraker refers to himself as a career criminal, then stops and changes it. "no," he says, "I'm a career get-in-prisoner."
Caraker likes to write letters to the judges who put him in, or kept him out of, prison. All his letters say the same thing: He wants to die in the free world.
Caraker likes to write letters to the judges who put him in, or kept him out of, prison. All his letters say the same thing: He wants to die in the free world.

Maybe, but probably not. He's been breaking into prison for most of his life. He defies the social workers who place him in halfway houses and psychiatric wards. He thumbs his nose at the attorneys who put him in shelters and hotels, who pick up his medication and his tobacco. He gets out of prison, then makes it his mission to go right back in. Keep him away from prison too long, and he becomes homesick.

"That's because I'm institutionalized," he explains over and over again. He uses the word "institutionalized" the way other people use the word "the." It's his explanation for everything: the drinking, the threats, the homosexuality. All that time in the joint has made it impossible for him to function in the outside world. After all, he is a nobody -- a man without family, without friends, without anyone to give a damn about him.

"But I feel deinstitutionalized now, OK, and that's a good thing," he says, his voice rising a little bit. "I have always been a willing worker. I have many friends. I play guitar and sing. I'm a good writer. I'm a plumber, and I just want to feel like everybody else, because as a little bitty fifth-grader, I was different from everybody else. But now I feel good. Normal."

Not according to both his advocates and his enemies. In fact, they use the same word to describe Horace Caraker: pathetic. Mention his name to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Hamilton, who has tried Caraker twice since 1995, and he erupts with a frustrated, sick-to-death chuckle.

"I thought he was pathetic," Hamilton says of the first time he met Caraker. "Here was a fellow who has obvious mental issues and health issues and alcohol and drug issues, and it was pretty clear to me that the reason he did what he did was to be institutionalized, and I viewed it as my job to help him accomplish his goal. Some people are very thankful, as bad as it is, to have a structured environment where they're looked after and clothed."

Nobody knows what to do with him. If he's insane, surely he belongs in one of the four mental facilities maintained by the federal government. He's been there before, in 1995, when they took Caraker to Butner, North Carolina. The only problem is, the psychiatrists -- those for the defense and the prosecution -- keep insisting Caraker's not crazy.

Narcissistic? Yes. An alcoholic? No doubt about it. Dependent? Sure. Manipulative? Absolutely.

But insane? Not likely.

Or maybe, as Hamilton says, he's "crazy like a fox." In 1975, Caraker went to the library and found the easiest way to get into a cushy federal prison. Threaten the president, and they gotta give you three years at the minimum, five years if you're lucky. He learned that after a stint in the Texas prison system, when he got sent up for robbery. Back then, he claims, the guards would bullwhip a man for not carrying his weight out in the work fields. No way he was ever going to serve time in a state facility ever again.

But Horace Caraker has committed no real crime. He hasn't stolen anything lately, hasn't hurt anyone, hasn't done anything besides make a few phone calls.

Clint Broden and Mick Mickelsen, two of his myriad defense attorneys during the past 40 years, insist that he belongs in a halfway house. They want him to receive medical and psychiatric treatment. They want him to be treated like a man with a mental condition, not a criminal. This, even though he has continually rejected their help.

"Maybe that's why I'm a Boston Red Sox fan," says Broden, laughing. "I care about him because no one else cares about him."

Mickelsen -- who, like his partner Broden, first encountered Caraker during his years in the federal public defender's office -- is not so emotionally attached to his client. He cares less about Caraker than he does the issues surrounding his incarceration.

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