The judge's words in the crowded Southern courtroom hit Carl Pait like an ax handle. Sitting on his high bench, Judge James H. Pou Bailey sentenced Pait to 44 years in prison for forging about $2,000 in checks on his parents' bank account. He'd expected to get about a tenth of that time, maybe four or five years. When he finally grasped the enormity of the sentence—44 years!—the blond, 20-year-old high school dropout darted through the courtroom door, barreled down the staircase and headed for the streets of Lumberton, N.C. He never made it. Sheriff's deputies grabbed him in the lobby, twisted his arms behind his back and marched him back upstairs. In the courtroom, Judge Bailey, the gray-haired, broad-bellied son of a former U.S. senator, cited Pait for contempt of court and ordered him jailed for an additional 30 days before the start of his long prison term. "This time," said the judge, "chain him up."

While serving that 30-day sentence in the summer of 1982, Carl Pait made another dramatic but doomed attempt to escape his fate: He removed the blade from a disposable razor and slit his wrist. "I just didn't want to live in that hostile environment and I didn't know what to do," he says in a drawl. "I just felt so damn upset that I got all that time. It just took so damn long to accept."

Pait, now 24, is still trying to come to grips with the prospect of spending the prime of his life behind bars, punishment for a brief criminal "career" as a forger that was as pathetically futile and inept as his attempted courtroom escape. His sentence is so unusually harsh that a North Carolina Appeals Court judge has taken the rare step of publicly criticizing it. Indeed, Pait will spend more time in prison than some murderers. He is in the Wayne Correctional Center in Goldsboro, N.C.—a bunker-style building surrounded by barbed-wire fences—and sleeps in a large, cramped room with 72 other convicted felons. "They're in for everything you can think of—murder, rape, child molestation," he says. "There are a few forgers, but they come and go. They're only doing three or four years." Pait spends most of his time—about 14 hours a day—tending the prison canteen, selling snack food and toiletries to other inmates. It's a job that pays $1 a day but holds the promise of "gain time" off his sentence. "I can't stand the possibility of having to pull my full prison term," he wrote in a recent letter. "If it comes down to that, to be very honest about it, I'd rather be dead."

Carl A. Pait's story began on a small family farm outside Bladenboro, N.C, in the southeastern part of the state. The flat, tidewater land was fertile, and the family raised corn and soybeans and, of course, tobacco. But few farmers were rich. "There's not a whole lot of money around," says Irene Pait, 51, Carl's mother. Her son was raised working on the farm, but as he grew older—his relatives, friends and neighbors agree—his appearance began to cause him problems. Pait was a fat boy. In high school, he was obese, physically immature, unathletic and wore glasses. Consequently, he was teased and bullied. Ask about Carl Pait around Bladenboro, and anyone who knew him immediately tells you how much abuse he suffered during high school. Not surprisingly, he dropped out at age 16. "Everybody picked on him, and I think it got the best of him," says Pait's brother Michael, 29, an Air Force captain now stationed in Florida. "He didn't think much of himself. When he got out of school, he didn't have a lot of motivation because he didn't think he could succeed at anything."

Pait worked on a hog farm for a while, then quit. "I was hanging around the pool halls, experimenting with drugs, drinking and stuff," he recalls. "I was rebellious with my parents and I wanted to party all the time." His parents knew something was wrong but never learned the nature of his problem and had no idea how to help him. Running with a rowdy crowd, he began avoiding old buddies like Jim Britt, who'd been his best friend. "We sort of drifted apart in high school," says Britt, 24, a sporadically employed construction worker. "I heard he was into drugs pretty bad. You could tell just by looking at him that he was drinking a lot. I think it was because he was overweight that he felt he had to do some things to be accepted."

But booze and drugs cost money, and so, in the spring of 1980, when he was 18, Pait swiped some of his parents' checks and started forging his father's name and cashing them for $50 or $100, mostly at gas stations. Soon Hub, as the father is called, and Irene Pait started getting notices from the bank that their account was overdrawn. They were mystified until they learned that Carl had written the checks. In May he was arrested, charged with forging and passing 21 checks—all on the family account—for a total of $1,520. The Paits accompanied their troubled son to court, and the judge told them that if they could make good on the checks, he'd go easier on the boy. But they couldn't. Their home had burned in 1976, and the Paits were still struggling to pay the huge rebuilding debts while supporting Carl's younger brother and sister on Hub's disability payments and Irene's salary as a hospital lab technician. "There was no way we could cover it, no way we could borrow," Irene says. "So the judge gave him 20 years as a youthful offender—20 years!"

Ironically, as Carl Pait looks back on that day, he wishes that he'd been sent to a tougher prison than the "youthful offender" facilities in which he was incarcerated. They were like "boys' camps," he says. In one of them, he lived in a private room and worked outside the prison as a hospital janitor. "It was a breeze," he says. "I never really got the impact of going to prison."

In North Carolina a prisoner sentenced as a "committed youthful offender" is eligible for parole almost immediately, and on Feb. 4, 1982—after about 20 months in prison—Pait was released. Back in Bladenboro, his neighbors didn't recognize him. He'd grown about five inches and lost about 50 pounds. "He went through the bulk of his physical development in prison," says his brother Michael. "He went through his growth spurt there. Maybe he had an arrested development."

Among the conditions of Pait's parole were that he live at home, get a full-time job and pay $105 per month in restitution payments to the state. But unemployment is high around Bladenboro, and the only work Pait could find was a part-time job as a cook's helper in Lumberton's Bonanza Steak House. Convinced that he would soon be sent back to prison, Pait moped around the house like a whipped dog. "He had a fatalistic attitude," his mother remembers. "He felt there was no way he could make the restitution. We were sitting on the porch one day, and he was so depressed. He said, 'Momma, I know they're gonna send me back.' It was too much for him."

Pait started drinking heavily, quit his job and violated his parole by traveling to the South Carolina resort town of Myrtle Beach. "I was averaging about a case of beer a day," he says. In March, according to court records, he forged his father's signature again and cashed six more checks—a total of $555. Why did he commit the same futile crime again? "Stupidity," he says. His parents have a different idea. "Carl got to the point where he just didn't care anymore," says Hub. "He just gave up," adds Irene.

On Apr. 14,1982 Pait was sent back to prison for violating his parole. By then his parents had learned of his latest check spree. Recalling the first trial, when the judge had asked if they could make good on the checks, the Paits had arranged to get the money from their son Michael. But they never got the chance to make that offer in court. On June 1, without his parents' knowledge, Pait was brought from prison to the court in Lumberton and, in one hectic day, was interrogated and indicted on charges of forging and passing the six checks. He also met his court-appointed attorney, Arlie Jacobs. They got to talk for five minutes. Since Jacobs had not seen the indictment—it was not yet available—he urged Pait to plead not guilty.

At the arraignment that afternoon, however, Judge Bailey—who had apparently learned that Pait had confessed to the police—irately refused to accept that plea. "The judge said he was sick and tired of dishonest pleas and wanted honest pleas," Jacobs says. Pait watched the judge remove his glasses in anger and raise his voice, and the young defendant panicked. "Your honor," he blurted out, "I told the lawyer I was guilty."

At that point Judge Bailey ordered Pait and Jacobs to confer in the holding cell outside the courtroom and return with "an honest plea." In the little locked room, Jacobs continued to argue in favor of a not guilty plea—after all, he still hadn't even seen the indictment—but Pait, who was visibly frightened, insisted on pleading guilty to all 12 charges. "I figured my best bet was to go ahead and plead guilty," Pait recalled, "and see if he'd calm down some and give me a break."

He didn't. A week later, on June 7, Judge Bailey sentenced Pait to two years on each of the six forgery counts and two years on each of the six counts of passing the checks. He specified that each of the 12 two-year terms be served consecutively at the expiration of Pait's earlier 20-year term. "Now he's got about 44 years to think about passing forged checks," Bailey announced. Then addressing Jacobs, he cracked a joke: "I wouldn't get paid by check if I were you." At that point Pait made his ill-fated escape attempt. Knowing Bailey's reputation for packing a pistol, Jacobs kept a close eye on the judge: "I kept looking for that gun to come out when that boy ran."

Three years later Judge Bailey was asked about Pait's 44-year sentence. "That seems a little excessive," he said. "But I have no recollection of this case." Reading court documents to refresh his memory, the judge paused at the point in the transcript where he was quoted as saying, "This time, chain him up." He chuckled, "That sounds like me." It was the last day of his 20-year career on the bench, and Bailey sat in a sport shirt in his Raleigh office while the mementos of his judicial career lay in boxes on the floor. Puffing contentedly on his pipe, he scanned the legal papers, then uttered his verdict: Pait's sentence was justified by his prior record. "You've got a habitual forger here," he said. "If you turn him loose, he'll probably forge a check today—probably for his bus ticket home."

If Pait's sentence is justified, as Judge Bailey says, then other North Carolina judges have been letting forgers off easy. Since the early '80s, the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina has been analyzing prison sentences in the state and found that the median term for forgery was two years. The longest forgery sentence during the period studied was 20 years. In fact, the project showed, Pait's sentence was far longer than the median term for assault with a deadly weapon (three years) or even armed robbery (14 years). Pait's punishment is so unusually severe that Judge Willis P. Whichard of the State Court of Appeals has questioned it. He says, "I'm not in the business of criticizing specific sentences by specific judges. But this case is certainly one that evokes questions. I would question it from a cost-benefit analysis. When you look at the cost of the offense and the cost of incarceration for that length of time, it just doesn't make sense."

Pait hopes that other judges will agree with Whichard. Aided by court-appointed attorney Geoffrey Mangum, 33, he is taking the case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, arguing that his guilty plea was coerced by Judge Bailey, and that he be allowed to withdraw the plea. Thus far, his appeals have failed, despite some poignant moments. On Sept. 4, 1984, when the case was being heard in Lumberton's Superior Court, Pait's mother delivered an eloquent plea for her son. "He can't stay in prison that long," she told the judge. "We don't want him to come out of prison a warped old man. He needs another chance to live. He was a stupid kid and he didn't realize that we love him enough and we would have done anything in the world to help him.... "

Later that afternoon Pait's father, who has a heart condition, suffered an angina attack in the courtroom. When Judge B. Craig Ellis called for a rescue squad, Hub Pait protested. "No," he said, "I have a right to sit here in the courtroom until it kills me." A few minutes after Mr. Pait was rushed to the hospital, the judge turned down his son's request to withdraw the guilty plea, finding it was voluntarily given and not coerced.

Pait has thought a good deal about his parents over the past three and a half years. "I feel bad about what I've put them through," he says. "I didn't realize at the time what kind of damage I had done." They visit him frequently and now, he says, "We have a good relationship."

In his relations with his family—and in most other ways—Pait considers himself a different man than he was four years ago. He has been through psychological counseling and alcohol rehabilitation. He has earned his high school equivalency diploma and last year was selected for a responsible prison position as head of the inmate canteen. "He was picked because he's levelheaded and trustworthy and he has a pleasant disposition," says his superior, Lt. Hughes Jones. "He's been doing an exceptional job." Jones has watched Pait mature over the last three years and now, he says, "He's at the point where I don't feel that further incarceration would do him any good."

"I feel I've grown up a lot," Pait says. He dreams of going to college, getting a job, maybe even raising a family, but he realizes that he'll need some help. "I think an alcoholic center could take me under their wing and spend some time with me and show me they care and bring out a lot of good in me," he wrote recently. "I have a good heart and don't want it warped by prison life."

Unless Pait wins his appeals, however, his earliest possible hope for freedom is sometime in mid-1994. His father, now 61, does not expect to live that long. "I don't ever expect to see Carl a free man, not in my lifetime," he says.

Hearing that remark quoted to him as he sits in a small prison visitors' room, Pait takes a long drag on a cigarette, then exhales in a sigh. "My goal right now would be to get out and let my parents see me doing okay," he says. "If something happened to one of them while I was in here..." He pauses, adding, "I don't think I could handle that." He takes another pull on the cigarette, then turns away and stares out through the barred window toward a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire.