Prison consultants help inmates get good digs
By SAMANTHA HENRY, Associated Press Writer
Tue Jul 28, 6:50 am ET
NEWARK, N.J. – Bernie Madoff once had the best that money could buy when it came to his many homes. For his latest accommodations, he sought out a different kind of broker: a type of prison consultant increasingly popular among white-collar wrongdoers.
Madoff, now serving a 150-year sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex near Raleigh, N.C., isn't the only high-profile individual to seek out a specialist to help prepare for life behind bars.
From Martha Stewart to Michael Vick, prison consultants are often hired by celebrities, white-collar miscreants and disgraced politicians to lobby for good prison placement, mitigate sentence length and offer crash courses in prison culture.
Last week's arrests of 44 people in a wide-ranging corruption probe that netted public officials and religious leaders in New York and New Jersey may soon produce a batch of new clients.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is aware of the work of prison consultants, but the agency treats all requests from prison consultants as it would any request from the general public, said spokeswoman Felicia Ponce. Consultants say that they never promise good placement and that lobbying for it is only one aspect of what they do for their clients.
"It's like going to a foreign country that you've never been to before — different language, people's mannerisms," said Tim Miller of the San Diego-based Dr. Prison consultant service. "When people are entering into the system, we help them look at themselves in ways they may not see themselves."
Miller says his firm first assesses a client's "prison demeanor" and then tailors advice accordingly. Often, former powerbrokers are told they can no longer order others around and shy people are urged to learn to play cards or talk sports so they don't seem anti-social.
Clients are counseled, he said, to always stick with their own race — regardless of how open-minded they might be in the outside world — and are coached to never let anyone cut in front of them in the food line. They're warned that dorm environments are more volatile than single cellblocks and that most altercations take place in the TV room.
Prison consultants charge anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars for such advice, and help the prison-bound navigate every aspect of incarceration from sentencing to discharge.
Herbert Hoelter said he is on retainer as a professional favor to Madoff's lawyer, Ira Sorkin, but is not being paid by the disgraced financier he describes as indigent. A trained social worker and pioneer in sentencing consulting, Hoelter co-founded in 1977 the Maryland-based nonprofit National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, which has represented Stewart, Vick, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.
Several other consultants learned the trade the hard way: by serving time themselves.
"Many lawyers think their job is done the day of sentencing, that's when my job typically begins," said John Webster, founder of the Nashville-based National Prison and Sentencing Consultants.
Webster, a former attorney, started his company in 2002, shortly after his release from a 13-month stint in federal prison for lying to the FBI while representing a client in a New Jersey securities fraud case.
"The true punishment of a federal prison camp is the sheer boredom," said Webster, who charges a flat rate of $3,500 for what he calls "complete prison preparation," or a per-diem rate for cases that involve travel or investigative work.
White-collar offenders "have to understand where they're going and the kinds of people they'll be around," Webster said. "They're no longer the captain of the ship or the leader of the pack."
Larry Levine of the Los Angeles-based companies Wall Street Prison Consultants and American Prison Consultants says his 10 years of hard time for narcotics and possession of counterfeit securities, among other charges, guarantee that his advice is genuine. His firm offers a primer called "Fed Time 101," covering everything from inmate etiquette to suing a Bureau of Prisons employee.
Consultants like Levine often do preparatory work for sentencing hearings, review inmates' cases to see if they are eligible for sentence reduction through work furloughs or drug programs, and design a survival program that includes how to manage time wisely by learning a language or studying for a degree. He also fields middle-of-the-night phone calls from worried family members.
"If your husband, or whoever, was in there; you don't know what's going on," Levine said. "Wouldn't it be nice to have someone you could call who could tell you what could or could not happen or what you could do to help? What's peace of mind like that worth?"
Levine said his services are worth $1,000 to $5,000 per consultation, depending on how much work a case involves.
His client roster, which he describes as "half narcotics, half white-collars," has grown recently with an uptick in people accused of mortgage fraud.
One of the newest clients for prison consulting is former Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Fumo, who reports August 31 for his 55-month federal sentence for corruption. His attorney, Dennis Cogan, said he routinely uses consultants for his clients and will for Fumo.
In Madoff's case, Hoelter would not divulge where he had lobbied for incarceration — but said he's pleased with the assignment to the medium-security facility at Butner.
Hoelter said he gave Madoff the same advice he gives all his clients.
"Standard advice for all of our clients is to kind of melt into the woodwork, don't single yourself out, don't let yourself be singled out," he said. "Ironically, it's not the inmates who create difficulty for high-profile clients, it's more often the guards who want to be seen as having the capacity to order a former multimillionaire to sweep a floor."