Friday, August 07, 2009

"...nor iron bars a cage..."

There's a consultant for everything. An Associated Press article by Samantha Henry, which I read in my local newspaper last Sunday, tells of consultants who advise celebrity and convicted white collar clients what to expect in prison. Clients of these consultants have included Martha Stewart, Michael Vick, and some names from the past, Leona Helmsley, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken. The most famous current convict is Bernard Madoff, whose name tells his story: He made off with billions of dollars of his clients' money, leaving pension funds, foundations, charities and especially individuals, broke.

The advice a prison consultant would give to a guy like Madoff is that despite running a huge empire for decades, in prison he can't order people around. Big no-no there. A shy guy might be told to learn how to play cards or versed in the art of small talk ("So how's your cell? Did you sleep? Man, I think we need air conditioning in this joint. I laid awake all night sweating it was so hot...")

One rule from consultants was not to let anyone cut in front of you in the chow line. I guess that shows you're weak and if you show weakness you will become a victim. Future inmates are also told to stick with their own race, no matter how egalitarian or open-minded they were on the outside. On the inside people gang up in racial groups for mutual protection.

I'd advise new convicts, when taking a shower with other men don't drop the soap.

Madoff got 150 years, which will give him a lot of practice in how to get along in prison.

Personally I couldn't do one day in prison, or jail either, for that matter.

Last night I watched a show on Current TV, where reporter Lisa Ling and her photographer/producer Euna Lee followed some convicts who had been released. (This was obviously taped before Ling and Lee became guests of the North Korean government, convicted to many years at hard labor for straying over the line into that communist paradise. I don't believe they had the benefit of a consultant on what to expect in a North Korean prison, and I'm sure it was terrifying not knowing what was going to happen.) Most of the inmates on the Ling documentary were happy to be out, but they walk a fine line, subject to random drug testing, parole officers checking up on their whereabouts, because for the slightest infraction they can be sent back.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the free world. I don't know about prisons in totalitarian countries, and I wouldn't trust their statistics. But American prisons are bursting with inmates. One man on the Lisa Ling program had been released from Pelican Bay in California, which is where the worst inmates of all go. They are locked down 23 hours a day. About 70% of parolees in California end up back in prison, and there are various reasons: one, they're institutionalized and they're used to prison; two, the outside world makes demands on them and it's easier to have someone else make the decisions; three, they're stupid criminals and they continue to get caught for stupid criminal activities. There's always free advice from counselors, parole officers, etc., on what to expect in the outside world, but it's up to the individual to put it into practice. To a guy who has spent a couple of decades behind bars, being out in the real world might be scarier to him than prison would be to me. The man who had been in Pelican Bay was in the process of having his tattoos lasered off, because they'd preclude him from employment and would identify him as a gang member. I thought in his case that was a positive step.

One woman parolee was a former meth addict in a halfway house, hoping to stay there long enough to become a counselor to other parolees. She had a problem with anger and had been kicked out of more than one group therapy session for blowing up. Someone like her would have a hard time not getting violated for a parole violation unless she was serious about managing that anger.

Did Martha Stewart listen to her consultant? I understand that she was as bossy in prison as she is on the outside. She also said on her release she was devoted to helping the women in prison. If she's done any of that I haven't heard of it. I hope she's kept her word, since she'd be in a position to be both a consultant to those coming out, and to those going in. A prison consulting business could be a whole new career for Martha. I guess no one would know better than the person who's spent time in the Hotel d'Crowbar.

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