Conrad Black's New Life Behind Bars

Fred Shapiro knows a thing or two about what PRISON is like for a white collar criminal. He has been there twice - once in the 1990s for a US$8.6-million bank fraud he committed in Philadelphia, and again in 2001 for identity theft.

Conrad Black's New Life Behind Bars

Fred Shapiro knows a thing or two about what PRISON is like for a white collar criminal. He has been there twice - once in the 1990s for a US$8.6-million bank fraud he committed in Philadelphia, and again in 2001 for identity theft. His message for Conrad BLACK, should he receive even half of the 35-year prison sentence he is facing: "God help you."

Black's life in prison will be a wrenching departure from the lifestyle to which he's accustomed. His world of expensive New York apartments, private jets and society parties will shrink to the size of a small cubicle, a two-foot by three-foot steel locker, bunk bed, and a shared desk. Dinners at pricey restaurants like New York's La Grenouille will be replaced with food that inmates compare to flavourless, expired military rations. Forget champagne and wine. If Black is caught with any alcohol, his punishment could involve weeks in solitary - a prison-inside-a-prison sometimes called "the shoe." Rather than spending time with accomplished historians or writers, most of his fellow inmates will be drug offenders less than half his age.

At no time will this contrast be more stark than during his first night in prison, former white collar criminals say - a hellish, confusing and sleepless few hours often spent in a maximum security facility among violent offenders as prison officials sort new inmates and send them on to their eventual destinations. Most agree the beginning is the most stressful part of incarceration. For Shapiro, the lowest moment came seeing his family walk to the prison doors to say their goodbyes. "It's a horrible experience and one I won't wish on anyone."

Upon arrival, Black will be stripped of his clothes and belongings, which will be packaged and sent home to his family. He will be examined by doctors and issued cheap, uncomfortable prison underwear and coveralls. After being processed, he will likely be shipped to a lower security federal prison - a less restrictive facility but still very much a fenced-in jail. "When you walk in you know nobody. You know nothing about the world that you're in. That in itself is just frightening," says Walt Pavlo, who served 41 months in a federal prison for obstruction of justice, money laundering and mail fraud offences he committed working for MCI during the mid-1990s.

It can take months for prisoners to adapt to the boredom and the day-to-day grind. The realities of low-security prison life in the U.S. would come as a huge shock to most Canadians, who've gotten used to the idea that non-violent prisoners live in country clubs, like the Ferndale Institution in B.C., where Black's former business partner David Radler is expected to serve his 29-month sentence. There, prisoners can make their own meals, wear their own clothes and maintain their own cottage-like housing units. Things have gotten a little tougher at Ferndale in recent years, after stories about the cushy environment sparked a public backlash. Officials had the nine-hole golf course removed, for instance, and nobody can have their horse shipped there anymore, as convicted murderer Colin Thatcher famously did in 1999. Still, it's Shangri-La compared to most U.S. facilities.

Where Black is headed, sleeping quarters resemble concrete cubicles or crowded dorm rooms. Even at night, noise is constant. When one person gets sick, everyone does, says Pavlo. The beds are often little more than metal frames covered with two-inch-thick mattresses. Washrooms and showers are shared and cramped. "The toilet stalls are so small that it is difficult fitting inside; forget any bathroom reading here," writes Michael Santos, who is serving a 45-year sentence for drug offences, about the Lompoc Federal Prison Camp in California. He documents prison life on his website MichaelSantos.net. Medical facilities are also lacking. Jerome Mayne, who served two years for mail and wire fraud at a prison camp in South Dakota, says one of his fellow inmates was a doctor and far more capable than the prison's own medical staff, who often weren't actual MDs. "That doctor had to go in for a prostate exam and the physician's assistant didn't know how to do it. He had to talk the person through it," recalls Mayne with a chuckle.

Even prison camps - the low-security federal jails where Black will likely serve out at least part of his sentence - are highly regimented, rough places, say former white collar prisoners. Guards perform head counts several times a day - miss even one and risk being punished with time in seclusion or being sent off to a higher security prison. "The objective of the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] is to keep you off balance," says Shapiro. Trying to cozy up to the guards may be tempting, but it's a big mistake. There's an us-versus-them mentality between staff and prisoners, says Mayne. "White collar criminals have to get it in their heads that they are not above anybody else. You're smarter than a lot of other people, but you have to be one of them."

As for visits, inmates get a minimum of four hours a month with friends and family, but that does not include conjugal visits, which aren't allowed at any U.S. federal prison. Hugs and kisses "in good taste" are permitted, but only at the beginning and end of a visit, according to the BOP. Friends and family must also be on an approved list, and follow a basic dress code (no miniskirts, spandex or "revealing shorts").

Convicts who are slow to accept their fate will struggle, especially in forging all-important friendships. "It's better to be around people who realize that they've done something wrong and have accepted it and are trying to move on," says Pavlo. The fact that Black has so vehemently denied any wrongdoing throughout his trial is likely to make his time in prison particularly intolerable. "He is the kind of guy that I met in prison who has got his cell full of legal papers and is doing everything he can to get back out because he hasn't come to grips with it," says Pavlo, who has followed Black's trial. "I can tell you, for that type of person the experience is far worse." And it's common among white collar criminals, especially ones who went to trial rather than plead out, he adds. "They are just absolutely miserable - constantly working to get themselves freed from this injustice in their mind. But no one in there believes it."

In the end, the emotional strain of prison life is the biggest danger to an inmate's health. Fights happen, but most inmates in lower security prisons are not violent - many are there because of good behaviour. White collar inmates will also quickly pick up on a few unwritten prison rules. Shapiro says the most important are to mind your own business, keep your eyes on your laundry (people will steal it), and make sure people respect your space. "If you're sitting with someone and having a meal and they take their shoes off or they spit, you want to let them know that if they want to do that they do it in their own place, not in your place," he says. Many white collar prisoners advise avoiding sports, gambling (which is common), and talk of religion - they all inevitably lead to fisticuffs. Snitching is also a big no-no. Mayne recalls the time an inmate told guards about a cellphone that had been smuggled in. "That guy just got the absolute crap beaten out of him," says Mayne. "We never saw him again."

Beyond the hardships, inmates have very few perks. At the prison commissary, prisoners can buy canned meats and other snack foods, sneakers and more comfortable clothes, and even a radio and headphones (but not TVs). The grounds at most camps are well-kept (the camp in South Dakota had a prison horticulture program and beautiful rose gardens, Mayne says). Prisoners are assigned jobs - varying from working in the library to hard labour outdoors like picking weeds or milking cows. They may be tedious, but along with hobbies like reading they are vital to staying healthy, say prisoners. "You have to find activities or you will lose your mind, you really will," says Pavlo.

Perhaps most importantly for Black, there will be plenty of time to write and study - simple pleasures that may help him endure his sentence. But as Santos, the inmate at Lompoc, writes to those who may soon face time at his prison camp, "I suggest expectations for a lesson in humility."

Maclean's July 30, 2007