Washington Post

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Reprint From – January 5, 2015 Issue

What it’s really like inside ‘Club Fed’ prisons

By Helena Andrews-Dyer and Emily Heil

A prison sentence is called “hard time” for a reason — there’s nothing cushy (and definitely no high thread counts) at even the low-security prisons where many a VIP has done time. But with celebrity convicts in the news, like “Real Housewife” Teresa Giudice (she began her 15-month sentence Monday) and former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, whose sentencing is Tuesday, there is renewed interest in what life is really like on the inside.

“It’s kind of like a junior college setting,” explained Larry Levine, director and founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants, which advises clients before going into lock-up. “I don’t want to call it a stress-free environment, but it’s a lot of hanging out with the other inmates, you know, just bull—-ing.”

Levine, who served 10 years in federal prison for racketeering, among other charges, said that a typical day at a low-security prison camp starts with wake-up call a 6 a.m., a mad dash to the overcrowded bathrooms (“You never want to be the last guy in the shower stall–ever”), breakfast at 7:15 a.m., work duty, lunch, more work, a head count at 4 p.m., mail call, dinner an hour later, free time, another head count, then lights out at around 11 p.m. It’s not girl scout camp, but it’s not HBO’s jailhouse drama “Oz” either.

“It’s like a boring Groundhog Day,” Levine said.

The Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, Md. is the go-to for white-collar Washington criminals. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Clinton administration official Webb Hubbell served time at Cumberland, where prisoners are free to leave the premises to do yard work and the like, as long as they return.

One top D.C. defense attorney said his clients describe Cumberland as a “boys dormitory” with food that’s “nothing to write home about.” It’s got a commissary (where canned tuna — which, oddly, is used as a kind of currency in the camp — is sold) and a bare-bones fitness facility. The biggest perk, though, is that prisoners tend to be on their best behavior for fear of being sent somewhere rougher. “Nothing bad happens to you there,” said the attorney.

Danger, according to Levine, is the big difference between a “supermax” penitentiary and the type of prison camps with no barbed wire perimeter fences which convicts with sentences of less than 10  years hope for. “At a state prison your life could be in danger. There’s people serving long, long sentences, there are violent offenders,” he said.

Compare that to “Camp Cupcake,” also known as the Federal Prison Camp at Alderson, W.Va., the women-only facility that Martha Stewart, who served five months for perjury in 2004, once called home. FPC Alderson features inmate occupational programs that sound a lot like freshman year electives. Horticulture and cosmetology, anyone? There’s also a historic luxury resort, The Greenbrier, less than an hour away in case your visitors are VIPs too.