by Cathal Kelly
A growing U.S. industry coaches criminals on how to prepare for, and survive, life behind bars.
Larry Levine is listing off the sorts of things that will get you killed in prison.
“You look at someone the wrong way. You reach across somebody’s plate. You cut in line for the telephone. You change the channel. You cross in front of someone without saying `Excuse me.’ You can get stuck for all those things.”You gotta realize, people are under a lot of stress inside. I teach people how to adapt.”
Levine is part of a small, burgeoning industry advising criminals – especially the white-collar kind – how to negotiate the perils of the U.S. penal system.
These so-called prison consultants are also the newest members of the naughty celebrity’s entourage. Martha Stewart hired one. So did disgraced financier Bernie Madoff and NFL receiver Plaxico Burress.
There are different approaches. Some provide psychological assistance. Others, like Levine, bring the mentality of jailhouse lawyers, helping cons turn loopholes in the system to their advantage. Others focus on self-defence.
All of them teach you how to behave. They teach the unwritten rules. Most important, they teach how to survive.
“It is a searing experience, especially for someone going to jail for the first time,” says Herb Hoelter, CEO of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. “You go from having complete control to absolutely none.”
Hoelter, a former social worker, is the éminence grise of the trade. His roster of celebrity clients includes Stewart, Madoff, bond trader Michael Milken and quarterback Michael Vick.
Hoelter’s non-profit business works with defendants and lawyers all the way through the sentencing process. Prison consulting is only a part of what Hoelter does.
“All sorts of these people suddenly appeared after the Madoff case, guys who will teach you karate and diet management and all sorts of shit,” says Hoelter. “The field is suddenly dominated by former inmates, many of whom know only their own experiences, which are often jaded.”
Levine is one of those newcomers. He started L.A.-based Wall Street Prison Consultants in 2007.
His bona fides – a tour of nearly a dozen lock-ups during a 10-year bid for drug trafficking.
Levine is coarse and charismatic, a fast-talker who does not suffer fools. He charges between $1,000 (for a pre-prison boot camp program he calls “Fedtime101”) and $10,000 (U.S.) for his services.
“I give intelligent people a discount,” Levine says.
Rates may change once his reality-TV show, currently being shopped by the William Morris Agency, hits air.
NCIA charges from $2,000 on “up into five figures,” according to Hoelter. However, every Martha Stewart subsidizes a swath of indigent defendants advised for no charge.
Hoelter has a national network of offices. Levine does all his work on the phone. The conditions of his release preclude him from associating with felons. So he’s never met any of his 500 clients. He seems to get a call every 60 seconds or so.
The next person on his to-call list is Katie from Idaho. Levine is trying to get Katie’s husband, who’s serving time for mortgage fraud, into a substance abuse program. Not because Levine cares whether Mr. Katie quits drinking, but because inclusion in the program could spring him from jail early.
“He didn’t follow my advice and have a chemical dependency test done, and now they say he doesn’t qualify,” Levine says, exasperated. “Meanwhile, he’s got medical reports that say his liver is ruined because he’s an alcoholic.”
He has to tell Katie that she and her husband are going to be waiting another year for that reunion.
Levine says he’s advised half a dozen Canadians, all of them looking for transfer from U.S. prisons to institutions back home. Hoelter said he’s done similar work for Canadians.
There are only a dozen or so prison consultants in the U.S. There is no licensing or oversight body that monitors their work.
A spokesperson for Corrections Canada said she was not aware of any consultants working north of the border.
What divides the field is approach. Hoelter’s NCIA brings a multidisciplinary team and 32 years of experience to bear. He says his organization focuses on practical information (“How do I make phone calls? How does the commissary work?”) and psychological preparation (“That’s for me the more difficult part of it… A lot of these people are used to running their own lives.”)
Other consultants highlight the physical risks. San Diego-based consultant Steve “Dr. Prison” Scholl notes that a man’s chances of being raped in prison are “10 to 15 per cent.” Steven Oberfest, co-founder of Prison Coach, emphasizes his background in mixed-martial arts.
Not Hoelter. “We don’t highlight scary, don’t-bend-down-and-grab-the-soap nonsense,” he says.
“I don’t want to make any enemies,” says L.A. consultant Wendy Feldman, founder of Custodial Coaching. “But (the self-defence focus) is a hustle.”
The threat of physical danger appears real, but is mitigated by your crime. Most fraud artists and first-timers end up in minimum-security institutions. As Levine explains it, everyone in minimum security knows they will get out one day. So they generally behave.
Medium security – where Madoff is serving time – can be more hazardous. Inmates may not see their release date coming. Psychological problems are rife. Conditions can be volatile.
Maximum security, reserved for types unlikely to solicit consultants, is flat-out dangerous. Levine recalls sitting down to lunch with an acquaintance in a maximum-security lockdown. The guy was dead before breakfast the next day.
“He changed the channel,” Levine says. “The television and the telephone – that’s where you have to watch yourself.”
Another call. It’s a woman looking for help in getting her husband out of prison. He’s served 20 years of a 30-year sentence. Levine isn’t interested. He refers her to another high-profile consultant he doesn’t like much.
“I’m such an asshole,” Levine chuckles.
It’s one of Levine’s guys inside. He has lots of guys inside.
“You wanna know what Bernie Madoff’s Indian name is?” Levine asks after he gets back on the line.
Madoff has reportedly been taking part in Native American healing rituals.
“Two Dogs Running,” Levine says. You can hear his head shaking all the way down the phone line.