New York Times | 2012

Published April 7, 2012 by Matt Ritchtel 

Making Crime Pay

Ventura County — Larry Levine, heavyset and bald, runs a thriving business out of a gated apartment complex here, a setting that’s not at all bad for a home office considering some of the prison cells he’s lived in. But as he drops into his plush beige and white sectional couch to talk business, something is nagging at him.

The trouble is the new competition. All these guys are setting up shop, marketing themselves on the Internet, claiming they know the ropes and cutting into his market share.

To Levine, they’re a bunch of poseurs, with no street cred. After all, they’ve barely spent any time behind bars.

“Look at my resume, I’ve got 10 years: high-security, medium, low,” said Levine, 50, who was in jail until 2007 on narcotics trafficking, counterfeiting and weapons charges. “These guys go in for a year and a half, maybe two. I’ve got more experience than all the rest of these guys combined.”

Levine is a prison consultant. The business – which entails advising people who are facing jail time on how to prepare for life on the inside, deal with medical issues, transfer to other prisons and even reduce their sentences – has been around for decades. It enjoys a burst of publicity when a boldface name like Bernie Madoff or Michael Vick hires a consultant.

But the business is changing. Behind the scenes, the profession is attracting a new crop of ex-cons who believe they can put their experience to work, rather than have it burden them in a tough job market.

And more competition means rising tempers and flying accusations. Some prison consultants say that others are so lacking in expertise that their businesses are practically criminal enterprises. Rancor among thieves.

“This industry’s exploding,” mourned Levine, who operates two websites, American Prison Consultants and Wall Street Prison Consultants. He reached to a nearby coffee table and picked up a piece of paper listing the names of several dozen competitors and the length of their prison sentences. This is not a rap sheet, it’s market research.

The business, he said, is “becoming saturated with people who don’t know what they’re doing.”

He and his competitors (some of whom find his prison time equally unimpressive) walk a fine marketing line, bragging about an extensive criminal record to attract customers. That can make it tough for potential clients to choose: How much incarceration time is enough? What kind of experience is right for the job – maximum security, solitary confinement, a knife fight?

To hear the consultants talk, most competitors aren’t worth the time of day.

Their prices range widely; some charge by the hour, some by the service, from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands per client, depending partly on the consultant’s experience and work required. It’s not clear whether the number of customers is growing or just the number of people hanging out a shingle is.