The Australian | 2012

Published on October 29, 2012 by Rhys Blakely
Lessons from ex-cons on how to survive jail are increasingly popular

ANYBODY labouring under the impression that crime doesn’t pay needs to meet Larry Levine.

Heavy-set, bearded and bald, and with a pair of Aviator shades permanently cloaking his eyes, he’s a prominent figure in a booming industry – teaching white-collar criminals how to survive in prison.

His offerings include Fedtime 101, advertised as a “telephone crash course designed to help you get out alive”. His main selling point? The ten years he spent inside.

“In 1998, I was a private investigator in Los Angeles. And I had some clients that were involved in organised crime: businessmen from the East Coast, operating in LA, of a certain ethnicity, which I’m not going to get into,” he divulges over a coffee in West Hollywood.

“I started diverting away from my own work and more towards their work and subsequently I got caught up in a large-scale narcotics conspiracy . . . I was charged with narcotics trafficking, securities fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice – and, oh yeah, [possession of] machine guns.”

The plight of white-collar criminals is bread-and-butter stuff for men such as Levine. Some prison consultants teach self-defence. Others seek to soothe their clients’ concerns, arguing that the threat of violence, especially at the minimum-security facilities where many white-collar criminals will be sent, is not significant.

Serving time in a US federal penitentiary is sometimes likened to being abandoned in a Fourth World country. The customs are alien; the language is unfamiliar; the vibe one of simmering resentment. Prison consultants such as Levine offer the equivalent of a guidebook: advice on etiquette; tips on how to cook in your cell using a microwave; warnings on how switching the channel on the common room TV might lead to you being stabbed to death with a sharpened spoon . . . that sort of thing.

And while the global recession continues to roil the world economy, for Levine and his peers times have never been better.

The syllabus he offers flags the kind of challenges faced by the prison- bound. Levine places great emphasis on not consorting with prison guards (being branded a “rat”, or informant, is a good way to get “stuck”, or stabbed, he explains).

The question that he’s most commonly asked is how to minimise the risk of being raped. But for fees that typically range from dollars 1,500 (pounds 930) to dollars $US10,000, he offers counsel on everything from securing family visits to surviving prison riots. He stresses the importance of taking up some sort of hobby while inside and presents himself as an authority on the intricacies of prison gang culture.

In most other professions, Levine’s lengthy rap sheet would be unhelpful. In his current line of work, it’s a marketing asset – proof that he knows whereof he speaks.

“Have you seen my custody resume?” he asks. “I was in 11 different institutions in ten years … high security, medium security . . . My competitors don’t even have bachelor’s degrees. I’ve got the PhD.”

Making the most of your credentials is becoming increasingly important for America’s prison consultants. Levine believes that when he began in this line of work after being released from prison five years ago, he was one of just four consultants in the field. Now there are at least three dozen and newspaper reports corroborate his claims that the industry is booming.

One factor may be the growth of the US prison population, which has quadrupled since 1980, partly because of mandatory sentences that accompanied the Government’s War on Drugs. In recent years, moreover, the drug dealers have been joined by growing numbers of stockbrokers, lawyers and accountants. According to the FBI, since the credit crunch bit in 2008, securities and commodities fraud investigations have increased by more than 50 per cent in the US.

Bernie Madoff, who duped his investors out of at least $US18 billion and received a 150-year sentence, made the biggest news, but several other mega-villains followed in his wake.They included Joseph Blimline, who instigated an oil Ponzi scheme in Texas that defrauded the public out of $US485 million, and Nicholas Cosmo, who received a 25-year sentence for running a $US413 million Ponzi scheme.

And for every such gargantuan heist, FBI figures show that there have been thousands of smaller offences. No wonder, then, that The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “advising panicky white-collar criminals on what life is like behind bars is a bull-market business”.

Not that prison consultants are a new invention. Disgraced financiers, fallen celebrities and rogue politicians have been making use of their services for years. Ivan Boesky, the stock trader on whom Gordon Gekko was at least partly based, used one when he went to prison for insider trading in the 1980s. Mike Tyson employed one after being convicted of rape in the 1990s (the boxer spent three years inside). So did Martha Stewart, who was locked up for five months in 2004 for lying to investigators about share sales.

Nowadays, however, an embarrassment of options and the absence of any recognised professional body has made choosing the correct advisor fiendishly tricky. A Google search reveals, among others, felony prison consultants, executive prison consultants, “the real prison consultant”, faceless prison consultants, “the prison coach” and “the prison doctor”.

The New York Times recently published an article that dealt with the conundrum of how to choose the right ex-con from whom to ask advice: “How much incarceration time is enough? What kind of experience is right for the job – maximum security, solitary confinement, a knife fight?”

For someone with bona-fide gunfight experience, William Mulholland might be your man. In prison for 21 years (his final arrest involved “a big gun fight” with a drug dealer; he was convicted of second-degree assault), he is now writing what could prove the definitive work on the previously unwritten laws that govern life behind bars.

Mulholland is utterly charming with a scholarly air. Among the nuggets of wisdom he offers is that in prison the word “inmate” is an offensive term. It suggests that somebody is too close to the prison guards.

“You’ve got to teach a man that if he uses that word he’s going to get bitch-slapped,” he says. (A bitch-slap is when a prisoner smacks another man with an open palm, he gently explains, “to show he’s not even worth a punch”.)

For the most part, Mulholland sees his mission as imparting crucial pieces of practical advice, such as how a new prisoner must never walk on a freshly mopped floor. “You must show respect to the man who just mopped that floor – walk around the edge; catch his attention,” he explains.

Small details like this can make all the difference. Mulholland once knew a prisoner who flagrantly walked over a wet floor on two consecutive days. After the second show of disrespect, the mopper stabbed him to death with a sharpened serving spoon.

Meanwhile, Levine walks a line between common sense and sensationalism. He tells me that for a first-time white-collar offender, the chances of being attacked in a minimum-security prison are slight. Such institutions are sometimes called “Club Fed”.

But he has also predicted that Bernie Madoff is likely to be murdered in his medium-security jail. Thieves who have preyed on individuals figure low down on the prison food chain, Levine says (child- sex offenders are at the very bottom).

“I see Bernie leaving in a bag or a box,” Levine told Fox News during one of his frequent media appearances. A defrauded investor will pay another inmate to do the deed, Levine predicted. He believes a commotion will be made in the dining hall and Madoff will be stabbed with an improvised dagger.

Levine is full of advice on how to avoid a similar fate. “There’s do’s and don’ts. At dinner, you ain’t going to reach across somebody’s food tray. That’s a real bad – it shows disrespect,” he explains. “If you’re standing at the urinal, taking a leak, and I’m standing here, you’re not going to look over – you just don’t do that.”

Stealing, somewhat ironically, is frowned upon in prison. So are bad manners. “If you’re in line for the telephone, I’m not going to cut in,” he adds. “And you’re not going to sit on somebody’s bunk. When you’re locked up you don’t have much – right? So that bunk is your house; it’s your personal area. For you to go sit on somebody’s bunk without asking their permission, it’s a violation of their space. You don’t want to do that.”

He also counsels against getting into debt. “If you borrow something from somebody, f***in’ pay it back – because there’s other ways of paying people back – and you can go figure what those things are.”

Other advice includes avoiding crossing racial lines when choosing friends. And discovering that you have a drinking problem could advance your release date, because participating in rehab can shave time off sentences.

If much of the above sounds quite engaging (in a terrifying sort of way), Levine is quick to temper expectations. For most of his clients, he says, the biggest challenge is likely to be dealing with the mind-melting tedium of life behind bars.

“They all come to me spooked; they’re all freaked out. But in reality, prison is boring,” he says. “It’s Groundhog Day; it’s the same shit day in and day out. The biggest thing these people have is culture shock.”These are people of means: white-collar criminals, CEOs, senior managers; people used to being in control, to giving orders, to controlling a lot of money – and now they don’t have dick.”