You’re going to prison.
Four words that can strike fear into even the most hardened felon. But imagine how a jail sentence could affect criminals like Harvey Weinstein who never, ever, thought they would set foot inside a jail cell.
“Our prisons are violent, brutal, dangerous places,” said Paul Wright, who served 17 years in maximum security and is now the executive director of the non-profit Human Rights Defense Center. The center advocates for prisoners’ rights though the publication of the monthly Prison Legal News.
“People are afraid of the unknown,” Wright said. “Especially if you’re like Harvey Weinstein, whose only knowledge of prison is literally in the movies he’s produced or the movies he’s watched.”
What can a newbie do to prepare besides watching “Get Hard” or the horrific room scene from the 1994 movie, “Shawshank Redemption?”
If you’re a person of means, like Weinstein, you can hire a prison consultant.
“You hire a tax professional for tax advice, you hire a lawyer for legal advice, so of course you’re going to hire an ex-prisoner for prison advice,” Wright said. “It’s all about working the system.”
On Wednesday, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for last month’s convictions on first-degree criminal sexual act and third-degree rape.
“Camp or prison?”
How to work the system depends, of course, on the type of prison you attend. If the crime wasn’t violent – often known as “white collar” crime – and it’s your first offense, you could be lucky enough to attend one of the minimum security Federal Prison Camps.
You’ll live in a dorm with bunk beds and community showers, hopefully with separate stalls. There will be a gym (most likely with dated equipment), a library (most likely with dated books) and a room to watch television with your fellow inmates. There are no fences or barbed wire. Fortunate (and likely rich) inmates have been known to arrange work release opportunities.
“Jeffrey Epstein got to do his 2008 sentence with a work release,” Wright said. “He slept at the jail and went to work each day at his home office in his mansion.” Later, of course, it was discovered that he continued to abuse women during his work release, and that program was suspended.
Life isn’t as “cushy” in higher level security prisons, where Weinstein will be incarcerated.
“He will serve his time inside of fences and barbed wire, and when his family visits, it will be inside of those fences and wire,” said convicted securities broker Justin Paperny, founder of White Collar Advice, a consulting firm on what to expect in prison.
“He’ll be in with a much different population,” Paperny said. “And he needs to be sure he doesn’t make life there worse. And believe me, matters can be made much worse if, for example, he’s associating with the wrong prisoners, smuggling in contraband or associating with guards.”
Bad news for the egoist
Prison consultants say getting ready for prison begins well before the cell doors slam shut, even well before the sentencing hearing. Accepting responsibility for your crime, beginning restitution and creating a personal narrative of remorse are key to any chance of convincing a judge to reduce the maximum sentence.
That can be tough for rich, white collar criminals and people like Weinstein who are “used to having their way,” according to ex-con Christopher Zoukis, a prison consultant who has published several books on prison life and writes for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News.
“A lot of people who are his level, first of all, don’t believe that they did anything wrong and certainly don’t think they deserve any kind of punishment,” Zoukis said.
“And when they do get punishment, they don’t believe they deserve this kind of punishment, and they go into prison with this ‘holier than thou’ attitude,” Zoukis added.
Paperny ageed. “We’ve had celebrity clients, who in some cases are used to sycophants falling all over them,” he said. “For them, it can be difficult to become humble and deferential, yet that’s what It takes to succeed in prison.”
Once inside, behaviors that would be typical “on the outside” can backfire. Paperny tells the story of “Tom the Snitch,” a white collar criminal who decided to ask the guards for help with a fellow inmate.
“If someone robbed you today, what’s the first thing you would do? You’d go to a police officer, you’d go to law enforcement. That’s what we train our kids to do,” Paperny said.
“For guards, it’s guilt by association. They don’t care who started it. They’ll send both of you to the hole and investigate later. And then there’s the backlash from the inmates – feces and urine in bedsheets or worse.”
“Tom the Snitch” made his mistake early in his incarceration. Even when he moved to a different prison years later, the label “snitch” followed him.
“The same thing could happen to Weinstein if he feels threatened,” Paperny said. “And if he were to do that, it would reflect poorly on him, and it could really end badly.”
Are you an introvert?
Another common mistake when entering prison, say consultants, is making friends too fast.
“A lot of people surrender to prison, and because they don’t have the money sorted out, they’re not going to shop in the commissary for a week,” Paperny said. “Someone comes up and says ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Oh, you need some granola. Here’s some coffee.’ “
“The first response is relief – ‘Oh, thank you!’ But then you are indebted to them and they could be a troublemaker, could cooperate with guards, could smuggle in contraband, and then you’re guilty by association,” Paperny said.
That’s why Paperny always asks his clients if they are introverts, and hopes they say “yes.”
“They say ‘yes,’ I say ‘Great! It’s great to be an introvert in prison cause you’ll like your own company. Read, take courses, get a degree, stay away from people.’ “
How can one do that, day after day? First, immediately create a structure where you are alone and isolated from as much trouble as possible, Paperny advises.
“Wake early and exercise, then spend more time in the library than the chow hall, where there are a number of gangs and fighting, and drug dealing takes place,” he said. “If you can, learn to live off the food in the commissary and go to bed early.”
It’s much harder for extroverts, who are used to being the life of the party. They often end up spending evenings in the TV room, Paperny said, where fights break out and misunderstandings are more common.
“Many prisoners roll the TV room like it’s their fiefdom, gambling and yelling and hustling,” he said. “The prison hustle exists. It’s alive and well. Prison has a massive underground economy.”
Make a plan
Prison consultants can tell you the basics – like what to expect during the initial strip search, what the bunks and toilets are like, visitation regulations, telephone rules and costs (sometimes $3 a call), what you can take with you into prison, and how that can differ from prison to prison.
More important to survival is prison etiquette, which seems much like what we teach children: Be respectful. Don’t be loud. Don’t complain. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Don’t cut in line. Do your assigned job.
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“Don’t pay for services, like paying someone to do your job. Are you so lazy you cannot do your prison job? That is incredibly off-putting to those who will do it,” Paperny said.
“I got a call six months ago from a woman whose husband is serving time in a medium security prison who cut in line,” he continued. “They beat him up with a lock.”
But the biggest mistake that people make when heading to prison is not having a plan to overcome their worst antagonists of all: the fear and despair of what the future holds.
“It’s important to, as they say, ‘Do the time, but don’t let the time do you,’” Zoukis said. “Find a way of succeeding in prison by doing something productive toward a future life, so that when you get out you have some options.”
Paperny advises his clients to begin planning for life after prison before they set foot in the door. That’s what Claudia Calderon did in 2016 when she plead guilty to wire fraud for stealing approximately $2 million from two Los Angeles-area businesses.
She worked with Paperny to “take responsibility for my actions from the very beginning,” and craft her narrative for the judge: “I wanted to apologize to the federal government, and I had no idea how to do that.”
She admitted to her alcoholism – “I was afraid they would take my daughter and autistic son” – and shaved 18 months off her 60-month federal sentence by entering a residential drug abuse program.
Most importantly, she says, she was able to plan for a future with her husband and children.
“I took advantage of all the opportunities they offered in prison, including the education they offered, and I became a GED tutor for the educational department and earned a certificate in sustainable foods and also in business administration,” Calderon said.
Prison consultant fees range depending on clients and length of consulting periods, and easy reach into thousands of dollars. But for Calderon the price tag was worth it. Today she has a job as an administrative assistant for a property management company, is paying restitution, and has a family that she says is strong and whole.
“I was able to make my time in prison brave and productive,” Calderon said. “Without a consultant I would have had no idea what I was facing or what I was doing.”