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How to behave behind bars

The transition from the boardroom to the prison block has become common enough that it has spawned a new business: prison consulting.

In late June, Superiour Court Justice Pierre Labrie sentenced 65-year-old Ronald Weinberg, cofounder of the children’s animation company Cinar, to nine years in prison for defrauding shareholders. Two of his accomplices — John Xanthoudakis, 58, and Lino Matteo, 54 — each received eight years in prison for their roles in a fraud scheme that saw more than US$123 million of Cinar’s money transferred to the Bahamas between 1998 and 2000 without the knowledge of the company’s board of directors. The money was used for personal benefit.

When the guilty verdict was pronounced after two years of proceedings, it marked the end of the longest criminal jury trial in Canadian history. The lengthy sentences, by Canadian standards, also reflected a growing get-tough attitude in the justice system towards white-collar crime.

Serving hard time in a federal prison will almost certainly be a challenging adjustment for the three men, who undoubtedly have little or no experience or understanding of the environment they now have to deal with.

But they were not without resources to help them cope with their new life behind bars, if they had so chosen prior to being locked up.

The transition from the boardroom to the prison block has become common enough that it has spawned a new business — prison consulting. Quite a few companies, especially in the US, have emerged that help prepare executives heading to jail with advice on how to conduct themselves behind bars.

Lessons learned

One of the first prison consultants was David Novak, who served a year in prison in a minimum-security facility — the original Club Fed — in Pensacola, Fla., for mail fraud. In 1996, the founder of Cavu Flying Club, a Seattle aviation firm that offered flight lessons and aircraft rentals, deliberately ditched a Piper Cherokee in a bay to collect US$80,000 in insurance. When he realized investigators had discovered it was a scam, he turned himself in and spent 1997 in a detention centre that had soccer and softball fields and beautiful grounds.

Despite the lax environment, Novak found the experience unsettling and following his release he documented his observations about prison life in Downtime, A Guide to Federal Incarceration (and began his consulting service). “Never touch anything that doesn’t belong to you,” he said.

“Never ask questions about an inmate’s criminal activity or [his] legal case unless [he] volunteers the information. Never initiate any communication with a staff member. Never butt into conversations.”

He cited a lack of privacy as a major adjustment. “Sometimes I suggest that [the person waiting sentencing] tape off a six-by-eight-foot area in their living room and get used to spending time there.” Another stress was the constant noise. “I can’t recall a single period of time when I didn’t hear someone yelling, talking, snoring or flushing a toilet. There’s never any silence.”

To survive the hard time the Cinar executives face, they might wish they had connected with Lee Steven Chapelle, an ex-con and founder of Canadian Prison Consulting Inc. He is also the author ofHard Time in Canada — One Man’s Journey: Inside & Out — An Insider View of Canadian Justice Policies & Corrections, which chronicles his more than 20 years in Canadian minimum, medium and maximum security facilities.

In 2015, he spoke to The Canadian Press about the most common misconceptions about life in prison and how to adapt. “Collective wisdom seems to suggest that freshly incarcerated individuals should testify to their tenacity by attacking someone, anyone, right away,” he said. “If you’re a person who’s built to be able to do that, great.” If you’re not, however, he said that kind of aggressiveness will make it harder to campaign for parole later. He recommended that new prisoners mind their own business and find other ways to prove their “savvy and experience.”

Shower horror

A prevailing fear, of course, is what is described as “shower horror.” Chapelle confirmed that rape can be a chilling reality of prison, but he argued that it doesn’t occur the way most people think, CP reported. “I advise people not to accept favours because that’s potentially the opening that leads down that road,” he said. “It’s not so much a violent gang approaching you in the shower — that doesn’t fly. It’s more about, ‘You don’t have anything, let me help you,’ and the next thing you know you’re being manipulated.”

As for violence, Chapelle agreed that “the threat of the shiv is real,” but he downplayed the popular notion of carefully orchestrated acts of violence. “We tend to envision a standoff in the yard. But for the most part, the real violence happens spur of the moment, over domestic stuff. It’s always out of the blue, the last person you’d expect, and it develops in a moment. It’s: ‘You used my toothbrush!’ Or: ‘You stepped on the floor where I just cleaned!’ ”

A serious transgression — one new prisoners would not likely know about unless they retained a consultant — is whistling. The reason for the interdiction is debated, with one theory being that guards used to serenade inmates with the tune “Whistle While You Work” as they took a prisoner to be hanged. It has also been suggested that prisoners used to whistle as a man was escorted to the gallows. Either way, whistling is verboten.

The number of former prisoners offering consulting services is such that the Wall Street Journalreferred to it as a “bull-market business” in a 2012 article, “School for Scoundrels,” that provided tips on how to cope in US federal prisons.

Be polite

The newspaper cited former stockbroker Patrick Boyce, the founder of Federal Prison Alternatives, who was sentenced to 37 months in prison for tax evasion and was released after serving 11 months in 2004. His words of advice: be polite.

“Don’t butt into conversations. Don’t forget to say ‘excuse me’ when you bump into someone, even when it isn’t your fault. Don’t watch TV in another man’s chair. Don’t reach across someone’s plate at chow time. ‘That could be immediately answered with a fork in your arm,’ ” said Boyce, who calls himself a federal mitigation specialist.

“A challenge for consultants,” WSJ said, “is persuading white-collar clients to give up control, lose the CEO attitude and stop trying to work things to their own advantage. ‘They are no different than these other inmates that may have been a street-corner drug dealer,’ Boyce said. “Some felons who went in blind wish they had sought counsel ahead of time,” the paper said. “Tim Donaghy, a former National Basketball Association referee imprisoned for gambling on his own games, says he learned through ‘trial and error’ — lots of error.”

“Taunted as a rat at a Florida prison, Donaghy says he talked back, and the trash-talking inmate attacked him with a stick attached to a paint roller, injuring his knee. A humiliated Donaghy was covered in yellow paint. Things might have been different had he done his homework. ‘I would have kept my mouth shut,’ ” he told the newspaper.

High-profile advice seekers

One of the high-profile white-collar criminals who sought the expertise of a prison consultant before doing time was style maven Martha Stewart. Prior to being sentenced to five months in jail on felony charges of conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding and making false statements to federal investigators, she sought some insider knowledge.

“Martha Stewart has never been one to skimp on the extras,” the Christian Science Monitorreported. “Along with her friends, family, and legal advisers will be an extra layer of protection — in the form of a sentencing consultant, hired to help the doyenne of taste navigate the hazards and complexities of her punishment.”

Absolute proof that prison consulting has become part of the zeitgeist is the 2015 film Get Hard, starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart. Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin State Prison for embezzlement. Terrified about what will happen to him once inside, Ferrell hires Hart, whom Ferrell erroneously believes is a jail-hardened criminal, to teach him how to survive in the 30-day period leading up to his incarceration.

Get Hard is a comedy, played for broad laughs. Actually going to prison is anything but. Nor does the experience have a happy ending.

Even if white-collar criminals are sentenced to a minimum-security facility, it’s important for them to know that their punishment, although benign compared to hard time, is not over once they’re released, says Novak. “You’ve been ostracized. You’ve been put into an external exile. For the rest of your life you carry a mark. Regardless of what I accomplish, I will always be identified as a convicted felon.”

David Malamed, CPA, CA•IFA, CPA (Ill.), CCF, CFE, CFI, is a partner in forensic accounting at Grant Thornton LLP in Toronto.

This article was originally published in the October 2016 edition of CPA Magazine.