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White Collar Prison - What Awaits Martha Stewart? - 2004-09-26

Sentenced in July to five months in prison for lying to prosecutors about an illegal stock sale, entrepreneur Martha Stewart has asked to begin serving that sentence as soon as possible. Ms. Stewart, who built a multi-media empire providing tips for gracious living, had initially asked to delay going to prison until her appeal had been heard. But, after learning her appeal would not be heard until January, she announced on Wednesday she wanted to get on with her life.

"The only way to reclaim my life and the quality of life for all of those related to me, now, is to serve my sentence."

Ms Stewart said she hoped she could serve her sentence at a minimum-security federal penitentiary in Connecticut, near the home of her 90-year-old mother. To find out what Martha Stewart can expect when she reports to prison, VOA's Susan Logue spoke with David Novak, a former convict and author "Downtime, a Guide to Federal Incarceration."

Some people may assume that so-called white- collar criminals, who have been convicted of non-violent, economic crimes - like Ms Stewart - get sent to special "country club prisons". While that may have been true many years ago, it's no longer true today, according to David Novak who has served as a consultant to white-collar criminals facing prison time since his release in 1997.

Convicted of insurance fraud, Mr. Novak served ten months in a prison critics once called "club fed" - a sarcastic play on the "Club Med" chain of vacation resorts: "When I reported to Federal Prison Camp Eglin, in Florida, I was shocked to find out that not only as a Caucasian, but as a white-collar offender, I was in a very small minority. Fully 80 percent of the people in any federal institution are there as a result of the war on drugs. That's not to say they are any better or worse, but it is something that is often quite shocking to white-collar offenders," he says.

David Novak says one of the more pleasant surprises of his stay in Eglin Federal Prison, was that his fellow inmates were welcoming and chances are when she reports to prison, Martha Stewart will also be greeted warmly. But once oriented to prison life, Mr. Novak says, Ms. Stewart will be expected to follow certain rules of etiquette. "It's fine for another inmate to volunteer information about their particular case, but you never ask questions that pertain the inmate's criminal activity or their legal case. You never touch anything that doesn't belong to you. If you and I were walking down a hall and you happened to drop something, it would actually be inappropriate for me to pick it up off the floor and hand it to you," he says. "Instead, I would call your name and say, 'You dropped this, you might want to pick it up.'"

Above all, David Novak says, it is important for prisoners to maintain a certain distance from the staff members. "If a staff member says good morning to you, it's certainly appropriate to say good morning back, but you never initiate that communication. You never, ever tell on another inmate, regardless of what they have done. If a staff member asks you questions about another inmate, you play ignorant. It is important to recognize that there is an us vs them mentality in prison, and regardless of who you were on the outside, once you join general population, you are no better or worse than your fellow inmates," he says.

A prisoner who breaks the code of conduct would most likely get shunned by her fellow inmates, Mr. Novak says. As for physical living conditions, the former inmate turned consultant says they are crowded. "The density of population is something that one of my clients once compared to a crowded submarine. Traditionally, in minimum security facilities two inmates share a cubicle that is six feet by eight feet. In that area you have a bunk bed, a small folding chair, several lockers and a small writing desk, which is shared by two inmates. Each bay or living unit will have from 20 to 40 of these cubicles. So it is a very high-density living arrangement, quite loud, quite noisy. It's never dark and it's never quiet," he says.

As a consultant to people who, like Martha Stewart, will move into a federal prison to serve a sentence, David Novak tries to prepare his clients for the changes they will face. During their incarceration, they will have no privacy, he says - except during a brief shower or to use a stall in a bathroom.

The most important advice he has given the more than one thousand people he has prepared for prison has been that they must realize that their actions and their actions alone have put them there. Entering prison with a chip on your shoulder will only make your period of incarceration more difficult.

A former federal inmate, David Novak is the author of Downtime, a Guide to Federal Incarceration and a consultant to white-collar criminals facing prison time. He spoke to me from his office in Salt Lake City, Utah.