Call it a sign of the times.
While other bedrock industries like housing, mortgage banking, auto manufacturing and financial services are falling apart, a new industry is growing and its future looks bright.
That industry? Prison consulting.
In all the press surrounding Bernard Madoff's recent move to Butner Federal Correctional Complex, mention was made of Herb Hoelter, founder of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, being brought in as a "prison consultant" to counsel Madoff about life in Butner as a result of his 150-year sentence for a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme.
While most people entering the federal prison system won't use (nor could they likely afford) the services of a prison consultant, white-collar convicts and celebrities-turned-criminals who have no experience with prison life and have the resources to hire a consultant, turn to firms like Hoelter's for help.
Not a New Business
For over 30 years Hoelter and firm has been working with convicted criminals prior to their incarceration. Hoelter's firm counts numerous high-profile prisoners as clients in addition to Madoff including home-making maven Martha Stewart, financiers Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, and Philadelphia Eagle Michael Vick who spent 22 months at Leavenworth, a high-security prison in Kansas.
Prison consultants can charge high fees, ranging from several hundred dollars an hour to a flat fee of several thousand. Hoelter told the WSJ Law Blog that he "waives his fee because [Madoff's] assets were frozen." The National Prison and Sentencing Consultants in Nashville, founded in 2002 by former convict John Webster, lists fees that range from a possible low of $1,500 for post-incarceration services to more than $12,500 for federal sentence mitigation investigation and analysis. (Find out how these Wall Street high-rollers landed themselves in hot water. Check out 4 History-Making Wall Street Crooks.)
Hoelter, Webster and their professional contemporaries offer a wide variety of services for their imprisoned or soon-to-be-incarcerated clients from pre-confinement lobbying for preferred prison placements, to educating clients about the ins, outs and harsh realities of day-to-day life behind bars. Federal Prison Consultants, led by lawyer Megan Lyons, provides pre-sentencing assistance such as case review work to determine eligibility for special programs that can help shave time off their sentence.
While prison consultants can work with a client's legal team and lobby a judge for their client's better treatment, they can't promise any better outcomes. Their work isn't viewed with any preferential treatment, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees prison assignments.
While some prison consultants, like Hoelter, are lawyers by trade, others have entered the field after doing time themselves. After serving 10 years for numerous crimes, Larry Jay Levine founded Wall Street Prison Consultants and American Prison Consultants to help (and earn a pretty penny off of) people about to enter the federal prison system and their families. (Learn about some of the creepiest cases of fraud and the characters behind them. Check out The Ghouls And Monsters On Wall Street.)
Convicts Turned Consultants
Levine's "Fedtime 101" program is a phone-based prison preparation course offering one-on-one consulting about "life on the inside" to help prepare clients physically, mentally and psychologically for what they'll encounter. Most first-time criminals have no sense of the violence, racism and restrictions they'll encounter behind bars; survival depends on having the right mental tools to handle situations that arise.
Preparation work involves advising clients on what to do before reporting to prison as well as what life will be like "on the inside" and how to best handle the time behind bars. Before entering prison consultants advise clients to give legal authority to someone they trust to handle their personal and financial affairs, get any needed medical and/or dental work done, say goodbye to loved ones and be aware that anything they bring with them will be confiscated. (In Top 4 Most Scandalous Insider Trading Debacles we look at some of the landmark incidents of insider trading.)
While Hoetler and Lyons work the legal side for their clients, consultants like Levine and another ex-con-turned-consultant, Steven Oberfest, get into the nitty-gritty of prison life, advising clients about details such as:
- Prison "protocol" (for example, in most prisons people of different races do not engage with one another socially and there are important informal rules surrounding gang affiliations one needs to be aware of)
- How to get along with their cellmate and staff
- Regulations around receiving and sending mail, having visitors, phone calls, etc.
- How to stay out of solitary and secure a "better" job while in jail
- Where violence is most likely to occur and how to best protect themselves
And it's not just limited to talking. Oberfest, now CEO of his own firm Prison Coach, instructs his clients according to his corporate motto: "Be prepared, not scared." The mixed martial arts master helps clients prepare both mentally and physically for the major life adjustment, offering tips on everything from defusing a conflict to physically training them for hand-to-hand combat.
The Bottom Line
At $20,000, Oberfest's services might just be the best investment many of his clients have made in a long time. (Where there is money, there are swindlers. Protect yourself by learning how investors have been betrayed in the past. Read The Biggest Stock Scams Of All Time.)