DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE TERM ‘LOW SECURITY.’ IF CONRAD BLACK IS CONVICTED, HE COULD SPEND THE REST OF HIS LIFE IN A DANGEROUS LIVING HELL.
... AND IF HE LOSES
DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE TERM ‘LOW SECURITY.’ IF CONRAD BLACK IS CONVICTED, HE COULD SPEND THE REST OF HIS LIFE IN A DANGEROUS LIVING HELL. • BY JASON KIRBY
Conrad Black says his critics are gambling on a guilty verdict at his trial. Unfortunately for him, the odds appear to be in their favour. The U.S. government is a ruthless prosecuting machine. Of the six per cent of defendants who maintain their innocence and go to trial in federal cases, as Black and his co-accused have done, more than three-quarters are found guilty. More sobering still, eight out of 10 federal convictions result in prison time, and so for the vast majority of defendants, it’s not so much a question of whether they’ll go to jail, but where, and for how long.
If Black is convicted and loses his appeals, he faces 95 years behind bars. It used to be that white-collar criminals in the U.S. had it pretty easy. Many served light sentences in minimum security prison camps, so-called “Club Feds” for the relatively cushy lifestyle afforded their guests. Those days are gone. Twenty years ago federal sentencing guidelines were changed to take into account such things as a defendant’s role and acceptance of responsibility for the crimes, and the dollars involved. Fraud cases that reach into tens of millions of dollars generally lead to harsh sentences these days. Enron’s Ken Lay faced 20 years in prison before his death last year. His protege Jeffrey Skilling is now serving 24 years in a tough Minnesota prison. WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers is in for 25. And as a foreigner in the U.S. prison system, experts say, Black would likely be ineligible for a minimum-security facility.
It’s impossible to say exactly where Black would be sent if convicted. Judges make recommendations, but the final decision is up to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The bureau tries to place prisoners within 500 miles of their families, but as a deportable alien, Black might go anywhere. “They could put him in Texas where he’d be one of the few Englishspeaking people among the Mexicans,” says Alan Ellis, a California attorney who specializes in federal sentencing. Still, a prison like the Elkton Correctional Institution in northern Ohio, one of five low-security facilities (one step up from minimum) near Toronto, is a more likely destination. For Black, it will
still seem like hell.
Ringed with razor-wire fencing, Elkton is patrolled by armed guards. “It will house people from drug offenders to deportable aliens to people who have committed violent crimes like armed robbery, carjacking and extortion,” says Ellis, author of the Federal Prison Guidebook, the Michelin Guide of U.S. jails. Former inmates say violence is common. One told a newspaper he saw an inmate throw boiling water on another’s face, and beat him with a combination lock stuffed in a sock.
Inmates arriving at Elkton are strip-searched and fingerprinted. Guards seize all belongings, save for a simple wristwatch, wedding band and any religious medals. Black’s new quarters would be a cramped two-man cubicle with cinder-block walls and bunk beds. He would share a barracks-style bathroom with 149 other men. Each day he’d rise at 6 a.m. to work as a plumber, cleaner or clerk, earning between 12C and 40f an hour.
Black could deposit money into the prison commissary to buy special items like shampoo and soda pop, or a radio that inmates can listen to in their cells, using headphones.
There are no televisions in the cells, and inmates can spend no more than US$290 a month in the commissary. “A prison barber will cut your hair, but he’ll want six hydrated soups as payment,” says Jim Tayoun, a former city councilman in Philadelphia who spent 35 months in a Pennsylvania jail where he wrote the book Going to Prison?, a guide to serving time. “He can try to maintain his lordship’s ways, but I would hide that title if I were him. It could be used against him.”
Black’s family could visit, though with some restrictions on how often. At each visit, family members are scanned for contraband and led to a meeting room. Inmates and guests are only permitted to embrace at the beginning and end of each visit.
In short, prison life will be unrecognizable. “When you go to prison, you become invisible,” says Tayoun. “For people who are used to being out front and being seen, that’s the biggest burden.” And Tayoun has some extra advice for Black should he be incarcerated: keep your nose down, be friendly, but discreet, and above all, “don’t try to show people how intelligent you are.” M With John Intini
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