From the Penthouse to the Big House

David Novak did time as a white-collar crook at Eglin Federal Prison Camp, aka Club Fed. Now he advises first-time felons on how to survive life on the inside. Hey, Ken and Jeff (and Bernie and Sam and Dennis), would you like his number?

"Throw the bums in jail!" That's the prevailing response to corporate scandal. David Novak knows what the bums can expect once they get there. After pleading guilty to mail fraud and falsely reporting a plane crash, the onetime flight-school operator spent nearly all of 1997 at Eglin Federal Prison Camp, a minimum-security facility near Pensacola, Florida. Because of its location and its nickname, Club Fed, first-time offenders routinely request Eglin as their prison of choice. Fashion maven Aldo Gucci did time there. So did Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt and former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel. Disgraced shoe designer Steve Madden was scheduled to arrive in August. Since his release, Novak has turned his prison sentence into a second career. He is the author of Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration and (we kid you not) has become a $125-an-hour consultant to corporate felons, setting them straight about what to expect on the inside.

Did Eglin live up to its nickname? When you arrive, you see this wide-open space devoted to recreation -- soccer and softball fields -- and as a visitor you probably think, "This is great. It is like being at a country club." There are old oak trees with Spanish moss. Aesthetically, it's gorgeous.

Just how minimal was minimum security? There was no barbed wire, fences, or guard towers. When you visit an inmate there, you can almost maintain the illusion that it isn't a prison.

So what kept inmates from escaping? There was a yellow line painted around the border of the compound, and you were supposed to stay behind it. Of course, if you wanted, you could simply leave. It's called a "walk away." Several people did it while I was there.

Did you ever think about walking away? Sure I did. In fact, you'd almost prefer to be behind a fence. But if you escape, you will get caught. I don't know of anyone who didn't. And then you have to serve an additional 18 months or more in a higher-security facility.

When were you most afraid? The first day. A guard escorted me to my cubicle and was like, "Here's your bunk. Bye." I was scared to death to touch anything. As I was standing there holding my bedroll, a guy walked in and said, "My name's Jim. Since the commissary is closed, I'll lend you some toiletries." He gave me a new toothbrush and soap, and I thought, "Oh God, he wants me to be his girlfriend." But he was just being kind. Jimmy had been in prison for 10 years on drug charges. He's still there.

How were the living arrangements? Each dorm had 32 cubicles, and each cubicle contained a narrow bunk bed, a folding chair, and a cramped writing desk. The newer roommate was given the least favorite place, which was usually the top bunk in the cubicle closest to the bathroom -- what inmates called "waterfront property." You were also guaranteed to have the worst pillow and mattress, because when someone left, everyone else in the dorm swapped [their bedding] if they thought it was better. The bed was about half the size of a normal twin bed. I'm six-one, and when I laid down, an inch of each shoulder extended over the mattress and my head or my feet hit the rail. I've slept on better things while camping. The first few days, you don't sleep. You're too scared. Then you recognize that this is survivable, and you relax.

What was the hardest adjustment? The noise. It was so loud in the chow hall that it was hard to carry on a conversation. Prison is basically a crowded, cramped place. I can't recall a single period of time when I didn't hear someone yelling, talking, snoring, or flushing the toilet. There's never any silence.

What kind of work did you do? I worked in the bakery, so I was awakened by a guard at 3 AM to report to work by 3:30. We made mostly hot-dog and hamburger buns and occasionally fun stuff like birthday cakes. There were seven guys on my crew. All white-collar. Pretty high net worth. Everybody was a Republican. I was the only person without an advanced degree.

Do the white-collar criminals get along with the other inmates? Prison is just like anywhere else. The drug dealers ate together; the white-collar types ate together. The drug dealers gravitated to the basketball or softball teams, while the white-collar criminals attended Toastmasters meetings. It wasn't uncommon for color lines to be crossed, but it was uncommon for socioeconomic lines to be crossed.

Did you make any friends? There was a group of us who ate together on a regular basis: a large drug smuggler who now sells mega-yachts, a Colombian money launderer, a telemarketing guy from Florida, and a dentist. But I don't think you make friends. You make acquaintances.

How much contact did you have with the outside world? I spoke three times a day with my wife, Currie, who was my girlfriend at the time. We would talk at 7:30 AM, at 5 PM, and then at 9 PM. Now the Federal Bureau of Prisons limits each inmate to 300 minutes of phone time a month. I can't imagine maintaining family ties with so little time.

How do you help your clients prepare? I talk about what-if scenarios. What if there's a problem with your kids? Or your taxes? Sometimes I suggest that they tape off a six-by-eight-foot area in their living room and get used to spending time there. I also encourage my clients to set achievable goals while in prison. I've had clients who decided to learn how to play guitar, study Spanish, or write a novel. The week before I went in, I came across a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels. I had already read about 40 of them. I read the rest in prison.

Is there anything you miss about prison? I want to be very careful how I say this, but occasionally I miss the freedom from responsibility. You get up, you get your three hots and a cot, and you go to bed. In many respects, it was the least taxing period of my life. I had hours every day to read, and I miss that. But would I be willing to go back? Absolutely not.

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. Contact David Novak by email (david@davrie.com). Here's hoping you never require his services.

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