As a first-time felon, David Novak didn’t know what to expect in prison camp. He worried that the experience would be like something out of The Shawshank Redemption, and he’d have to fight for his life. But he had also heard rumors about Club Fed and how white-collar criminals did not-so-hard time playing golf and tennis (which is untrue – they play basketball and softball). “Like a lot of first-time offenders, I was really confused,” says Novak, who had owned and operated a flight-school prior to his mail-fraud conviction. “I expected the best and the worst.”
After completing his nearly year long sentence, he wanted to give other first-time felons the sort of practical and candid advice that he wished he had gotten beforehand. He wrote a 50-page letter to his lawyer, hoping to give his clients an insider’s perspective. That letter – and the journal that Novak kept at Eglin – inspired his self-published book, Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration, and Davrie Communications, his consulting business. Prison camp, he tells clients, is neither The Shawshank Redemption, nor Club Fed. It’s somewhere in between the two.
What can you bring to prison? You’re allowed to bring a soft-cover religious text, a religious medal like a cross, dentures, one pair of eyeglasses, a plain wedding ring, and any legal paperwork. Before I went in, I talked to someone who had been in a minimum-security facility 12 years earlier, and he said you were allowed to wear your own clothes and bring your own food. The policy is more strict now. I showed up wearing jeans, a white oxford shirt, and tennis shoes. I didn’t even wear a watch. As soon as I arrived, I changed into the pants and white T-shirt I was given. My old clothes were packed and sent home.
How much free time did you have? Outside of the forty hours a week that you’re required to work, you’re free to do anything else, within reason. One of the biggest challenges for most white-collar types is suddenly having more time than they know what to do with and not having the structure they’re used to. This is where you get into emotional distress. On the outside, you have all this variety – different restaurants, different stores, different movies. But you don’t have that privilege in prison. Boredom is a constant challenge. You have to find ways to fill the time, or you get depressed. I was usually done working at the bakery by 9 AM, and I would go back, take a shower, and either run or go to the library and read and write letters.
A lot of people will read that and think, ‘That’s nothing.’ The fact is, the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice have identified a group of people by the type of crime they committed and said, ‘Look, we’re going to punish you, but we don’t want to waste a lot of resources doing it. So you’re going to live in a place away from friends and the life you knew, without any of the privileges you had before. And if you don’t behave, you’ll be sent some place much worse.’
What was the relationship like between white-collar inmates and the prison staff? As a rule, white-collar types are not thought well of by prison staff members. Here’s a guard looking at someone who made more money than he’ll ever make and who had the world by the tail and blew it. There was one guard who made me go out every night and walk around the dorm picking up cigarette butts. At first I felt mad at him for singling me out, but I recognized that it was my own stupid choices that put me under this man’s power.
What was the biggest surprise? I assumed that minimum-security facilities housed only white-collar offenders. That’s not the case. I was very, very surprised that the majority of the population was made up of drug offenders.
Were there haves and have-nots? We were allowed to spend $175 a month in our prison account, but nobody made that much. My job in the bakery paid eleven cents an hour. But I was able to spend the maximum at the commissary every month because people on the outside contributed to my account. That was a sign of affluence. I’d say half the inmates did that. My bunky was a crack dealer from Gainesville, Florida, and all he had every month was the $28 he earned at Eglin. There was definitely some resentment.
How much violence was there? I saw two fights. One was the type of slapping match you’d see in a heated basketball game at the Y. The other was the result of one man encroaching on another man’s cubicle. There was some shouting, then things got physical. Kicking, biting, punching. They beat up each other pretty bad. The other inmates let them fight. As soon as someone yelled that a guard was coming, the men stopped fighting. Everything went back to normal. If you respect the property and privacy of others and you keep to yourself, you don’t have to worry about physical harm.
If prison is so tough, why do white-collar criminals often leave looking better than when they went in? It’s not because they have personal trainers. It’s because they’ve been working outside cutting lawns and doing other grounds-keeping on the military base next to the prison camp. And they have avoided the five-martini lunches and the after-work scotch. And quite frankly, they have exercised more than ever before. It’s not uncommon to come out twenty or thirty pounds lighter and with a nice tan. Then, of course, people say, ‘I want to go to Club Fed.’ There’s a different sort of vanity in prison, though. People shave their heads and grow beards. You have CEOs growing ponytails down to their butts. A lot of guys let it hang out. There’s almost a relief that you don’t need to worry about your appearance. You don’t have to shave every day. The only time you worry about how you look is on visiting days. I decided I wasn’t going to get my hair cut the whole time I was there. That lasted a month. My girlfriend saw me and said, ‘You look like Hell.’
How was the food? The meals were calorically adequate. High in fat. High in carbohydrates. The kitchen cooked with a lot of distressed items. I remember we got fifty-kilo bags of flour once that had survived a truck wreck. At the commissary you could buy Doritos and Fig Newtons and things like canned tuna and pasta to make your own meals. It’s amazing how creative inmates can get with hot water and a microwave. There was also a thriving black market. You could buy fruits, veggies and meat from the inmates who worked in the chow hall. But if you got caught, you could be shipped to a medium-security facility.
Did you keep up with current events? You’re not allowed access to the Internet, so newspapers are a big thing. I read The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today every day. You learned who subscribed to what and passed it around. I didn’t watch much TV. I limited myself to 60 Minutes and the news. Most guys watched a lot of sports. Toward the end of my sentence, the staff started showing movies. They were edited for airline use, so the swearing and sex were taken out, but they kept the violence in, which I thought was kind of ironic.
How did you learn what other inmates were in for? This is a touchy subject. Technically, anybody who has a drug charge and is doing less than ten years has cooperated with the federal government. They’re snitches. And the number one rule in prison is you don’t rat. So inmate protocol is never ask anybody a direct question about his crime. You volunteer information and the other person is expected to match it. If I say what I’m in for, then you say what you’re in for.
So what were you in for? I staged an aircraft accident and filed a fraudulent insurance claim. I plead guilty to one charge of mail fraud.
What’s the main thing you wish someone had told you about prison? I wish I had understood more about reconstructing my life on the outside, because that’s the biggest challenge: starting over. People expect to step back in their old life, and the fact is it doesn’t happen. There are a number of social biases against people who have transgressed, as there should be. I wish I had known more about how to deal with my shame, how to present myself as someone who was worthy of another chance.
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior writer at Fast Company. To read part one of this interview, “From the Penthouse to the Big House,” look in the September 2002 issue of Fast Company. Visit Davrie Communications on the Web at www.davrie.com