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Just How White Is ‘White-Collar Prison,’ and What Does It Really Take to Land Yourself There?

Technically speaking, ‘white-collar prison’ isn’t even a real thing — but the huge race and class divide when it comes to sentencing certainly is

On Wednesday December 12, 2018 — the same day Michael Cohen was sentenced in New York to three years in minimum-security prison for a whole Rolodex of white-collar crimes including bank fraud, tax evasion and lying to Congress — a thousand miles to the southwest, John Andrew Kister, a 54-year-old white resident of Decatur, Alabama, was going down for a very different kind of felony. Kister was told he would serve a mammoth four consecutive life sentences by a Morgan County judge who added that, due to his previous criminal history and the fact that he had threatened to commit suicide by cop on his arrest, it was intended Kister should never get out of prison.

His crime? Robbing three convenience stores over a 24-hour period, armed with a knife.

On the following day, December 13, in Tulsa, Timothy Hamilton, 31 — also white and a former University of Oklahoma football player — was sentenced by a federal judge to serve five years in prison for defrauding 18 investors in various sham sports start-ups. Approaching many of his marks through a local church, he had conned them out of an “exorbitant amount of money” totaling nearly $869,300. The prosecuting U.S. Attorney stated, “His scheme had a severe impact on victims, most notably a widow who lost her life savings. In court today, T.J. Hamilton faced those he cheated. He now has to deal with the consequences of his criminal actions.”

Those consequences, as with Cohen, are likely to take the form of a Bureau of Prisons minimum-security institution, a.k.a. a federal prison camp. When Michael Cohen’s sentence was handed down in December, it briefly brought the white-collar felon’s incarceration experience, often characterized as “Club Fed,” back to the foreground of public debate.

The camp where Cohen is headed at Otisville, not far north of New York City, was described as “the closest thing you have to nirvana in a federal prison,” by criminologist Joel Sickler in the New York Times. The U.K.’s MailOnline honed in on the institution’s upscale culinary selection: “The prison store features deli favorites like rib steak, gefilte fish and kugel, along with chorizo and salmon.” And on CNN, former federal inmate Larry Levine described a minimum-security sojourn as being “like a boys’ camp; it’s like when you’re a kid… They don’t lock the doors. There’s no fences there. You know, the inmates are really killing time is what it comes down to.”

Otisville Correctional Facility

So for stealing handfuls of banknotes with a knife — undoubtedly terrifying cashiers and customers in the process — it’s a lifetime navigating the dangerous inmates and brutal discipline of a state penitentiary. For the football fraud who stole hundreds of thousands, wreaking lasting, ruinous effects on 18 families’ lives and livelihoods, it’s a slap on the wrist and five years in rich-kid summer camp. While, for that matter, if you deceive Congress, misdirect presidential campaign funds and lie about $14 million in undisclosed loans, it’s apparently just three.

Even by the standards of American criminal justice, with all its deeply embedded race and class biases, the bare existence of federal prison camps — as well as the federal system’s low-security correctional facilities, which share many of the camps’ permissive features — seems outlandishly, cartoonishly unfair. Can it be that the treatment of the well off, the well connected, and the well groomed in open prisons really is this preferential? Or are we missing something here?

So Is It a Prison or a Camp?

Andrew Snyder is a therapist based in Hawaii, who specializes in prepping convicted white-collar offenders for their life on the inside. Most of the clients he sees have never been in trouble with the law before, and to prepare them for the culture shock of federal prison, he says the most important thing he impresses on them is “to be flexible. Not physically, but mentally. I always tell them, in terms of staff, it’s: ‘Yes, sir. No, sir’ — to be very accommodating. And when you feel that pressure build up, whether it’s doing a chant or yoga, find some kind of release. Because the last thing you want to do is get in a fight in minimum security. You’re going to get locked up, you’re going to go to Ad Seg” — being temporarily billeted in Administrative Segregation, he explains, is a form of punishment in itself — “till they figure out what the circumstances were around the fight. And you will lose that [minimum-security] housing for a while. And life is a whole lot different in medium security…”

Snyder is well placed to stress the dire nature of that warning, having previously worked as a correctional officer in a state prison, the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, just north of the Bay Area, which had both medium-security and minimum-security facilities on site. “The Ranch,” as the minimum-security housing is known, is an open prison located outside the CMF’s main perimeter fence which lodges inmates together in dormitories rather than cells.

CMF (3145643899).jpg
The California Medical Facility

For Snyder, the most striking difference between the Ranch and the main site wasn’t the architecture: “It’s the feeling. The pressure is so intense inside the [main] institution,” he says. “At any moment, a fight can break out, weapons can be seen, people can be stabbed — and those things happen so fast. The people are always on edge.” Relentless fight-or-flight stress for both staff and inmates would recede in the minimum-security section by contrast, where it was more open and populated with far fewer prisoners — around 160 compared to the CMF’s 3,000-plus total prison population. “When you bring an inmate out from the inside to minimum security,” he says, “it takes a few days for them to adjust: They’re on a much more heightened alertness… Something might fall behind them, say a broomstick lands on the ground, and they’ll just snap around real fast. Whereas for the people who’ve been out in the minimum security for a while, it’s not so intense.”

Snyder is at pains to point out, though, that in places like the Ranch, such as federal prison camps and other lower-security facilities, it’s still no gentlemen’s retreat. “It’s a different way of life,” he says, “but it’s still prison.”

The threat of violence may be greatly reduced, but there are other forms of stress inmates have to endure. Walter Pavlo is now an author and speaker who co-founded the legal consultancy firm Prisonology, but in a former life, he was a white-collar inmate in the federal system. Back in 2001 he began a 41-month sentence, having been found guilty of diverting $6 million from his employer, a leading telecoms corporation, to accounts in the Cayman Islands.

In what might be the strongest possible inducement to make anyone tempted by high-level embezzlement to keep those funds where they belong, he describes his experience inside two federal prison camps — at Jesup, Georgia and Edgefield, South Carolina — as “the equivalent of living inside the Department of Motor Vehicles.” What he recalls is two years of solid, eye-glazing boredom — “made up of waiting in lines for everything: Food, counts, medical, counseling…” — compounded by “an inefficient regimen that wears a person down.” “To escape the madness,” he says, “I often read books, wrote on my experience and exercised. I had a handful of friends, but I tried to keep to myself.”

And it’s not just a chronic case of waiting-room fatigue. Fall out of line, even in a camp, and you risk being punished. While it’s more commonly meted out in higher-security-level jails, 24-hour solitary confinement is cited in a New York Magazine article from 2002 as the bogeyman of punishments at the low-security facility at Allenwood, Pennsylvania. The article goes on to recount the experience of one white-collar resident of the minimum-security federal camp at Fairton, New Jersey, who broke his wrist playing basketball. Rather than wait 48 hours to see the prison doctor, the injured inmate had his wrist set by a fellow prisoner who happened to be a physician — and who was promptly thrown in “the hole” for helping.  

Nevertheless, discipline in a federal camp is a world away from Oz-style psychological torture. More typical forms of penalty in lower-security regimes include, according to Snyder, inmates being “confined to their cell for a weekend.” Prisoners can also, “lose certain privileges, including visiting — that’s one that happens in the federal system. There might be extra time doing chores. Those are for more minor infractions,” he says. “When you get into the serious ones, that’s where your housing is going to change; your time can be adjusted and penalized — meaning you’re going to spend more time in prison.”

Because in the federal system, there’s no parole. If you’re sentenced to more than a year in federal jail, the minimum you’ll serve is 85 percent of that term — and to start chipping away at that potential 15 percent leniency, you’ll need to accrue “good time credit” by exhibiting “exemplary compliance” with prison rules. (The one exception to this is joining a voluntary Residential Drug Abuse Program, a form of in-house rehab, through which a handful of federal camp inmates can earn up to an extra 12 months off their sentence.)

Then there’s the bare fact, gnawingly present throughout your time in jail, that despite the lack of razor wire and security fences, your liberty has been comprehensively revoked. Snyder says that many of his white-collar clients “are really astounded that they found themselves in this situation. It’s like, ‘How did I get here?’ Then they realize the severity of what’s taken place, and there’s a lot of grief. A lot of grief that they mismanaged their life.”

For Walter Pavlo, “The most difficult thing about prison was the mental stress of being separated from family and friends. I always appreciated my family, but being incarcerated made me realize that I could never appreciate them enough.”

Just How White Is “White-Collar Prison?”

Complicating the picture of minimum security as a country club for naughty stockbrokers is that while minimum- and low-security lockups in the federal system are where many convicted white-collar criminals do end up, these institutions don’t directly equate to the “white-collar prison” of popular imagination. In fact, it’s very hard to tell if that place really exists anywhere in the federal system.

The term itself, “white-collar criminality,” was coined in 1939 by the eminent criminologist Edwin Sutherland; he originally defined it in terms of class, as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation.” Nowadays, though, the FBI defines it purely in terms of the criminal acts themselves, with a strong emphasis on their non-violent natures: White-collar crimes are “those illegal acts which are characterized by deceit, concealment or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence” — which it handily summarizes as “lying, stealing and cheating.” Among the crimes it umbrellas under this definition, the bureau lists everything from multi-million dollar money laundering and market manipulation to lowly identity theft and healthcare fraud.

The five security levels for federal prisons, meanwhile, as developed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have evolved independently of the debate over these definitions, and primarily as a response to overcrowding in the bureau’s prisons during the 1930s and 1940s. It was during the 1940s that federal prison camps were first established in contrast to the higher-security Federal Correctional Institutions and penitentiaries, as part of a program of expansion that nearly doubled the number of U.S. government-run prisons from 24 to 44 by the end of the decade.

These early minimum-security institutions were based on a model developed by Mary Belle Harris, who ran the first federal women’s prison at Alderson, West Virginia, from 1928 to 1941 as a decentralized, boarding-school-style campus where an emphasis was placed on educating offenders as much as punishing them — something like an all-female Hogwarts graduate college (Slytherin only). While Alderson’s stately grounds would later become a temporary home for Billie Holiday (sent there for 10 months in 1947 and 1948 for drug possession), and famously, Martha Stewart (five months in 2004 and 2005 for obstruction of justice in relation to a financial investigation), its approach of housing prisoners according to the security risks they posed spread to become the B.O.P.’s standard practice nationwide, since, according to the prisons bureau, it “led to more efficient and cost-effective operations.”

Federal Prison Camp, Alderson

Back then, the system was designed to cope with a national federal prison population of around 24,000 — a total that stayed pretty much constant until 1980. Now, in the wake of America’s War on Drugs — much of which has been prosecuted by federal authorities — tougher sentencing laws and four decades of nationwide mass incarceration, it stands at more than seven times that, at 180,421 (according to B.O.P. figures for February 14, 2019).

Of the total population currently in federal jails, more than half are being held in either minimum-security camps (16.7 percent) or low-security correctional facilities (37.7 percent). Just over a quarter of federal inmates are white, while just under a third are Hispanic, and 38 percent are black.

The racial and ethnic mix varies noticeably between the security classifications, though. According to figures which the B.O.P. supplied on request, as of February 2, 2019, in low-security facilities by far the largest group of inmates were Hispanic, making up 44 percent of the population, with non-Hispanic white and black offenders both accounting for just over a quarter of the total. But in federal prison camps, white offenders made up the biggest segment, at around 38 percent, while just over a third of the minimum-security population was black and a quarter Hispanic.

Compare this with the statistics for the U.S.’s entire incarcerated population of around 2.2 million, in which a similar proportion is white — 39 percent, according to the 2010 census, with 19 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black — and you start to see that federal prisons are actually, even at the lower-security end, less Caucasian than America’s prison system as a whole.  

That aside, does white-collar crime still deserve its reputation as a predominantly white person’s pursuit? This is much harder to get a fix on — partly due to the fuzziness around the accepted definitions of “white-collar crime,” and partly because federal jails house a much larger number of offenders who are convicted of drugs-related crimes than financiers and fraudsters. As of November 2018, the proportion of federal inmates doing time for crimes that could broadly be tagged “white collar” was less than 8 percent, versus 46 percent who were inside for drug offenses.

However you define it, though, it’s by no means just white people who do time for white-collar crime. A detailed census taken by the B.O.P of the prison population in 1983, for instance, noted that 64 percent of white-collar offenders were white, compared to 32 percent who were black — “a similar racial breakdown,” the report noted, to that “of all those arrested for [all types of] felonies from the reporting states.”

In the Oxford Handbook of White-Collar Crime, Paul Klenowski and Kimberly Dodson say that, while most research indicates that convictions for conventional street crimes tend to be concentrated among “minority offenders from lower-class backgrounds … the research regarding race and white-collar crime tends to be ambiguous.” They suggest that the great majority of offenders in jail for high-level corporate violations are indeed white, reflecting the demographic imbalance of high-level corporate jobs. But they also point to a more complex story when it comes to the less spectacular, lower-profile white-collar prosecutions — such as doctors committing health fraud — citing studies like the 2006 book Choosing White-Collar Crime, in which the authors “discovered that roughly 32 percent of white-collar offenders were non-white (i.e., Hispanic or African-American), indicating that a larger-than-expected portion of federal white-collar offenses are committed by non-whites.”

The mix of people Walter Pavlo encountered in minimum security at Jesup and Edgefield, however, might indicate otherwise: “Of the 500 inmates at Edgefield camp, there were maybe 50 white collar. And yes, that population was predominantly white.” But it also undermines the idea that federal prison camps are reserved as special-treatment enclaves for the wealthy and white. “My experience at the camp was that the majority of the population was black and then Hispanic. Most all were there for drug-related crimes.”

Who Gets to Go to Minimum Security?

Of course, there is still a strong case to be made that America operates a two-tier approach when it comes to incarceration, with a prison system that generally favors offenders who are white and well-heeled. But it’s perhaps misleading to think of the institutions themselves as the culprits — prison camps as soft landings for the privileged versus hardcore penitentiaries for everyone else. Instead, the real unfairness in the system could be more to do with sentencing and how offenders are processed in the first place.

If you are found guilty in a federal court, which type of prison you end up in will depend on a wide range of factors, from the nature of your offense and your flight risk to your educational level — all of which are wrapped up and quantified by algorithm into a future-defining custody-classification score. For a man (and over 93 percent of federal inmates are male) to be assigned to a minimum- or low-security prison, your points total has to come in at 15 or under; 16 to 23 points and it’s off to medium security with the gangs and violent offenders; 24 and above and you’ll find yourself in high-security Game of Thrones territory. Of all the elements the B.O.P. considers in calculating your score, the most important are likely to be your history of violence; the length of your sentence (you want 10 years or under to escape medium-to-max security); and your age. Basically, if you’re in your teens to early 20s, you’re seen as a potential hothead who’s more likely to get into fights, meaning you’ll receive eight points simply for the secondary crime of youth.

“My security classification was very low: Under five points,” says Pavlo. “That was mostly driven by my age (under 40 years old). No prior offenses and the crime was non-violent. My designation was always going to be a camp.”

This set of points parameters, then, immediately puts well-educated middle-class offenders at a probable advantage in scoring a dormitory placement. Add to this the increasingly acknowledged phenomenon of implicit bias in sentencing, and your average white-guy white-collar felon is more likely to amass a lower point score than someone of color convicted of the same offense with a comparable history of violence, age, education and all the rest.

A 2006 study into racial disparity in white-collar sentences found that despite standardized sentencing guidelines, “unexplained racial and ethnic differentials persist, even for non-violent and white-collar crimes.” According to the authors, one aspect of the puzzle that was easy to identify was wealth: “Paying fines reduces the prison time imposed, and thus, it seems that whites receive shorter sentences, in part, because they have a disproportionate ability to pay fines.”

Meanwhile, in assessing average prison terms across the whole spectrum of criminal activity, a 2017 report by the judiciary’s own U.S. Sentencing Commission found that from 2012 to 2016, “Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated white male offenders.” When it comes to a coin-toss over a medium- vs low-security designation, this edge could make all the difference.

Here too, though, the picture is complicated. Even when they present a close-to-zero risk of violence or flight, not every white-collar criminal touches down gently in a federal prison camp. Since the points system is closely linked to sentencing, some of the most famous fraudsters fail to qualify for those highly sought after lower-security bunks. Bernie Madoff, the 80-year-old iconic Ponzi perpetrator, for example, is in a medium-security prison in Butner, North Carolina, mainly because he was handed down a 150-year sentence in 2009.

Even if you’re a model non-violent, stand-in-line, eighth-generation white-collar felon, you might not end up in federal jail at all. “Here in Hawaii,” says Snyder, “we have a few people who’ve been convicted of what you would classify as white-collar crimes who are doing their time in state prison. And I’m sure it’s like this for other states as well, where the feds haven’t prosecuted them, and they’re locked up with all the rest. And it ain’t cushy!”

Violence: It Always Ends in Tiers

Ultimately, for prison authorities whose first concern is the very pressing problem of inmate management, the debate over what does and doesn’t constitute white-collar crime, and who is and isn’t committing it, is a side issue at best. What governs the whole prison security-classification system — both in the federal system and outside it — is the ubiquitous specter of violence. Inmates at all levels are continually being monitored for how great a risk they pose in terms of inflicting harm on others, and it’s this practical consideration above all else that has given rise to low- and minimum-security incarceration as an oasis of relative peace within the system.

The different security environments exist, explains Snyder, “For the safety and security of the institution. And you want to protect the inmates: You don’t want them facing unnecessary, unreasonable hazards. You certainly don’t want a CPA convicted of embezzlement, with no violence, no drugs, no history of those types of things, being housed with a hardcore gang-member murderer, serving a life sentence. It’s not appropriate. He’s not prepared for that type of living situation.”

While the partitioning of the violent from the non-violent might be born of the grim realities of housing upwards of 2 million prisoners in ever more confined spaces, its aggregate outcome is nonetheless howlingly unfair, far too liable to split along familiar lines of class and race. But those middle-class professionals who are lucky enough to end up hugging their pillows in lower-security dorms might be contributing more to society than just the whopping fines they pay and the sentences they serve. In many cases, a federal prison camp is actually the one environment where offenders from white, privileged backgrounds are compelled to share a community with people from far outside their socioeconomic group.

Which is why, says Snyder, he finds the best way to get them through their sentences is almost always to “encourage them to get involved: Giving back through tutoring and teaching classes. My clients typically are college educated, with a lot of experience.” But they’re in the same living space as non-white-collar offenders, many of whom “might not have college education, might not have a lot of legitimate work experience.” And so his clients can offer their prison-mates invaluable insight and knowledge — in business, in law, in computing, in presentational skills, in recruitment — that many might rarely come into contact with in the outside world.

“There’s a real sense of pleasure when we give, right? When we foster someone’s growth.” And particularly in the case of white-collar criminals, says Snyder, “those are the things that typically were missing from their lives before they got into trouble.”