About to do time? Meet your best pal
Larry Levine is hard at work in a sketchy apartment complex in Canoga Park, a noisy and joyless place with an enclosed courtyard that resembles a prison cellblock.
Upstairs in the back, behind a blanket blocking the light of day, Levine paces his cramped one-bedroom. Stacks of law books purchased on EBay crowd the floor. Levine is wearing a Hawaiian shirt stretched across his belly and an L.A. County Sheriff’s cap. From his cellphone spills the complicated complaint of a potential client, a man injured in federal prison who believes he was entitled to physical therapy upon release.
“You know I’m not a lawyer, right?” Levine says. He then dispenses some free legal advice: “Have you filed a tort claim? You need to find out who is negligent.”
At a time when no job is safe, Levine is among a small but growing number of consultants who are poised to find work in the economic meltdown as prison life coaches to the perpetrators of Ponzi schemes, mortgage scams and financial swindles.
White-collar criminals have long employed coaches to prep them on what to expect when they trade in their designer clothes for institutional khaki. Past students include Martha Stewart (securities fraud), Leona Helmsley (tax evasion) and financier Ivan Boesky (insider trading).
Now a new crop of consultants is using the Web to democratize this rarefied service, reaching out to small-time hustlers who saw the opportunity of a lifetime and seized it, regardless of the consequences.
Among these self-styled gurus are former prison staffers, disbarred lawyers and self-trained former jailhouse lawyers who’ve hung their shingles on the outside.
“We like to use the phrase ‘jailhouse litigator,’ ” says Levine, 47. “Jailhouse lawyer sounds cheap.”
For fees ranging from a few hundred dollars to many thousands, consultants will explain the maze of regulations that govern every minute behind bars. They’ll show clients how to file a grievance, obtain a desirable prison job or get transferred to a nicer lockup. They’ll tell clients what to say when being evaluated for a substance abuse rehab program that can shave up to a year off a sentence.
Most important, they give newbies a crash course on prison lingo, culture and behavior -- the do’s and don’ts of a violent place where the wrong move could be their last.
“It’s like going to a foreign country and having to learn a new language,” says Tom Miller, 54, who did time in a California prison in the 1990s for dealing methamphetamine and now works as a counselor for a San Diego business called Dr. Prison.
“When I went in, my first cellie was a white supremacist shot-caller named Pinky,” Miller says. “He was absolutely huge. He had Nazi signs on his toes. He started talking about some of his crimes and one of them was the rape of another inmate. . . . I was absolutely panicked.”
Miller says the insight he gleaned from Pinky and other encounters gives him the authority to speak about surviving prison unscathed, as he did.
Lesson No. 1: Stay with your own race. Don’t use the phone of a person of another race. Don’t play cards with people of another race.
Other lessons: Don’t join a gang. Don’t divulge too much information about yourself and don’t lie -- it’s a sign of disrespect. Don’t snitch. Don’t become overly chummy with anyone because no one is your friend. Learn how to anticipate riots and avoid being raped; owing anyone money or a favor makes one vulnerable.
“We deal with anybody who has fears,” Miller says. “We also try to prepare people for the family situations they’ll encounter. You want to be mindful of your finances. Most spouses won’t be there when you get out. People always say, ‘Oh no, she’s going to stick with me.’ We tell them, ‘No, she won’t. So you want to protect your money now.’ ”
Levine, a gourmand when it comes to serving up expletives, counsels circumspection and extreme politeness.
“Show ultimate respect. Be courteous. People are under a lot of stress in prison,” he says. “Don’t argue. Don’t confront. . . . I knew people were lying to me all the time. . . . ‘Hey, you want to be Elvis? Bigfoot? Thank you, Mr. President!’ I didn’t care what or who they wanted to be. I was just doing my own time.”
Levine, who deals exclusively with federal cases, calls his program Fedtime 101. Its curriculum is based on what he learned during 10 years in federal prisons for drug dealing and securities fraud.
“Why trust your future with amateurs?” says Levine, who founded American Prison Consultants in 2006 after being placed on supervisory release. “You get a lot of well-meaning people doing this kind of thing who don’t know what they’re talking about. They lack my experience. They haven’t lived it. I teach people what they need to know.”
Levine is built like a farm silo with a thick salt-and-pepper goatee and cue ball head that give him the bearing of a biker in search of a stomping.
In fact, Levine is the child of upper-middle-class San Fernando Valley parents, a divorced grandfather and Air Force veteran who worked as a cable TV installer and ran a burglar alarm company before becoming an unlicensed private investigator.
“That’s when I got into trouble,” he says.
As are all such stories, Levine’s is a long one, a recipe of poor choices involving organized crime, counterfeit money and travelers checks, methamphetamine, a friend-turned-snitch who set him up and transactions in parking lots with undercover agents.
“This guy,” he says of the informant who rolled over on him, “built me up as some kind of master criminal” and claimed Levine had someone killed in Mexico and arranged for the body to be brought to the United States.
“That’s ridiculous,” he says of the allegation, which went nowhere. “You kill somebody in Mexico, who’s going to bring the body back?”
Behind bars, Levine’s fertile mind led him to the law library, where he learned to file grievances through the Bureau of Prisons’ Administrative Remedy Program, a bureaucratic process he found to be as insufferable as solitary confinement. He helped fashion a lawsuit brought by dozens of minimum-security inmates over their transfer to a Texas facility that housed gang members and other violent offenders.
As word got around, inmates increasingly hit Levine up for advice. Some paid him in commodities from the prison canteen.
Now, he accepts only cash. Levine says he advised 40 paying clients last year, made more than $100,000 and has enough work to outsource the review of court documents to a couple of former jailhouse lawyers living in the Philippines. He rarely meets a client face-to-face; the mere hint of socializing with a felon might put him back in prison.
He can’t help a fair amount of people who contact him. Some, including the injured former inmate who’s seeking physical therapy, need real -- not jailhouse -- lawyers. Others, including a woman whose boyfriend was put away for blasting an ATM from a wall, are simply delusional.
“This lady had it in her mind that this dude was set up. They had it on camera!” Levine says incredulously. “I get people who are going away for child pornography. I don’t want to deal with them. What I tell them is: ‘Pray. You’re going to get beat up every day you’re in there.’ ”
Clients he takes on get a guarantee unique in American commerce.
“If they ask, how do I know I can trust you, I tell them: ‘You don’t,’ ” he says. “I can steal your money. But all you have to do is tell my probation officer. Think I’m going back to prison for a couple thousand dollars? That’s your insurance policy.”
That was good enough for Chris Upchurch, a 33-year-old Idaho home builder indicted last year in a mortgage fraud and kickback scheme that used straw borrowers with falsified income and credit histories to obtain $20 million in bogus construction loans.
“Crud, a guy like that -- he’s got experience,” Upchurch says.
Months before he was arrested, Upchurch felt the FBI closing in. He Googled “prison time” and “help” and up popped Levine’s website, www.americanprisonconsultants .com. It includes his resume -- a list of the prisons he served time in -- and testimonials from inmate-clients.
Levine tells it like it is. . . . A virtual encyclopedia of BOP policy and procedure. . . . Two thumbs up for Levine!
Upchurch, charged with 20 counts of bank fraud, faced 30 years in prison. One of the four lawyers he’s gone through advised him to plead not guilty and have a jury decide his fate.
Levine’s advice: “Don’t be stupid. They’re going to get you.” More than 90% of federal defendants plead guilty; the vast majority who go to trial are convicted; four of five convicted defendants serve jail time. It’s better to make a deal.
Eventually, Upchurch pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud. He’s hoping to get no more than 3 1/2 years when he is sentenced next month.
Upchurch believes he got his money’s worth from the $1,500 Levine charged. Levine told him about the substance abuse program. (“I drink a lot more now. It’s been a tough year,” Upchurch says.) And he listened to Upchurch’s concerns about his three young children and his wife, who is expecting another.
“She’s a big-time Christian girl and doesn’t like what happened,” Upchurch says.
Upchurch took comfort in Levine’s advice. The soon-to-be con looked to the ex-con as a Padawan would a Jedi Master.
“If you’re getting divorced, you call a friend who’s been divorced,” Upchurch says.
Such nurturing takes time -- and trust. On Levine’s end, that means a signed service agreement and payment upfront.
“They’re criminals. I don’t trust these people,” he says.
On a speaker phone now, Levine is talking to a woman whose daughter is serving 10 years for a drug conviction. He explains that for $1,000 he will review the case looking for grounds to file a 2255 habeas corpus motion, a common sentence-reduction tool used by inmates.
The woman asks a lot of questions. She wonders aloud whether her phone is being tapped.
“Let me do my job!” Levine shouts. “Don’t second-guess what I’m doing!”
A few hours later $1,000 hits Levine’s bank account and a peculiar wheel of justice begins to turn.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
If you go to prison
A few do’s and don’ts from prison-life consultants:
Stay with people of your own race.
Be overly respectful.
Follow prison rules.
Be aware of signs of a brewing riot.
Join a gang.
Divulge personal information.
Get into arguments with other inmates.
Owe anyone anything.
Source: Times reporting
Previous Column One articles are available online.