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Stockbroker Is Investing in Prisoners

March 29, 1985|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

LA HONDA, Calif. — When Beverly Hills stockbroker Ira T. Distenfield talks, inmates listen.

But when Distenfield brings Cathy Lee Crosby into a prison as his guest, inmates snap to attention.

For 16 years, Distenfield has been visiting prisons and jails teaching how Wall Street works and digging into his own pockets for prize money to reward those who learn best.

Distenfield promises $50 to inmates who attend every session of his eight-week investing course. And he gives prizes of up to $500 for those who, with $10,000 in Monopoly money, make the most of what he teaches.

And just in case the money isn't enough to keep the inmates interested, he brings guests such as Maury Wills, Hugh Hefner (and a coterie of bunnies), producer Jerry Weintraub and Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie.

The other day, he flew Crosby and both their entourages first-class to San Francisco and then chartered two helicopters up to this affluent mountain hideaway hamlet, where Eclectic Communications Inc. operates the only privately run federal prison in America.

The site is an old camp for delinquents that resembles a high school except that the chain- link fence is topped by rolled barbed wire. It is set among redwood trees and houses 60 young men who committed felonies but have such otherwise clean records that they are eligible to eventually have their criminal records expunged.

Recently, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley named Distenfield chair of the mayor's Corporate Challenge for Youth, which is seeking business financial support for alternatives to gangs, such as inner-city teen-age social organizations. Eclectic, the firm that runs the La Honda prison, was one of the first contributors.

Distenfield, 38, runs Smith Barney's Beverly Hills office. Since he arrived from Miami in December, 1981, it has grown from five brokers to more than 60, and he plans to add more than two dozen more at a third Westside office soon.

At the La Honda prison, he told the inmates, some of whom slouched but all of whom listened intently, to pay attention to the news and what it means for business opportunities ("the front page . . . tells you what will be the problems and where the business investment opportunities are.")

Introduced Crosby

Then he introduced Crosby and nearly every inmate either sat on the edge of his chair or straightened up in his seat.

Crosby talked about staying fit to do well at work, about her tennis career and how she "just fell into" modeling and acting.

"I got into modeling and various acting roles and thought, 'Boy, this was easy, a piece of cake. What an easy way to make money.' "

The inmates hung on her every word for an hour and then crowded around, for as long as the prison staff let them, to ask questions and collect her autograph.

Distenfield, who studied criminology at Michigan State University after graduating from Northern Illinois University with honors, got the idea for his stocks-in-prison course soon after getting his first job in Chicago in 1969.

He said he started ruminating about crime and capitalism.

Since then, he has devoted a day nearly every week to visiting prisons and jails from coast to coast. He also has been a leader of blue-ribbon citizen commissions watchdogging organized crime and police corruption in Chicago and Miami.

With Distenfield's influence, inmates talk incessantly about the stock market, interest rates and other business matters, according to officials at jails and prisons where he has taught. But Distenfield makes no systematic effort to keep track of the inmates he teaches to learn how many change their lives.

"I'm just your average do-gooder," Distenfield said, when pressed about why he would devote himself--and tens of thousands of dollars of his own after-tax earnings--for 16 years to a project with none of what the research community would call provable results.

Laugh, Spit on the Floor

"The first time you get up in front of 50 inmates they laugh at you, spit on the floor. They're unruly. But six weeks later they are as serious about learning about the stock market as any businessmen's group," he said.

"I get a selfish feeling of pride in taking people who are detractors and getting their interest. And I love that smell of the crowd." But he also remembers his youth, the son of a bank officer who had more title than pay and of his good friends at South Shore High School, where the start of racial integration meant considerable tension.

Distenfield said some of his associates, all of them white, "thought about stealing cars. I just thought about how to earn money to buy one," he said.

Distenfield sold shoes to make money to finance an education. But his friends saw life differently.

"We were eight good friends and only one of eight has had some success," said Distenfield, the one who became successful enough to fly first-class even when he is paying for the ticket out of his own pocket.

Right after college, Distenfield and his buddies got together. "We were all in a room, talking, deciding what to do. None of my friends had any desire to succeed. They lacked total motivation . . . couldn't see opportunities come their way.

"Since then one has killed himself, two have been in jail and the other four just coast along in Chicago," Distenfield said.

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