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1st-Time Inmates, Who Do You Call? Ex-Con-sultant

Prison: Veteran con man Frank Sweeney had advised 500 newcomers for up to $3,500 on the do's and don't's of life inside. The work is perfectly legal.

April 19, 1998|AMY WESTFELDT | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TENAFLY, N.J. — Frank Sweeney's lies landed him in prison.

There was the time he put an ad in a gun magazine, claiming to deal in exotic weapons, to bilk buyers. And the cat scam he ran, bobbing house cats' tails and selling them as rare breeds for $300 apiece.

Twenty-four years and 27 prisons later, Sweeney has pulled almost every con imaginable. Now his swindler's skills have led him to a legal and lucrative career: prison consulting.

From his sparse apartment in the town he grew up in, Sweeney doles out advice to first-time criminals. Since he started more than three years ago, he says, he has counseled 500 clients, for fees ranging from $200 to $3,500 each, on how to get by on the inside.

"I have some experience in the field," said Sweeney, 54. "Maybe I can alleviate some of their fears and make some money."

Ask him anything about getting around the prison system and he has an answer.

Want better food? Say you're Jewish and you can eat kosher. "The meals are sumptuous," he says.

Want a better bunk? Say you have epilepsy. They'll be afraid to put you on top.

Want to get out of dishwashing duty? Say you have herpes. No one will want you near the glasses and plates.

"It makes life a little easier and it doesn't hurt anybody," Sweeney says of the "white lies" he advises.

He may have tapped into a bottomless market, and he's not the only one.

A few years ago, a magazine called Prison Life began publishing in Houston. An ex-inmate has published a survival guide. Three years ago, a former Philadelphia councilman who did time for corruption set up a $2.50-a-minute hotline with touch-tone options: how to reduce your sentence, what to bring to prison, who to see before going.

"The most terrifying thing a person can face is to go to jail," said Frank Lucianna, who for years was Sweeney's defense attorney and now informally advises him in his new job.

"Mr. Sweeney has been so well indoctrinated and oriented from jail that he can tell a person what to expect almost with certainty."

The consultant talks easily about the worst jail he's been in--his first, a violent juvenile facility--and the best, which was coed and even had dances.

He advertises in the National Law Journal and USA Today, hoping to attract felons and their lawyers. He limits his advice to federal prison, because he served most of his time there and because the standards are consistent nationwide.

He says he has 47 cases, which he handles with three ex-convicts and a part-time secretary.

When he meets potential clients, he does so at a hotel because he doesn't want criminals to know where he lives. "We've had clients who've been disgruntled," he confides.

Because he caters to federal prisoners, he deals mostly with white-collar criminals who have never served time. Their biggest fear, he says, is that they will be raped in prison. Although he said that rarely happens, he has little advice for avoiding it.

His advice for preventing other trouble can be simple.

"You bump into somebody, always say excuse me," he says. "Respect is a much bigger thing in prison than it is in the free world. In prison if you bump into somebody and don't say excuse me, you could get killed."

Other advice:

* "You have a chance of getting a cell by yourself, sometimes. It's a big thing in a federal prison to have that degree of privacy."

* "It's very bad to borrow things from men in prison. We always tell people, 'Don't borrow anything.' "

* "The best type of job is no job."

Clients often ask for help in getting transferred to a prison closer to home. Sweeney claims he can help through his connections, with retired prison officials, among others.

Ask Jared Garrick, a Hackettstown-area accountant who served five years for embezzling his clients' money to feed a gambling habit. He started his sentence in Allenwood, Pa., and was transferred nine months later to a maximum-security facility in Danbury, Conn. He asked for a transfer and was denied. He wrote to Sweeney after reading an ad in USA Today.

"I don't know how he did it," said Garrick, who got out of prison in 1995, "but four months later I was transferred."

U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Todd Craig categorically denies that Sweeney influences such decisions.

"There is no preferential treatment," he says. "The inmates can be treated fairly . . . without having to go to a consultant."

But Garrick, who says he paid Sweeney $1,000, adds, "They don't tell you anything in prison. . . . You need some help from the outside."

The son of an architect and violin teacher, Sweeney said he became a criminal "for the adventure of it, really."

Most of his crimes were nonviolent. But an incident in which he shot Tenafly's police chief in the arm brought him seven years in prison. He describes it as an accident and adds, "I regret that."

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