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Country club prisons have gone to heck

May 18, 2007|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

Country club prisons just aren't the same since they started letting the riffraff in.

Back in the good old days, when a nice, respectable white-collar criminal went to federal prison, he could do his time playing tennis with crooked pols, embezzling bankers, book-cooking accountants and other high-class folks. Not anymore. Now, Club Fed admits all kinds of lowlifes.

"Despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, minimum security prison camps are not reserved for former congressmen and CEOs," writes Luke Mullins in the May-June issue of the American magazine. Now, these once-prestigious country club prisons are places "where the nation's elite -- professionals, politicians, corporate executives -- live alongside the indigent foot soldiers of the drug trade."

The folks at the American seem saddened by this egalitarian trend, but that's not surprising. The American is published by the American Enterprise Institute, the famous Washington-based right-wing think tank. In a perverse way, it's heartwarming to know that the AEI's devotion to the welfare of the rich does not stop when the rich are convicted of multiple felonies and shipped to the slammer.

Mullins paints a delightfully nostalgic portrait of "the good old days of the 1970s" at Lompoc, a country club prison in California that served as a comfortable home away from home for several Watergate conspirators and other elite felons.

"Back then inmates would order expensive chili from the legendary Chasen's restaurant in Beverly Hills, or maybe shoot a few holes of golf at a neighboring course," he writes. "Occasionally, an inmate would even sneak out for a late-night visit to the prostitutes who were huddled in the back of a Winnebago parked nearby."

Ah, those were the days!

Now, white-collar miscreants must mingle with common street-level dope dealers. And they have to work for seven hours a day -- sometimes at jobs that are boring and beneath them. And some of these former country clubs no longer have tennis courts -- or even bocce courts! And inmates are forced to wear tacky prison garb instead of their stylish street clothes.

The horror! The horror!

Rape is rare in these minimum security prison camps, Mullins reports, but fights sometimes break out. Frequently, the fights are caused by those lowlife drug dealers, who hog the communal TV sets and will beat you up if you try to change channels.

And get this: "Each month, inmates can spend no more than $290 at the commissary and 300 minutes on the telephone."

That's less than $10 a day for snack food! And only 10 minutes a day for phone calls! What is this, Guantanamo? What next? Will they start waterboarding these poor guys?

"It's a hellish place, especially for a white-collar guy," says Alfred Porro, a crooked lawyer who served five years for 19 counts of fraud and tax evasion. "Your life is a big blah."

But there is one advantage to admitting lowlifes into country club prisons. Now, rich inmates like Porro can hire poor inmates as -- believe it or not -- maids.

"In exchange for fees," Mullins writes, "such inmates would clean your room, do your laundry or take care of any other small-scale inconvenience."

Money is not allowed in the prisons, so you simply pay your maid a few packs of cigarettes. Hey, that's better than in the outside world, where even the illegal immigrants expect to be paid with actual money.

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