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About to do time? Meet your best pal

February 27, 2009|Mike Anton
  • Ex-con Larry Levine calls himself a jailhouse litigator. ?Jailhouse lawyer sounds cheap.?
Ex-con Larry Levine calls himself a jailhouse litigator. ?Jailhouse lawyer… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

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.

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