Starting over after pr...

Starting over after prison

By Bill McClellan

A little more than a year ago, I wrote about John.

John is in his early 50s. He’s a little paunchy. He wears glasses. He’s about to go to federal prison and he’s scared.”

He had been sentenced to a year and a day for embezzling. The sentencing was in the federal courthouse in East St. Louis. Judges in that district sometimes ask a couple of fellows who have been to federal prison to brief men who are about to go into the system. Tell them what to expect, what to look out for, and maybe more importantly, what not to expect.

The idea was born after one of the two guys — a banker — spoke at a meeting of the judges about his experiences in a minimum security federal camp. The banker told the judges he’d be willing to talk to anybody who was about to enter the system. No funding necessary.

That offer resonated with the judges. Shortly before the banker spoke to them, a lawyer had committed suicide on the day he was to be sentenced for mail fraud. Maybe it was the fear of the unknown that did it.

So the banker and his friend started talking to men who were about to enter the system. The second guy did harder time than the banker. He was not in a minimum security camp. He looks rougher, too. He’s a burly, Italian guy.

With an agreement that I not use any names, they let me tag along when they met with John. The banker recounted his own experiences at a federal camp. About 20 percent of the guys are white collar criminals. The other 80 percent worked their way through the system from higher-security installations. By the time they get to a camp, they are not looking for trouble.

“It’s called being closer to the door,” said the nonbanker.

So just mind your own business, and you can do your time. That was the message. The banker mentioned that John would have a lot of free time. He said he used to walk on the track all the time and lost a lot of weight.

The message was so heartening to John that he asked the two men if they would come to his house and talk to his family. They did. I tagged along again.

The banker assured the family that federal camp need not be a harrowing experience. “It’s not ‘Lockup’ on television,” said the second man.

John came home a few days ago. The four of us met for lunch at Blueberry Hill earlier this week.

John has lost a bunch of weight. Walking on the track is what did it. He said the information the two men had given him had been very accurate and very helpful. Being locked up is not a good thing, but he had made the most of it, he said. He took several business classes taught by other inmates, and taught a course on credit.

He played bocce with some fellows from Chicago, and spent a lot of time walking on the track with white collar guys like himself.

One of the fellows he met was Alonzo Monk, former law school pal and then top aide to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

So John’s time in camp did not go badly at all.

But I remembered something else the banker had told him last year. Doing your time is the easy part. Getting on with your life afterward is harder.

In his past life, the banker often mingled with powerful, influential people. After he did his time, he spoke to a congressman he knew. “When do you think I will have paid my debt to society?” he asked. The congressman thought for a moment. “When you’re off probation?” The banker said, “Never.”

That’s because the felony conviction stays with you. Makes it hard to get started again. Makes it hard to get hired. For that reason, the banker and his friend have started their own business. They’ve been forced, more or less, to become entrepreneurs.

John will probably be in the same boat. He used to work with numbers. Those doors are now closed to him. He told us he’s sent out about 50 résumés so far, for all sorts of jobs, mostly menial, and has not had any responses. The two men asked him if he had any entrepreneurial ideas.

Yes, he did, he said. He said he had an idea for a business that would help people understand mortgages. He’d be a consultant who would walk people through the process.

That might work. Who understands that stuff? Or maybe it won’t work and John will have to come up with another idea.

He’s starting over.

At least he’s got prison behind him. That’s something. A couple of weeks ago, the banker and his friend counseled a young woman who is about to go to prison. She caught a five-year sentence for drugs.

She was their first woman client, but sadly, they stay busy. Sometimes judges call them. Sometimes lawyers call them. They’ve got a nice business model — except they do their work for nothing.

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