How Prison Consultants Could Help Bernard Madoff

In the public eye, each stage of the white-collar criminal's path from boardroom to big house is attended by drama. There's the shock of being caught, the gravity of indictment, the finality of a conviction, and the satisfaction of sentencing. But the final step of the process often earns far less attention: designation, the process by which the Federal Bureau of Prisons determines where the freshly convicted serve their time.

It's a matter of fine detail and major impact, enough to support a cottage industry of prison consultants, who advise their newly convicted clients on how to prepare mentally for incarceration and attempt to place them in better facilities. Perhaps the industry's newest client: Bernie Madoff, 71, who was sentenced to 150 years in prison for running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. The interest in where he may end up hasn't been as intense since Martha Stewart's designation. She landed in "Camp Cupcake," a.k.a. Alderson Federal Prison Camp, in West Virginia.

Madoff's lawyer, Ira Sorkin, hasn't confirmed publicly whether his client has secured the services of a prison consultant. But if he does, chances are he would hire someone like John Webster, the managing director of National Prison and Sentencing Consultants. Webster coaches clients on what to expect behind bars—everything from possible assault to diet to conjugal visits (the latter aren't allowed in federal prison). A standard "prison prep" course runs $3,500, Webster says; 60 percent of them are conducted over the phone. "Some more notable clients—guys with big egos and large checkbooks—insist on flying me out and spending a couple days with them," he says. "They want the in-person, hold-my-hand kind of prep." (UPDATE published at 5:10 p.m. ET: Sorkin later told NEWSWEEK that he's hired Herb Hoelter, CEO of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, as a sentencing consultant.)

Alan Ellis, an attorney specializing in postsentencing issues and the author of the Federal Post Conviction Guidebook, says fees between $2,500 and $10,000 are common. It's a niche industry. "Inmates have a joke," Ellis says. "Ninety-nine percent of lawyers don't understand this stuff, and the 1 percent who do, are doing time themselves. Most criminal-defense lawyers hate, hate, dealing with that bureaucracy."

When Ellis began working on such cases, he had worries: "Geez, am I just a travel agent for federal inmates?" he says. "Then I realized, for most of these people, how much time I'm gonna do and where I'm gonna do it, is suddenly of paramount importance."

Webster's expertise comes from experience. A lawyer for 19 years, he "caught a 13-month bit" in 1999 for misrepresenting a client to the FBI, eventually serving time at Ray Brook, N.Y.; Otisville, N.Y.; and Devens, Mass. He began consulting after his release, planning to return to law as soon as he could recover his license. He quickly discovered, however, that his new gig was more enjoyable, and paid more to boot.

The No. 1 goal for consultants like Webster is to get their clients into the best prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons separates its facilities into four categories: minimum, low, medium, and high, with corresponding measures of mobile patrols, gun towers, perimeter barriers, detection devices, and inmate-to-staff ratio. (A fifth level, administrative, is often used as a stopgap while a prisoner is awaiting trial, or for those with special medical or mental-health issues.) Of course, the higher the security stratum, the more violent and dangerous the place. This element supersedes all others; the worst low-security prison is better than the best medium-security prison, consultants say.

The severity of Madoff's sentence changes his options. A lighter sentence might have allowed Madoff's team to negotiate his placement from medium security to low, based mostly on his age and notoriety, says Ellis; a 150-year sentence means he will now have to lobby to go from high security to medium. Medium security facilities look similar to low-security institutions, but the inmates are much more likely to be inside for violent crimes. If Madoff gets medium security, says Webster, "He will be assaulted, there's no doubt about that." It's that much of a certainty? "God, yes. Oh, God, yes."

Given the importance of security level, inmates may or may not find comfort in the dry, data-driven method the Bureau of Prisons uses to assign security levels and determine where a prisoner ends up. Form BP-337 is used to calculate a prisoner's Security Point Total—a measure of such factors as age (older is better), history of violence and escape, and other considerations. Has the inmate not completed high school or a GED program? Add two points. Is the current offense of moderate severity (e.g., assault, auto theft, burglary, child abandonment)? Five points. Was surrender to the U.S. Marshals or prison voluntary? Subtract three points.

White-collar offenders hope to limit their BOP security points to 11 or fewer, which makes them eligible for federal prison camp, or 15 points, the most you can accrue for a low-security designation. Prison consultants try to exert influence on marginal scores and can also introduce other considerations like medical history or, in extraordinary cases like Madoff's, risks to a client's safety because of extreme notoriety.

After a security level is determined, prison consultants try to get their clients placed in facilities with the best programming and jobs, partly in hope of reducing the time served (some inmates can get out a year early by completing a drug-addiction program), but mostly to relieve boredom. Most white-collar criminals in prison camps are serving sentences of three to five years, says Webster. "You don't need training, you don't need education, you just want to do your time in the easiest way possible," he says.

Where will Madoff likely be sent? Madoff's attorneys could attempt to have him assigned to prison in Florida by arguing that Ruth Madoff will permanently move to their home in Palm Beach. That would make the low-security prisons at Coleman (50 miles northwest of Orlando, and home to Conrad Black) or Miami (actually 30 miles outside the city) possible destinations, speculates Ed Bales, managing director of Federal Prison Consultants LLC. Even if Madoff's team attempts such a maneuver, Bales says, it's more likely that he will still be kept in the Northeast, perhaps at Allenwood, Pa., or Ray Brook, N.Y., because of the volume of ongoing legal actions against him from clients in that region. That would be in keeping with BOP policy, which calls for assignments within 500 miles of a prisoner's last address.

But even if Madoff serves time in Florida, Webster cautions that the state's prisons aren't exactly "Club Feds": "I object to that [terminology]. They're not going to be playing tennis and golfing; these are straight-up prisons. The guards point to an area and say, 'If you go past that, we view it as an escape, and we will shoot you.' You call that camp?"

Still, some facilities have better reputations than others. The complexes at Pensacola and Devens, as well as Sheridan, Ore.; Duluth, Minn.; and Rochester, Minn., are considered relatively cushy, as federal prisons go. That often involves climate, more modern facilities and staff with better reputations. Duluth is sought after because it's a stand-alone facility, not adjacent to a higher-security institution, as most camps are. And the Rochester prison is renowned for its proximity to the Mayo Clinic, affording inmates who may need it exceptional medical care.

While many prisoners hope to "upgrade" to a less secure facility after some period of good behavior in their current placement, Madoff will not likely have that option. "The [Bureau of Prisons] will look at this as terminal placement," Webster says. "I don't see him getting less than 20 years, and not many people live to their 90s in a prison environment. Wherever he lands, he's going to die."