The image of “country club” federal prisons for white-collar criminal is inaccurate, the Denver Post reports. Urban legend suggests that incarcerated business people can leave prison camps on furloughs, wear their own clothes, spend their days playing tennis and golf, and have access to computers. That is “nonsense,” says Herb Hoelter of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va.
David Novak, who spent almost a year at Federal Prison Camp Eglin in Florida, says the mythology is wrong. He cites a dentist who arrived in a chauffeur-driven limo: “His chauffeur removed golf clubs and a Louis Vuitton bag and walked in with him. The guard said, ‘You can come inside, but tell your caddy he has to go home.”‘
Federal prison camps aren’t hell holes. They are minimum security lock-ups where a small number of guards watch over hundreds of low-risk prisoners. The surrounding property typically resembles a college campus, and inmates sleep in cubicles rather than cells. Still, life is regimented, boring and depressing, said Novak, a flight-school owner who purposely crashed a private plane and filed a false insurance claim. Prisoners are strip searched and counted repeatedly throughout the day. Their phone calls are monitored, and guards open and inspect their mail. Low-paid guards frequently single out once high-flying executives for punishment, Hoelter said. “The guards work hard and do a decent job, but they’re making $35,000 a year and they have control over guys who made a million last year. They let them know who is on top.”
Living quarters are crowded. Bunk beds are squeezed into 6-by-7-foot cubicles that hold two inmates. The beds are small. Privacy is almost nonexistent and noise is constant, said Webb Hubbell, former U.S. associate attorney general who spent 18 months in a prison camp for fraud.
Novak “expected to be surrounded by only white-collar types, but most of those in the system are there for drugs.” He now counsels those headed for prison and wrote “Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration.” Forbes magazine named Eglin the best place to be incarcerated, noting that the Fort Walton Beach, Fla., facility is near a “sunbathing beach.” Not quite, said Novak. “In fact, Eglin backs up to a tidal marsh which smells like a sewer. There is a grassy area there.”