Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What I'll Miss...

I will miss my kids

I won't miss my kids' friends

I will miss sushi

I won't miss fish sticks

I will miss driving

I won't miss the DMV

I will miss breakfast in bed

I won't miss scrambled eggs

I will miss my very-own bedroom

I won't miss my pillow

I will miss a private bathroom

I won't miss cleaning my toilet

I will miss Slate

I won't miss Fox News

I will miss NPR

I won't miss NPR fundraisers

I will miss fireworks

I won't miss President's Day

I will miss my e-cigarette

I won't miss nicotine withdrawal

I will miss my niece and nephews

I won't miss Minneapolis

I will miss walking to the post office

I won't miss the post office

I will miss wearing whatever I want

I won't miss shopping for clothes

I will miss Sorbet

I won't miss cleaning Sorbet's poop

I will miss ice cream and Greek yogurt

I won't miss cows
I will miss women

I won't miss men

I will miss parent-teacher conferences

I won't miss other parents

I will miss vacations

I won't miss deciding where to go 

I will miss doing homework with my children

I won't miss math

I will miss being able to go to the dentist

I won't miss going to the dentist

I will miss swimming

I won't miss surfing

I will miss my passport

I won't miss visas

I will miss flying

I won't miss airports

I will miss Netflix

I won't miss Hulu

I will miss Microsoft Word

I won't miss Microsoft

I will miss NA meetings

I won't miss addicts

I will miss Target

I won't miss Wal-Mart

I will miss having money

I won't miss money

I will miss Chinese food

I won't miss Indian food

I will miss voting

I won't miss election coverage

I will miss my apartment

I won't miss paying rent

I will miss being a lawyer

I won't miss working as a lawyer

I will miss my last job

I won't miss the job before that

I will miss some Russians

I won't miss Russia

I will miss Moscow

I won't miss Putin

I will miss my lawyer

I won't miss my federal prosecutor

I will miss Facebook

I won't miss Twitter

I will miss the seasons

I won't miss the snow

I will miss driving fast

I won't miss red lights

I will miss homemade food

I won't miss cooking dinner

I will miss fresh melon and strawberries

I won't miss apples or bananas

 I will miss Culver's

I won't miss McDonald's

I will miss the ocean

I won't miss rivers

I will miss my life

I won't miss prison

Everyone's High

I was planning to stay on topic these last few days before I go to prison, to only write about my thoughts and feelings before I "go away". But as I was driving earlier today, listening to the latest broadcast of This American Life, I knew I had to write about it.  The episode, which they call I Was So High, is about doing drugs and getting high. First I laughed - the story about a man who got called up to participate on The Price is Right while high on shrooms is particularly funny. But after I laughed, then I cried. Not something that happens to me much while listening to the radio. Why? I hate to admit it, but it was as if they were talking about me, about my life.

The piece that really got to me is about a smart, normal guy who went through life, a life filled with loving family and a prestigious job at an advertising agency, while high on pot. He was living an entire hidden life toking up in back alleys and the stairwell at work while at the same time appearing, for all intents and purposes, to be a pillar of the community. No one knew about this secret life until he came clean, many years later, after a medical scare.

To non-addicts, I could understand how the story may seem incredible: the un-afflicted amongst us often don't realize how possible it is for an addict to hide his addiction, the great lengths he will go to to appear sober. We carry the stereotype with us of fall-down drunks and dirty, homeless addicts on street corners. At the edges these stereotypes may hold true. But the reality is that the vast majority of addicts manage to function in society, to hold jobs, to raise families, to appear respectable, to carry on with life while at the same time they are as high as a kite. I should know. For quite a long time that was me.

Look around you. If you are out walking or driving it's pretty likely an addict is somewhere nearby. That's what the story is about: how many people around us at any given time, people who may appear perfectly sober, are actually high on drugs. Studies of various professions show that a surprisingly high percent of people do drugs regularly. The program cites the astonishing statistic that at any given time, a full 5% of on-the-job medical professionals (a category that includes doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, etc.) are high on some illicit drug. Rates for waitresses, bartenders and construction workers are even higher.

That's not to say that these "functioning" addicts manage to skate through life without facing the consequences of their addictions. Many eventually lose control, or are found out, or get divorced, or are fired for other (related) reasons, or overdose. This is what eventually happened to me, in a fairly spectacular fashion. What I could relate to is the statement by that former addict-executive that he was running from something. It was hard, at first, for him to pinpoint what that something was. But with the help of his son (who also happened to be the reporter) he concluded that he was running from his feelings. His son, who didn't know about his addiction until much later was hurt: to him, it felt as if his father were running from him.
Like this executive, for quite a long time I managed to hide everything. I got high at work, at home, on business trips, in airplanes, before meetings, after meetings, on at least four continents, on vacation, before scuba diving, at my grandparents' house, during family dinners, at family reunions. I sat through board meetings high, I met famous politicians high, I gave speeches high, I drove high (every day), I played on the playground with my kids while high.... The list of what I did while high is endless - the same list, basically, as that of how I spent my life. And for the longest time, no one ever knew. They didn't even suspect. It's easy to keep a stash of pills hidden, after all, to pop them on the sly. 

In my experience, addiction is a magical deadener of feelings. It helped me deal with a stressful job, a stressful marriage, a stressful life. In my ordinary state I feel too much, I get nervous, I cry. Some feelings are difficult: who likes to feel anxious after all? I became pathetically enthralled to this means of escape. It became my crutch, how I dealt with uncomfortable feelings. At first it seemed all good: no more anxiety, no more fears. But an addict can't pick and choose which feelings to lose: in running from certain feelings I lost others I would have liked to keep - joy, happiness, the ability to get close and relate to other people.

I will be the first to admit that not everyone may find the episode as meaningful as me. It was as if they were talking about MY LIFE, after all. But even for the majority of non-addicts out there, it can be helpful to think about those suffering, addicted souls who may very well surround you. At the same time as they desperately seek to hide their vice from the world they may also be longing to call out for help. Addiction creates a terrible tension between secrecy and confession. Over time, the secrets come to seem too terrible to divulge. For non-addicts, it is important to understand that addiction is not a problem that only affects others, those from the bad side of town, or the big cities, or the weak, or the poor, or the disadvantaged. By labeling addicts as "others", we push away the problem, discount its seriousness. Addiction can affect good, normal people, people who may have started in a misguided effort to "run away", but who eventually run so far that, without help, they cannot find their way back again. 

As for me, I wouldn't wish addiction on my worst enemy. While doing drugs can be fun, addiction itself is a real bitch. It is an absolutely horrendous experience, an experience that dogs you for life, a monkey on your back that is incredibly hard to shake. I wish I weren't an addict. But I am lucky to have moved (at least a little bit) beyond it, to begin to heal, to feel again, to reconnect with everything (and everyone) I pushed away. Now, it is as if I have a newfound second sight: I see people, perfect strangers, out on the street, who look like I used to, people trying desperately to hide their disease but who clearly have the word "addiction" written all over their face. I'm not an evangelist. I don't know what to do so I walk right on by. But I do believe that seeing is the first step to understanding. And I whisper to myself: "there but for the grace of God go I."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lawyer No More

I never liked working as a lawyer. But I liked being a lawyer. Today, I found out that soon, I will no longer be a lawyer. I can't figure out if I'm upset or relieved. 

Let me explain.

For me, becoming a lawyer was a means to an end. I wanted to live and work overseas, dabbled unhappily with other "international" professions such as diplomacy and journalism, and ended up at law school by default. I wasn't drawn by the possibility of a good salary, or a stable career. I really hadn't the faintest clue about what lawyers actually do all day. What I wanted was to see the world and earn enough to support my family. 

Although I never liked the work, to my surprise I found out along the way that I was actually good at it. I have an analytical mind and a penchant for the big picture, traits that made up for my lack of attention to detail and gave me a leg up on the vast majority of lawyers who insist on missing the forest for the trees. I realized that I like to think like a lawyer - analytically, rationally - more than I like to practice law. But they call the law "the golden handcuffs" and before long I felt trapped by my choice of profession.
My law school diploma - sitting forgotten in a corner

All the same, and although I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, I was proud to have happened upon a profession and made a success out of it. Although at cocktail parties I would shrug and act embarrassed when answering the question, "What do you do?", deep down I did feel pride at being a member of what is, in essence, an elite, member's only, club. Despite their tarnish, our society continues to value the professions above most other careers.  My JD was my entree to success, to a life in which I always knew that I would be able to make my way. 

This week, I heard from some official at the New York bar, where I am registered as a lawyer, that they have initiated a disbarment action against me. Essentially, this means that soon, I will no longer be a lawyer. Now, this wasn't at all unexpected. Any lawyer convicted of a felony would face the same punishment. And I'm not really upset. In some ways it's a great relief, as if the golden handcuffs have finally been broken.

But it's also a little strange. Even now, if someone asks me what I do my first reaction is to say that I'm a lawyer. This happened yesterday when the man who bought my car asked me that very question. "Lawyer," I mumbled and changed the subject. What do I say otherwise? That I'm a blogger? Or a writer? A felon? Permanently unemployed? Maybe in time I'll get used to those new responses but for now they don't feel quite right. I miss being a lawyer although I don't miss working as one.

Once a lawyer, always a lawyer, I guess. So long golden handcuffs.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Long, Long Time

When I wrote this previous post way back in March, I comforted myself on the length of my sentence by telling myself that it was not that long, that I would get out quite some time earlier. I engaged in various contorted feats of mental subtraction: 50 months minus 12 months for drug program minus 6 months for good behavior (assuming, of course, that I behave). The month or two ahead of me before I had to report to prison also helped: it seemed an eternity of freedom, so much time that I could effectively put my sentence out of mind.

Now I'm asking myself: where has all the time gone? The months since sentencing flew by in an instant. Less than a week remains. I thought I was ready, that I'd prepared myself mentally. But now I'm not so sure. I'm not scared, really. A bit nervous, yes. But mostly it's just hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I'll be spending the next several years locked behind bars.

The truth is, as I approach my surrender date, my sentence is starting to seem like a terribly long time. It's hard to imagine an entire year behind bars, let alone almost three.  When I think back three years, to 2011, it seems like a different eon. In that period of time I've moved from Moscow to Israel to Wisconsin to California. I've held three different jobs, lived in different apartments, adopted a dog, bought and sold a car or two, seen my kids on their vacations, traveled to Greece, watched my savings dwindle to nothing, quit drugs. I've been charged and convicted with a crime and traveled to court in San Francisco three times. In that amount of time I lost my life as I knew it and slowly rebuilt a new one. It seems a very long time, filled with trauma and heartbreak but also joy: reunions with my family, the satisfaction of rebuilding a broken life.
Maybe because the past three years were so chock-full of experiences, both good and bad, it's hard to imagine spending the next three years locked up in Lompoc. I can't help but think to myself that by the time I'm set free we'll have a new president. My boy, who's now finishing 1st grade, will be entering 5th. My daughter will be in high school. I'll be closer to 50 than to 40; gray hair will have replaced blonde.

I suppose I'm hitting on the great punishment of prison. It's not so much the loss of freedom or profession or prestige, although those losses do hurt. It's not being labeled a felon for the rest of my life. What's worst is the loss of time. Time, after all, once lost cannot be regained. It's a precious commodity, the backbone of our lives. It's a finite resource that should be treasured and valued but is often taken for granted. And now a pretty big chunk of that time has been taken from me. It feels like a big loss. I no longer take time for granted. It's mine, damnit, and I want it back. 

This, come to think of it, is the reason I'm so determined to make something of my prison experience, not to waste my time. Because by doing something - writing, blogging, reading, exercising - I'll be able, to an extent, to reclaim the time that's been taken from me, the time that I've lost. Of course I won't be spending my time entirely as I would have otherwise. I won't be with my kids every day, or working to support my family. Things once lost cannot be entirely regained. 

It's tempting to wish for a Rip-Van-Winkle experience, where I close my eyes on May 5 and only open them again when I'm walking back out through those iron gates. If someone told me tomorrow that they could push a pause button and put me into suspended animation for the next three years, I'd actually be tempted to accept. But that would be a waste. If I do it right, I can make something of that lost time, reclaim it and make it mine. The very worst thing I can imagine would be, three years from now, to look back on my sentence as a complete and total waste of time. If that happens, I will have lost and "they" will have won. I'm determined not to let that happen.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Down and Out in Beverly Hills

I wrote this originally for The Huffington Post so the style's a little different - heavier on the social commentary. Hope you enjoy. Leigh


Thanks to family connections, I am spending my final weeks of freedom in a nice, quiet house in Beverly Hills. Not bad, you say? I tend to agree. Truly it is not so bad. It most definitely could be worse.

But it is also strange.

Here I am in the land of plenty staring up at the palms as I wander the streets. I had a t-shirt made that proudly states “I am a Convicted Felon” but have not yet had the courage to wear it out. At the least, dressed in my flip-flops and drawstring slacks, I seem to do a pretty credible job of fitting in. Larry King smiled warmly at me as I held the door for him at a local deli. I even signed up for a library card: apparently they do not do background checks.

But you could say that I don't really feel "at one" with my surroundings. As my bank account drains toward zero and my old car drips oil on the spotless driveway, I must admit that I feel more an interloper than anything else. Out of curiosity and to help myself feel more at home, I began to research the city's previous brushes with the wrong side of the law. While the city is more staid and proper than not - Hollywood's always taken the sleaze prize - the region's certainly seen it's fair share of noir.  You could almost say that I'm following in illustrious footsteps.

Not far from here, just around the corner, in fact, stands the former Drexel Burnham offices where one of the most famous white collar felons of all - Michael Milken - concocted his schemes. At the darker end of the noir spectrum, Bugsy Siegel was murdered a few blocks over. For fear of stretching the point, I won't even get into all the various offenses committed by movie stars: most of them were misdemeanors after all, not felonies like mine. There's no getting around the fact that this place is pretty darned quiet.  So I guess that leaves me with the 80's classic, Down and Out in Beverly Hills. And I bet you can guess to which character I most relate (hint: it's not Bette Midler or Richard Dreyfuss).

Seriously, though, our country's perceptions of Beverly Hills are fueled more by stereotype than reality. It is not, after all, a city that springs first to mind when thinking of social justice. True, there are a bunch of fancy houses north of Santa Monica Boulevard and even more overpriced McMansions south of it. But in between and on the edges are plenty of apartment buildings, condos, duplexes and bungalows, not all of them even the least bit fancy or much more expensive than their neighbors across the border. If you want to find the truly rich, you don't even necessarily look toward Beverly Hills but to Holmby Hills, Brentwood and the like. Beverly Hills, by dint of history, location and development, is much more of the city that surrounds it than apart from it.

You could say I'm going out on a long, wobbly limb, but I would actually defend Beverly Hills as a cosmopolitan success story, a model of social justice (on an admittedly small scale) that prides itself on its public services, a symbol that stands in stark contrast to the rich areas in many parts of the country that wall themselves off from the poor that surround them.

For a start, not all of the residents are in the top 1%. Not even close, as a look at the census statistics demonstrates. But through the magic of economic re-distribution, the place leverages its wealthy into paying for services used and enjoyed by all. It's a simple system, really. The high property taxes paid by the residents to the north disproportionately subsidize the city's excellent public serves. The borders of Beverly Hills are noticeable not for their signs welcoming you to the city, but by the magical transformation of potholed boulevards to smooth streets lined with a profusion of beautiful trees. This, in turn, reinforces the image of the city as a pleasant, rewarding place to live and raise a family, which increases its allure, keeps property values high and encourages the continuation of this virtuous circle.

Call me crazy, but that's how I always thought our country was supposed to work. Although I may have been too young to understand the nuances, in the 1970's that's how I understood it did at least try to work. Substitute income tax for property tax, the wealthy of the country for the wealthy north of Wilshire, and you should have a similar system in which certain people pay a bit extra for the privilege of living in a prosperous, healthy society that sees to the needs - at least at some basic level - of all its citizens. You don't have to live in Beverly Hills to take pride in your community or be willing to invest in it for the common good.

Now I don't mean to idealize the reality, either of Beverly Hills or the lost country of my youth. Beverly Hills is not as diverse as the metropolis that surrounds it, nor is it faced with the same levels of poverty and violence. And 1970's America was by no means some idyll of social justice. But in a general sense, Beverly Hills' system works and I applaud it. The approach is so out of fashion that it almost sounds quaint, but residents are proud of their city, proud of the services it offers, and prepared to pay for them.

Call me naive, but I don't see why the surrounding city, county, state and country can't leverage their rich in the very same way. The fact that they do not - that the rich keep getting richer and the poor, poorer, all as our social services disintegrate - says something sad to me about our country, something that helps explain why our government is prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to lock me up for a non-violent crime but is unwilling to properly care for its poor.

So, come to think of it, maybe I'm in just the right place to be waiting out the final days of freedom, a place where social justice and economic re-distribution are actually practiced on some small, modest, admittedly-flawed scale. I just wish that the Beverly Hills city managers ran the prison where I am soon to go.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Top Ten Ways to Waste Time Before Prison

In an earlier post, I wrote about the top ten things to do before prison. The list contained such high-minded goals as making amends, taking a trip and planning ahead. While I'm on my way toward achieving some of those goals, the reality is that I spend big chunks of my day loafing around, surfing the internet, and doing what I can to reach my goal of 1000 Twitter followers before I self surrender. Really, this is all just a polite way of saying that I waste a whole lot of time. 

It's not that I'm lazy or unable to entertain myself. It's actually more complicated than that and I'm not sure I can properly explain myself. I suppose the main reason is that prior to this little detour, I enjoyed a busy, structured life, filled to bursting with work and family. Now that is all gone. It's also, and this is the more difficult issue to explain, related to my state of mind. I feel as if I'm biding my time, waiting for something to happen. This, I suppose, is understandable, since that is in fact what I am doing. 

With all that in mind, and because it's been a while since I wrote a top ten list, I decided to devote this post to the top ways to waste time before prison. I hope that others who find themselves in my position will find it a useful primer on how to spend their time. The list, more than I'd like to admit, is based upon my own newfound ingenuity when it comes to wasting time. Not only that, but the actual writing of the list also counts as wasting time (see item 10). 
1. Binge Watch.  The absolute best way to spend an enjoyable day doing absolutely nothing is to pick a television show that's already run for many seasons and watch from start to finish. I know. My own personal favorite for wasting time prior to prison is Sons of Anarchy. Not only are there five whole seasons - that's 40 full hours of loafing, the equivalent of an entire week at work - but you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about life in prison. The racial politics are particularly gripping. Please keep in mind that movies don't qualify because it's too much effort, when you're wasting time, to decide every two hours what to watch next.
2. Eat. I'm not a fan of fast food but every now and then I like a fix, or at least the option of having a fix if I so desire. Knowing that it will soon be gone makes me crave it even more. It's actually quite hard to imagine a life without McD's on every corner. Come to think of it, that might be one of the best things about prison. In any event, eating, when you're feeling low, triggers your dopamine receptors and temporarily lifts your spirits. Eating also helps you properly prepare for other ways to waste time. After all, it's no fun loafing on the couch (number 8 on the list) or wandering around (number 6) when you're hungry.

3. Sex. One of the best ways to waste time, or so I've heard from secondhand reports. I wish that I had more opportunities to test my thesis that having sex deserves a place on this list, although its inclusion is based on pretty solid hypotheses. Basically, I would compare it to fast food: a good orgasm will lift your dopamine just like a Big Mac. And also just like a Big Mac, soon enough you won't have it anymore (at least I hope you won't). So get your fill while you still have the chance. Unless you are trying to make a baby, it qualifies as wasting time. Nods to my cousin Ari, who likes it when I include pics of scantily-clad girls in my posts.

4. Social media. Soon Facebook and Twitter will all be gone. Some may imagine such an occurrence with desire and longing. But like food and sex, now's the time to get your fill. It's amazing how many hours you can pass randomly "friending" total strangers just to see who might accept. Using that subtle strategy I'm now almost at 1000 Twitter followers, including many fans of my favorite singer, Justin Bieber.

5. Drugs and alcohol. Due to past excesses, these items are not on my own personal list though I occasionally wish they were. What better way to pass the time, after all, than in a soft, narcotic cloud. When you're high, the hours pass by like minutes.

6. Wander around. This is the low-rent version of my suggestion in a previous post to take a road trip. Soon, wandering will not be such an available option. I spent half the day yesterday walking the streets of Los Angeles, one of the few people not in a car. My feet were sore by the end of my journey but it turned out to be a great way to waste time. I was going to add "driving" as a separate entry, but I suppose it can go here: wandering can be done by wheel, after all. Just be careful not to have an actual destination: if you're going somewhere in particular it's not technically wasting time.

7. Loaf on the couch. This is my favorite, so much so that there's a groove in the couch where my rear has found its place. Leave your big plans to get into wonderful shape for your days behind bars. My theory: why suffer before you really need to? Exercise, you may have noticed, is not anywhere to be found on this list. It is just too much effort to qualify as wasting time.

8. Shop. For some strange reason, in my wanderings about town I find myself sidling into every Target I pass. I don't buy anything, just walk up and down the aisles. And I don't even like to shop. But what better way to waste your time than by buying things you don't need and won't be able to bring with you to prison.

9. Sit at the library. Did you ever wonder who those people are who sit in the library in the middle of the day? Well, now's your chance not only to find out but to join them. Just be sure not to choose any high-minded reading materials. People and the The Enquirer will do nicely. Car magazines are ok too. If you go too highbrow and actually learn something, it no longer counts as wasting time.

10. Blog. Ok, I hope I don't offend my readers by including this item on the list. In part, it's because I found myself out of ideas but couldn't exactly stop the list at nine. But in all honesty, it's a wonderful way to kill an hour or two. And what better way to waste time than to spend hours writing things that no one will ever read.

And now, in time honored tradition, I will add one more item for good measure: sleep. This is such an obvious way to waste time that I almost forgot to include it. But, even more than having sex or getting high, it really is the best way to pass eight or ten hours in what truly seems like seconds. Naps in the afternoon are also recommended for those truly devoted to properly following this pre-prison plan.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Am I Going to Prison Camp or Not?

This post was also published here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Made in America: Part Two

I so enjoyed writing about the topic of prison labor in my last post that I decided to expand on the topic for this article in AND Magazine, entitled Prisons: The Last Bastion of Full Employment. Same basic focus, just more in-depth.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Made in America for Americans

In a few weeks I'll be hard at work for 15 cents per hour. I don't yet know what my job will be but I'm sure that very subject will be the covered in some future post. For now I'm left reading interesting articles, such as this one, on the prison-industrial complex and prison labor. 

If you had asked me a year ago what prisoners make, I would have answered 'license plates'.  I didn't yet know that prisoners actually make many things, including Victoria's Secret lingerie, canoes and baseball caps. Prisoners even used to make Ikea products. No wonder Ikea can sell its products so cheap! Nor did I know that prison-made goods have a sizable following, even though the products are generally considered to be poorly made. That's a true niche market if there ever was one. The sad fact is that, just as corporations profit off the prisons themselves, so too do too many profit from what is in essence slave labor. But think about the cocktail chatter: you can joke with your friends that you once let a felon touch your bra.

If you're passing through Colorado and in the mood for something with that good-ol' haute-couture prison-house cache, stop by this store that only sells products made by prisoners: everything from jeans to jackets to shoes. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they don't yet carry Victoria's Secret. But you'll still be the envy of your friends. I like their witty slogan: Made on the Inside to Wear on the Outside. And guess what? They can also claim to sell one of the few products left that is "made in America by Americans for Americans."

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Crime Quandary: Criminal v Victim

People are torn when it comes to criminals. On the one hand, many of us feel an innate sympathy for those who've been punished and suffered a loss of freedom. We know that felons suffer as a result of their actions and feel sorry for that suffering. Throw an unfair system, racial profiling and the lifelong effects of a felony conviction into the mix, and you end up with some truly tragic stories. On the other hand, our sympathy for criminals is tempered because we know that they did something bad, something deserving of punishment. They had it coming, in other words. Every crime has a victim, after all, someone who has suffered as a result of a felon's actions. Do not victims, our thinking goes, when all is said and done, deserve precedence over criminals when it comes to our sympathy and support? 

Crime, by its very nature, presents us with a dichotomy between sympathy and retribution, between harm and punishment, between criminal and victim. This dichotomy leads to moral and ethical quandaries. When thinking about crime and criminals on one side, and victims on the other, we feel forced to take sides. If I support the criminal does that mean I'm somehow condoning the crime or betraying the victim? If forced to choose, should I not side with the victim? With lawfulness? It's this very quandary that makes being a criminal and writing in support of other criminals so difficult. I now find myself to be a "bad guy" writing in support of other bad guys.

I would argue, however, that this dichotomy between the victim and the criminal, this quandary we face in our support, is a false one or, at the least, bridgeable. We should not have to choose. Just because a person supports prisoners, rehabilitation, prison reform and the like does not mean that that person has turned her back on the victims of the prisoner's actions. It doesn't mean she's soft on crime. Conversely, the 'get tough on crime' crowd, with its myopic focus on law and order, may in fact be doing the very victims of crime a disservice by focusing on prison as a place of punishment. Retribution is only side of a many-faceted coin. Without rehabilitation, without support, criminals tend to repeat their crimes. The result? More victims. 

Sometimes I wonder if I am doing victims a disservice, somehow discounting their suffering, as a result of my own personal experience. One goal of my writings about crime and criminals, after all, is to humanize those we tend to demonize. My crime was nonviolent and the victim, as I've written before, was not sympathetic in the traditional sense. I have never been the victim of a serious crime and could not imagine committing a crime that actually hurt someone; violence is not in my nature. As a result, I occasionally catch myself justifying my actions, while at the same time condemning those who commit violent, dangerous or particularly terrible crimes.

But then I start to wonder if I'm being hypocritical, if that big bright line I like to draw in the sand is a fair one. After all, who am I to judge? While certain people may have a predilection for crime or violence as a result of upbringing, disadvantage, genetic makeup, gender, or whatever it is that influences wrongdoing, aren't we all just a step away from falling afoul of the law? I never thought of myself as a felon. In fact, I went through most of life as a productive, law-abiding citizen. But presented with that irresistible mix of opportunity, rationalization and addiction, I did the very thing I never thought I'd do. I found myself to be weaker, more susceptible to temptation than I expected. But weakness in and of itself is not a crime. While I like to think I'd never commit a violent crime, who knows? Many normally non-violent individuals have proven weak at a critical moment, have snapped under pressure and committed crimes which they thought themselves incapable. With honest reflection, I truly believe that we all have the a buried inner weakness - some maybe more than others - that could lead us to commit a crime. Thankfully, for most of us for most of the time, the yin beats out the yang.

The other side of the spectrum requires less introspection. We all have the potential, through no fault of our own, to become victims to a crime. The evening news brings home the fear that crime occurs randomly and could hit any one of us. The involuntary nature of victimhood makes it scary.  One thing I have discovered through my own experience is that the category of 'victim' encompasses a much broader group than is commonly recognized. We tend to think of only the direct victim of a crime: the victim of a scam, the victim of a robbery. But what about all the others who indirectly suffer, the family members, friends, passers-by? Society as a whole can suffer, through fear and a loss of trust. In my case, my children suffered the most as a result of my actions; they were the true innocent victims of my crime. 

What I would propose, what I try to do in my thinking and in my life, is to offer sympathy and support to anyone, victim or criminal or innocent family member, who becomes somehow entangled in our criminal justice system. It is a terrible, painful process for all concerned. Innocent victims are truly deserving of our support; that goes without saying. But felons who recognize their crime and do their time are too. It's in all of our interests to support them in their effort to once again become contributing members of society. The criminal justice system requires the attention and scrutiny of ordinary citizens. It is a reflection of our society, after all and it's failings are our own. In a perfect world, criminals should engender feelings of "there but for the grace of God go I", not suffer from society's demonization of them as some sort of "other".

That's not to say that, in support of criminals, you won't have to draw a line in the sand, as I do, between what you consider redeemable and unforgivable, acceptable and horrific. Every person has her own limits when it comes to forgiveness. Come to think of it, maybe I've hit upon my real line in the sand: a line between those who, whatever their crime, admit to it, atone for it, accept their punishment and try to make good and those who deny, rationalize and deflect. Felons, more than anyone, need to remember the victims of their actions. In any event, once that line is drawn and you consider the human dimensions of crime, the dichotomy - the divide - between support for criminals and support for victims is most definitely bridgeable. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Our Tax Dollars at Work in Defense of Russian Oligarchs

Federal prosecutors complain that they are pressed for time, pressed for money, pressed for resources. They bemoan their inability to muster the funding necessary to go up against well-paid private legal teams representing rich defendants. They say they are forced to carefully pick and choose their cases, deciding which ones are the most “winnable”, which ones serve some precedent or deterrent value, which crimes are particularly heinous or violate the public trust, which victims are particularly deserving of justice.  With those considerations in mind, with so many potentially worthwhile cases out there to prosecute, with so many victims to protect, my prosecution struck me as particularly interesting.

Now, my innocence is not in question. I readily admitted, early in the process, to my role in stealing money from the oligarch, a Russian billionaire by the name of Oleg Deripaska. Given that, my case was perhaps an easy win for the prosecutor, an irresistible opportunity to meet his quota. But when you look down into the specifics of the case, you come to realize that our intrepid federal prosecutors were working hand-in-glove with this man to further his interests in U.S. federal court.

This oligarch, my victim, is no ordinary victim. According to numerous credible news reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, he was refused visas to the U.S. and Canada on numerous occasions due to alleged ties with organized crime. He gained his fortune through a long-running and bloody battle called the "aluminum wars" in which hundreds of people died. He is also the subject of a decade-long FBI investigation. Sympathetic victim? Not really. 

On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of who was hurt. But if you look at the vast majority of federal "white collar" prosecutions, they tend to focus on crimes that harm society as a whole or hurt particularly vulnerable segments of the population. The recently concluded Bell prosecution, in which the city administrator was convicted of bilking his poor, working class community of millions of dollars, is a prime example of that. The Madoff case, in which thousands of American investors were hurt, is another. Rightly or wrongly, public outrage is an important consideration of federal prosecutors: if you steal from a widower or a pensioner you're more likely to face a harsh sentence.
Despite my self-interest, I don't really see the "public outrage" factor at work in my case. What I did was stupid and wrong, but in the end the only person hurt by my actions (other than me and my family) was a criminal hardly deserving of sympathy. He and I had also reached a comprehensive settlement pursuant to which I gave back his money. 

If my prosecution had consisted only of charging me with a crime, I may have come to the conclusion that the prosecutors were out to punish a wrongdoer or get an easy win, nothing more.  The laws are the laws, after all, and I broke them. But in this case the prosecutors went so much further than necessary in direct support of the oligarch, that I can't help but come to the unfortunate conclusion that some hidden agenda was at play. 

I don't make these accusations lightly. However, it was apparent throughout the process that the overriding aim of the prosecutors was not only to indict and prosecute me, as necessary to uphold the law, but rather to convince the court to grant the oligarch a windfall in restitution in an amount far in excess of what I took from him in the first place. For whatever reasons, they went far beyond what was necessary for justice to be served in order to directly support their new friend. Thankfully, in the end, the court saw through the prosecutor's overzealous support for the oligarch and refused the request. 

How to explain the prosecutors' approach in terms related to justice and punishment? I can't. The approach is one I would have expected in Russia, where officials are eminently bribable. It's not what I expected in the U.S. I'm not accusing the prosecutors of taking bribes or of unethical motivations, just trying to make sense of their overzealous support for a man not ordinarily deserving of such support.

What I know for a fact is that the prosecutors recognized that their support of the oligarch would be viewed as somehow unseemly. This is evident in their blatant attempt to hide the true nature of the victim.  Not once, in all the thousands of words in all the prosecutors' filings, will you see the name "Oleg Deripaska". Not once. They didn't want the public to know who it was they were actually fighting for, so bent over backwards, at the expense of honesty and truth, to hide that fact. 
I’m not here to suggest that wrongdoers should walk free or that a crime is somehow “less bad” when there’s an unsympathetic victim. But when our prosecutors move beyond punishing the wrongdoing to directly advocating for the interests of such a victim, I can't help but wonder. In this world of insufficient resources, rampant crime and so many victims who deserve recompense, do we really want our prosecutors to devote their limited time and resources to furthering the interests of a billionaire Russian oligarch suspected of ties to organized crime? 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Money: The High Cost of Justice

White collar criminal defendants come in all shapes and sizes, of course, from multimillionaires to lower middle class. Some, such as yours truly, may have once been at one end of the spectrum but soon found themselves at the other as the unfortunate result of asset forfeitures, court-ordered restitution and the like. In any event, unless you happen to fall within the upper reaches of the upper 1%, you will find that, amongst all your other worries, the issue of money will begin to take prominence. After all, the worst concern faced by any criminal defendant is the thought that their family could fall into poverty or destitution as a result of their wrongdoing.
Money worries will most likely start early in the process. Most of us have to work for a living and typically that living is made in someone else’s employ. That employer, whoever he or she may be, will undoubtedly take a dim view of continuing to employ a criminal defendant. Unless you happen to be self employed or a master of concealment, the unavoidable result is that you will find yourself unemployed quite early in the interminable process. Because the process tends to drag on for so long, you will end up living off of savings.
Now, living off of savings does not at first appear catastrophic. Many of us have prepared for a rainy day, after all. But not so many of us have prepared for a rainy day that stretches on into the foreseeable future and promises a soggy morning of asset forfeitures, a drizzly afternoon of attorney bills, and a torrential evening of incarceration and restitution.  And it is these types of expenses that will now skyrocket just as your income dries up. Of course, there may be some mitigating circumstances, such as not being the primary breadwinner or living in a two-income household. If you’re lucky, your assets will not be seized. But the unavoidable fact is that “justice” in our system and our society is very, very expensive.

Take the expense that first comes to mind: lawyer fees. As a former lawyer myself, I have witnessed client sticker shock many times. An hour here, an hour there. At hundreds, if not thousands, per hour, it adds up way too fast. Despite this, my advice is to go with the best that you can afford. It’s only your life on the line, after all. In my case, the best that I could afford was nothing at all. And truth be told, it worked out alright. Just because you can’t afford Williams-Sonoma doesn’t mean that Ikea won’t do. It’s just that you may have to do more of the assembling and heavy lifting yourself. But at the lower end it’s really the luck of the draw, which can be a risky path to take. As a former lawyer, I will let you in on a few secrets that could help reduce your bill: (1) Many, if not most, lawyers do in fact negotiate their fees. See if you can get a discount. (2) Billing by the hour must be the worst system ever invented: your lawyer is incentivized to work slowly in order to bill as much as possible. See if you can negotiate a flat fee or a cap. (3) Go over your lawyer’s bills with a fine tooth comb. If it seems like your lawyer is spending too much time in meetings or doing research, she probably is. (4) If your lawyer works in a firm, agree in advance who can and will work on your case. The worst thing in the world is to receive a bill listing time for scores of lawyers you have never met or even heard of.
If you have a family, the question of how they will survive your incarceration financially will become of primary concern. If your assets are sufficient, then I congratulate you: this puts you into a fortunate minority and should ease your mind considerably. Or it may be that your spouse or other family members will be in a position to earn enough to support your family while you are away. Unfortunately, here, I don’t have any magic suggestions as I did for reducing legal bills. It is an issue I am struggling with at this very moment. My unfortunate and unwanted conclusion is that my family will have to adjust to a new, poorer, reality.  My only thought is that this is not a time for pride. Our limited social safety net exists for a purpose, so before you go off to prison look into whether your family qualifies for any assistance. Many of us are loathe to ask parents or siblings for help, but as with public assistance this may be the time to swallow your pride and ask family members for help.

Another financial issue to consider is that it does, in fact, cost money to survive in our prison system. Certain essentials, such as toiletries, flip-flops and the like, are not provided but must be purchased in the commissary. Some prisoners manage to survive without outside help by hustling or doing odd jobs for other inmates, but I’ve heard it is not the most pleasant existence. The maximum you can receive in the federal system is around $300/month. Whether or not you will actually need that much depends entirely upon your personal circumstances and proclivities. I, for one, plan to live on less. But the basic fact is that, if you can in any way afford it, you will want to put aside some cash to keep you in flip-flops for the duration of your confinement.
And now, you say, isn’t that enough? Unfortunately no. I have gone through all the “mandatory costs” that come first to mind but there is one more. You may find yourself, as I did, considering whether or not to “splurge”on what many view to be a non-mandatory supplemental cost: hiring a prison consultant. In my view, as well as my experience, this really isn’t a voluntary cost at all but an essential one, as important as hiring a good lawyer. The unfortunate fact is that lawyers, despite their high fees, do not know everything. Not even close. And this lack of knowledge includes things you might think they should, in fact know: minor things such as prisons, parole, life behind bars, the sentencing process, the Bureau of Prisons, or how to successfully prepare for life after incarceration. These are all issues that will come to concern you greatly and you must watch out for misinformation: my lawyer told me a number of things that were just plain wrong.

Just as with lawyers, with consultants you often get what you pay for. The main thing is that you find a good personal fit, someone you trust, someone who will help you bravely face the present as he prepares you for the future. I did, and it really helped prepare me for what lies ahead. Unfortunately, prison consultants, despite their importance, are not seen by our system as essential, so it’s not as if you can request the court to appoint one for you. If you can’t afford it, I urge you to reach out to consultants and others in this white-collar community of ours. If your experience is like mine, you will find that there is more support out there than you expected. After all, just because we’re felons doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It just means that, more likely than not, we’re poor.

This blog post was also published here, on the Etika LLC blog: The High Cost of Justice

Stay good and be free. 
Be good and stay free.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Good News and Bad

It's a rare day, at least in my life, where the news is either all good or all bad. In that, most days are just like life, I suppose, where the good and the bad tend to come swirled together into varied kaleidoscopes of black and white, welcome and unwelcome, expected and unexpected. Lest I float off into an esoteric rumination on life and its variegations, I suppose I should come back down to earth. What I'm trying to say, a bit more fancifully than may in fact be necessary, is that today was one of those typical days where good news came along with the bad. And now I will share that news - the good, the bad, the ugly - with you. 

On the bad-news front (in case you didn't know, let me tell you: bad news must always come first), I received my expected "call-up" papers from the Bureau of Prisons inviting me to join them on a Monday morning several weeks from now. I have embedded the letter for your edification at the bottom of this post (those Wisconsinites among my readers may find it amusing that it misspelled my address as Oconomowolc, WI, admittedly a difficult word). The bad news is, of course, that I received such a letter in the first place. A letter like this ranks right up there on the welcome-ness scale with a letter from the lab telling you that your liver enzymes are all out of whack. I have received letters of both types, so am speaking from experience when I say that they engender similar reactions.

But even here the news was a mix of good and bad. The good news within the bad is that I received what I requested: an assignment to the idyllic wonderland of Lompoc Federal Prison Camp on the balmy, central Californian coast above Santa Barbara. I will be so close to Santa Barbara, in fact, that under different circumstances you could almost call this a vacation not that far from paradise. Come to think of it, that almost sounds like a Jimmy Buffet tune:

Tried to amend my thieving habits.
Made it nearly seventy days,
Losin' weight without speed, eatin' mushy green peas,
Picking up trash and countin' the days

At the least, I've heard, prisoners can smell the eucalyptus through the bars of the windows that line the gymnasium where they sleep in countless rows. 

The good news lies in the fact that such an assignment was by no means assured: I have heard tell of convicts requesting Florida and receiving South Dakota (although one of the purportedly "best" prison camps happens to be located in Yangton, S.D., so there too the good news is mixed with the bad). The fact is, I got what I wanted given the limited choices available to me.  

This good news within the bad is, in fact, of more consequence than it first appears. It means, for example, that I will have some hope of seeing my children on a regular basis following their impending move from Moscow to LA. Really, that's all that matters. Lower down on the consequence scale, it also means that I will be in a facility that offers the magical drug treatment program (RDAP, for the uninitiated) that could magically shave an entire year off my sentence and maybe even cure me once and for all of my perennial cravings for codeine. Even lower on the scale is that the Bureau, in its kindness, granted me three extra days of freedom: the court set my "check in" date as May 2; the letter revised that to May 5. I suppose I will need to find some way to commemorate those three extra days, make them special. Suggestions are welcome.

And last, but not least on the good-news spectrum, I have finally learned my brand-new name, the name by which I will be known for the next three years of my life: 19314-111. A new name and so soon after my birthday, to boot; makes me feel special, almost as if I've been born again or reincarnated. On the worrisome side, I have never been good at memorizing numbers so am somewhat concerned - given past troubles with telephone numbers and the like - that I may transpose a nine or a three, thus confusing myself with a fellow-prisoner down the aisle and causing great confusion behind the bars. Only time will tell. But in your notes and letters please feel free to refer to me by my brand-new name. 19314-111. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think? Better, in any event, than 66666-666 or 00000-000 although if I had my choice, I think I might pick 12345-678. 


Here I am, at the end of this post, back again with a variation on the esoteric flight of fancy with which I started: Can bad news, if it is fully expected and even, in a sense, welcomed, still be considered bad news? For example, if you know already that you are going to die and then receive a letter informing you of that fact, is the letter itself truly bad news? In my case, the only surprise, really, was the speed with which the letter was sent: given typical bureaucratic disfunction I had expected to receive it on the eve of my reporting date. But I am thankful that at least some good news came along with the bad.

In any event, that's enough news - both good and bad - for one day.

Yours truly,