Convicted mogul Black heads to prison

Black heading to new 'big house'

by Rick Westhead, Toronto Star

In the two months since Conrad Black was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for fraud, he has retreated to his Palm Beach mansion and embraced a daily routine that includes swimming and cycling, reading and writing, and sampling gourmet fare at some of the Florida coastal city's best restaurants.

The genteel schedule ends Monday, unless Black wins a last-minute judicial ruling that would allow him to remain free pending his appeal of his conviction.

Otherwise, the fallen newspaper tycoon is required to report to prison, possibly a facility in Coleman, Fla., that has 1,997 minimum-security inmates plus others in more-secure areas.

It's only an hour's drive from Black's Palm Beach home, but in lifestyle the change figures to be jarring.

Rather than restaurants and cycling, Black faces daily monotony, a complete lack of privacy and an uncomfortable separation from family and friends.

While Black has a taste for fine cuisine – days before his sentencing, the one-time newspaper baron ordered a roasted beet salad and a "duo of veal" during a dinner with the Star – his menu options, starting perhaps with Monday lunch, will be more pedestrian.

"There's a lot of spaghetti and fried and baked chicken, macaroni and cheese," says Walt Pavlo, who was sentenced to 48 months for corporate fraud and spent time in U.S. minimum-security prisons. "It's like mediocre high-school cafeteria food, lots of starch."

The Bureau of Prisons protocol calls for him to be strip-searched and fingerprinted, subjected to a DNA test and made to change into a prison uniform.

"The clothes that you wear in will be mailed back to your home ... so tell your spouse to expect them," recommends The Ultimate Guide to Life Inside (and after) Federal Prison, a 200-page book sold online.

However, the clothes don't always make it home. "Possibly a (prison guard) may take a nice item of your clothing home, or lose them or simply toss them in the garbage. So I do suggest that you report wearing clothes that you would be willing to throw in the garbage ..."

Black is a night owl who routinely sends emails well past midnight. But inmates in U.S. federal prisons must be in their bunks by 10 p.m. and have no Internet access, although some facilities, Coleman included, have recently allowed some prisoners limited access to email.

That could make it challenging for Black to keep writing. He has written critically acclaimed biographies of U.S. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and a publisher has asked him to tackle William Lyon Mackenzie King, a Canadian prime minister for 21 years. Black told the Star he hasn't decided whether he will.

Each prison has its own visiting hours. If Black reports to Coleman, his wife Barbara Amiel and other approved visitors can see him Monday, Thursday, Friday, and on weekends from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

But being in prison is hard on marriages. Recent forum topics at the website Prisontalk.com include: "Have you ever been hit on by another inmate while visiting your man?" and "He Married Someone Else While in Jail."

Herb Hoelter, the director and co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a program that aims to improve conditions for inmates, says Black's biggest obstacle in prison will be dealing with the boredom.

At U.S. federal prisons, inmates are regularly counted – typically five times every 24 hours and as many as seven times on Saturdays and Sundays. Phone calls and mail are monitored and they're prohibited from carrying on business from the prison. Inmates instead are paid some 12 cents an hour to perform menial labour.

And most double up in sleeping cubicles, with two men sharing the roughly 2.1-by-2.5-metre space.

"There's not a lot of choice," Hoelter says. "Even when it comes to what to put on the TV in the lounge, you basically watch what the biggest guy wants to."

"You need toothpaste and shower shoes and soap and shampoo and a razor and you have to buy that stuff at the commissary," says Pavlo, a former executive with U.S. telecom company MCI who was convicted of defrauding his employer and began serving his sentence in 2001.

"If you're lucky there are a few other inmates who will look after you for the first while until the shock of your situation wears off. It's going to be really tough on Conrad on the inside. He's not going to be anyone special. There's no one waiting in there for his autograph."

Black's former Hollinger International colleague David Radler this week reported to Moshannon Valley prison in Pennsylvania, a minimum-security facility, to begin serving his 29-month sentence for defrauding Hollinger.

Radler is expected in coming days to request a transfer to a Canadian prison, where he would be eligible for parole after serving as little as one-third of his sentence. In the U.S., inmates must serve 85 per cent of their sentences before being eligible for early release.

Yet because Black renounced his Canadian citizenship, he isn't eligible to ask for a transfer here. He faces the prospect of a deportation holding cell when his prison sentence is completed, and being sent back to England.

It's also possible Black may not start serving his sentence near his Florida home. While his trial judge endorsed his request to serve his sentence at Coleman, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons ultimately decides where Black must report. It does not publicly disclose prisoner assignments until they report to jail.

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