"I'm a cross between a priest, a psychiatrist, a life coach, and a lawyer," says Larry Levine, from his Los Angeles office. "I got a guy in Maryland who went into custody this morning for a mortgage-fraud case. He told me I've given him more peace of mind than his lawyer has given him in the past two years—in terms of what's going to happen to him, how to minimize his time inside, and how to take advantage of programs so he could get out early."
Levine is the guy (rich)people call when they're out of options. They're busted, indicted, and about to be convicted. Jail time looms. It is here, in the worst moment of their lives, that some wealthy Americans consider hiring a prison consultant—someone who claims to know the system inside and out, and promises to work to make the incarcerated portion of your life as painless as possible. Someone like Levine.
Levine learned the tricks of the trade after spending ten years in a federal pen—low, medium, and high security, he says—for drug trafficking, racketeering, and securities fraud in association with an Italian crime family. After his release in 2007, he broke ground on American Prison Consultants—styling his time inside as expertise.
It might seem like a remote industry, but over the past few years, a number of prison consulting firms have popped up on the internet. This makes sense, considering white-collar crime isn't going anywhere and cyber crime is on the rise. The criminal elite of Bel Air and Boca Raton generally have the capital to seek out the services of someone like Levine. (Prison consultants usually only make the news when a big fish is caught on the hook.) It's his job to inform them exactly how different their lives are about to become.
"Somebody who's involved in the narcotics trade or the pharmaceuticals trade can use my help to shorten their sentence, but they're more prepared because they know the streets," says Levine. "But if you're talking about a guy who sits behind a desk, and he's used to getting orders and dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars—now he's going into custody and losing all his power, and he's got some 26-year old kid who just got out of the military telling him what to do. It's a culture shock."
Levine tries to convince clients they're hiring a well-informed friend with a ton of legal expertise and a prison-yard wiliness. He claims to offer peace of mind with straight, no-bullshit rhetoric. On one of Levine's many websites, you can find an introduction to his prison survival course; some of the 101 rules include "never cut in line for the phone" and "never change the TV channel without asking."
"I ask people 'What do you want to know about?' and then we start going through different things, and they start loosening up," Levine says of his consultations with clients. "They'll ask me everything they want to know, and the shit they should've asked me, I'll tell them."
And while this service is helpfulto scared execs facing hard time, perhaps the most valuable portion of Levine's (and other prison consultants') curriculum is how to shorten a sentence. One of the most common pieces of advice they give in this regard is to take advantage of the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP),an intensive six-month rehab protocol for prisoners dealing with substance abuse that promises reduced time on the other end. Obviously that makes the program extremely competitive. But if you qualify, your prospects for a shorter sentence become a lot brighter.
Charles Burke was indicted as part of a wire-fraud ring, and was looking at a 33 month sentence. He hired Levine, who quickly educated him on RDAP. That program, combined with a plea deal, meant Burke only spent 13 months behind bars.
"[Larry] talked me off a cliff," says Burke, who I contacted through Levine, and whose glowing endorsement can be found on the "Inmate Testimonials" section of Levine's website. "He said, 'With good time and the RDAP, you could be out in no time,' and it made all the difference in the world."
Burke tells me he had a history of "alcohol and weed" addiction. With Levine in his ear, Burke had an attack plan to qualify himself for RDAP from day one.
Some of Burke's buddies who got indicted with him weren't admitted into the drug program because they weren't prepped by a guy like Levine, according to the satisfied customer. "When you see that psychologist the very first day, and you don't know how to answer their questions, you can be eliminated right there," Burke says.
To be clear, Levine insists he doesn't tell his clients what to say when applying for RDAP, which he says would be illegal. Instead, he says he explains the program, and what those doing the admitting are looking for. In other words, according to Levine, he provides the options, and the client makes the moral call.
There's a faint sense of capitalist nihilism to prison consulting, which at times can seem a bit like the Wild West, with rivals gunning for one another and attempting to destroy their competition's reputations. The people who seek out their services are mostly rich and powerful, and even within the equalizing compound of a prison, they still carry an advantage. In some ways, Levine has built a business by reassuring those who can afford him that a return to freedom, and their gilded way of life, is only a few tricks away.
The industry doesn't have any oversight or regulation, and rates can vary widely. For clients, it's difficult to know if they're being ripped off. (A quick scan of threads discussing prison consultants on the message board prisontalk.com illustrates this.) And in a 2012 New York Times article about the burgeoning industry—"Making Crime Pay: Prison Consulting Draws New Crop of Ex Cons"—Levine himself begrudgingly admits that the speed of growth meant it was "becoming saturated with people who don't know what they're doing."
"Here's how I justify it," says Levine of the way he makes his living. "I did ten years. I was in 11 different prisons. I was in multiple custody levels. I came out of custody with nothing, but I built something. I didn't have resources, but I took my time on the inside wisely, and I worked."
Knowledge is power, after all. Andfrightened execs entering a world where they have neither are willing to pay top dollar for some kind of roadmap.
Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.