true crime

We Asked Inmates How Michael Cohen Will Get Treated in Prison

"The guy is one of the most well-known snitches in America right now. And I don't care what prison he goes to—he's hit!"
December 14, 2018, 8:47pm
Image by Lia Kantrowitz/Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Donald Trump's clown of a former fixer Michael Cohen was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison on Wednesday after orchestrating hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with the now-president prior to his 2016 election. Cohen, who went from a wannabe tough guy rubbing elbows with Russian mobsters and threatening reporters to flipping on his old boss and begging forgiveness for falling down a "a path of darkness," previously pleaded guilty to a bevy of federal offenses: violations of campaign-finance law, tax evasion, deception in dealings with a bank, and lying to Congress.

Now he's slated to become the first member of the president's orbit to do a serious bid in the system in which I spent over two decades of my life, beginning March 6. The judge in his case recommended Cohen do time in FCI-Otisville, a medium-security New York prison with a rep for being "rat"-friendly and, as CNN reported, a place often populated by white-collar felons like this one.

To find out how Cohen will get treated in prison, considering his high-profile and the president effectively branding him a snitch, I reached out to those still doing time in my former abode for perspective of what awaits the disgraced lawyer. As they inevitably do in such cases involving informed speculation about an inherently unpredictable world of bars, blood, and boredom, opinions varied—some predicted Cohen was too politically sensitive to face immense danger, while others expected him to face the kind of "soft extortion" often visited on vulnerable inmates.

Either way, his A-list status, ties to (and subsequent split from) the most notorious man in the country, and background as a mover-and-shaker with plenty of cash meant he had no shot of just blending in and quietly serving out his time.

“Had Trump not became president, Michael Cohen would have never went to prison,” Nicholas "Sawed Off" McDougal, who's serving 12 years at FCI Terre Haute in Indiana for armed robbery, told VICE. “He'll be alright at a place like Otisville, a big rat hideout yard. He has money to get him through the next couple years.”

“Cohen will do fine in prison," agreed Israel Mendez, who's doing 30 years over three kilos of cocaine, also at FCI Terre Haute. “He's gonna go in there and be treated like a celebrity. He has money which will make his time easy, and he might end up teaching, and doing good things. When his time is over, this will be a little blip. No big deal at all."

Despite the judge's plug for Cohen doing his bid at Otisville—an institution that made the Forbes top ten “cushiest prisons” list—the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will send Cohen wherever they want. Indeed, I recall plenty of inmates complaining about the feds not following judges' recommendations and fucking up their plans for how to cope with incarceration.

Still, the prison assassination of Whitey Bulger—among the few recent BOP denizens whose media saturation rivaled Cohen's—meant the feds were likely to take special care in assigning this guy somewhere he could survive.

“The BOP does not want another high-profile inmate getting beat or stomped out by others who may hate Cohen,” Andre Cooper, a man serving three life sentences at FCI Cumberland in Maryland for racketeering charges relating to drugs and murder, told VICE via email. “He might be in a situation like Bulger was and get hurt pretty badly. But, he might get treated like a rock-star because some may feel that he still has some connections out there that could benefit them upon release.”

“I believe Mr. Cohen will be free of any violent acts, but subject to verbal assault during his short stay in federal prison," offered Ralph Sergo, who’s doing ten years for LSD at FCI Coleman in Florida. “Since he will be at a [lower]-security prison most likely, I'm going to say that he'll be fine as long as he can ignore what people say to him. I very highly doubt anyone, even political fanatics, will physically harm Mr. Cohen. In fact, some may welcome him with open arms.”

Because Cohen was cooperating, albeit informally, with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in a celebrity-level case, his housing placement was sure to be scrutinized. In truth, brutal fights are pretty rare at lower-security prison "camps"—it’s not like Shawshank Redemption. However, there's always a guy out there trying to a make name for himself, and Cohen's a known rat, a type prisoners really love to hate.

“There is no way that Cohen makes it through prison without having all kinds of problems," argued Troy Hockenberry, who's doing a ten-year sentence for a gun charge at FCI Terre Haute. “The guy is one of the most well-known snitches in America right now. And I don't care what prison he goes to—he's hit!”

If I were him, or I could advise him, I’d tell Cohen to help as many inmates as possible with their legal work and become an asset. Inmates tend to give competent jailhouse lawyers a pass, even if they are rats, ex-law enforcement and the like.

The other thing that could smooth the way for Cohen is his money, to the extent he still has it. There's nothing like cash to help you make friends inside.

“He won’t have any problems whatsoever and this will end up being parlayed into a book deal for him, thus making him even wealthier," Robert Lustyik, a former FBI agent serving 15 years for corruption, told VICE. “He basically changed American history by covering up information that might have swayed the election. He then made light of his offenses throughout his legal proceedings. When he realized that his offenses were being taken seriously, he decided to save himself and cooperate.”

That's also a concerning element, though: Cohen may be seen as a walking ATM from day one. Some prisoners may try and squeeze him for funds to use on the commissary (where they buy food and other comforts).

“I would like to say that Cohen will have no troubles in prison, but my gut feeling tells me that he will," Ronald Coleman, who’s doing 262 months for conspiracy to traffic weed and launder money, told VICE. “When you see him on camera, his entire disposition just screams "bitch"—not how you want to be seen if you are in prison. On the flip side, I guess they could put him in protective custody, but even in PC I think he'll be paying somebody.”

With Cohen’s lawyer saying after sentencing that his client would disclose everything he knew about the president to the public after the Russia probe wraps up, it will be interesting to see whether he's viewed primarily as a rat or as an opponent of a guy—Trump—many inmates despise. Cohen did not officially sign a deal to cooperate with the US Attorneys, it should be noted, but the coverage of the case and Trump's broadsides make it hard to believe he won't be perceived primarily as a rat—which come in even lower than pedophiles on the prison totem pole.

"No matter how President Trump acts or speaks about people, he still got snitched on," Cooper said. “Michael Cohen is still a stool pigeon in the eyes of most convicts/inmates in the BOP, no matter how anybody wants to look at it."

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Robert Rosso contributed reporting to this story.

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