[As first published on Pulitzer.com]
I interviewed David Novak, of Davrie Communications, Inc., a company designed to help those sentenced to federal incarceration deal with all aspects of “doing time”. Novak is a real-life ex-con. Before Martha Stewart comes out with her inevitable book about prison life, here’s the real scoop on what it’s like to be a “white-collar” ex-con.
Q: You spent a year in federal prison as a result of a mail-fraud conviction. What kind of background did you have growing up?
A: My father was a Marine officer. We lived all over the world. I was one of the last group of people who gained prominence without a college degree. In 1995, I had an aviation company and staged an accident for an insurance claim. I had warped values, greed. I told the authorities — I had an internal struggle. Because of the money involved, I exceeded the point system with the federal sentencing guidelines to get probation.
Q: People perceive federal prison to be a “county club” atmosphere, at least compared to state prison. What do you say to that?
A: Spend some time in prison and you will radically change your mind. That may have been true in the Nixon era, when you could have your own clothes and food.
Q: Do you feel that prison rehabilitates people?
A: Prison is not rehabilitative at all. It is for warehousing human beings. You have to play safe and follow the rules. There is nothing to do, with the exception of federal courses, such as English as a second language. The recidivism rate is high. I “learned my lesson” in two weeks. People become bitter in prison.
Q: Many people would hide and be ashamed of being in prison. How did you decide to turn lemons into lemonade?
A: In breaking with my past. My inability, in the past, to show I was having a hard time. “Never let them see you sweat”. Committing white lies. I was never proud of prison, but I was proud of the change. If I project shame, I will get that back.
Q: Do you have any new projects in the works?
A: I just completed supervised probation. I am involved with a movement to restore the vote to ex-cons. This law is heavily weighted against African-Americans. I’m not saying the law is cruel and unusual. It’s a philosophy — it goes against liberty. At what point do they stop paying the price? It’s so disparate from state to state.
Q: I’ve read where you said that prison makes you confront your prejudices. How so?
A: There was a a real stratification. I got intellectually lazy. Prison was like Bed-Sty.
Q: Tell about any forbidden “luxuries” there were in prison.
A: The language changes. Cell was a “house”. 250 pound men were knitting. Photos of the outside. The Robb Report is very popular – a dream.
Q: Which do you feel are better: federal prisons run by the government or by contract?
A: The government ones are better; they have to be accountable. Contract prisons are not so. Prisoners are a commodity, x per $ per year. It’s dehumanizing.