CHICAGO -- When Michelle Menard realized her boyfriend was facing five years of incarceration for wire fraud, she turned to the Internet. "Get out of federal prison," she typed.
The Kankakee County, Ill., woman found help from an unusual source: ex-convict Patrick Boyce who offers non-legal advice as a prison consultant -- or as he puts it, a "federal mitigation specialist."
"I get super nervous," said Menard, 35, who earns a modest income cleaning houses. "I read things online and think, 'Oh my God, he's in there with a bunch of criminals.' (Boyce) is very supportive, like a girlfriend who knows everything."
Boyce, 41, founder of Federal Prison Alternatives in Columbus, Ohio, is one of a handful of consultants nationwide who gear their services toward a white-collar population that includes mortgage fraudsters, tax evaders and Ponzi-schemers. He cites experience "as the best teacher," and points to his own 27-month prison term for conspiracy to commit fraud.
The cottage industry is dominated by ex-offenders, retired jailhouse employees and advocates who support prison alternatives. High-profile cases during the '80s and '90s, including the prosecutions of corporate raider Ivan Boesky and former junk bond financier Michael Milken -- both of whom used a prison consultant -- have helped heighten awareness.
Some criminal defense attorneys remain skeptical, and question whether the consultants can deliver what they promise. But today's economic downtown has provided no shortage of work.
John Webster, a former attorney who served time in federal prison after lying for a client, started the Nashville-based National Prison and Sentencing Consultants in 2002. At first, few people had heard of his industry.
"Now it's gotten to where a lot of people see the need and the benefit," he said. "With the meltdown of the real estate industry, we had a lot more mortgage brokers who were getting indicted."
He charges $3,500 to $10,000 for prison coaching.
Some consultants are flashy, like ex-convict Larry Levine, whose Los Angeles-based operation asks on its website: "Going from the Exchange Floor to the Prison Yard?" Levine's clients include a former Highland Park, Ill., couple, Robert and Virginia Carter, convicted in a $17 million embezzlement and money laundering case, according to news reports and Levine himself.
At the other end of the spectrum is Baltimore-based social worker Herbert Hoelter, who founded the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in 1977. Bernard Madoff turned to him for help when he pleaded guilty in 2009 to one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, Hoelter said.
"He knew he was going to get a life sentence and he asked what could he do with the rest of his life," Hoelter said. "I said to participate in as many programs as you can. Find ways to help people who, believe it or not, are less fortunate than you."
Over the past two decades, federal officials have ratcheted up the penalties for economic misdeeds, most recently in response to high-profile corporate crimes, such as the collapse of Enron Corp. The harsher sentencing guidelines have resulted in overcrowded prisons and added incentive for defendants to seek help in navigating the complex legal system, criminal defense attorneys say.
Some consultants try to strengthen a defendant's pre-sentencing request to be enrolled in a 500-hour federal drug and alcohol abuse program, which can result in a shorter prison stint. Others document medical reasons that argue why an inmate needs a lower bunk or special diet.
Former Winnetka, Ill., resident Steven Green, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud last August, turned to Federal Prison Consultants Inc., of Orlando, Fla., in hopes of being placed in a drug treatment program at a Pensacola prison.
Green, contacted through prison e-mail, said that he paid the firm $2,500 up front, with an agreement to pay another $2,500 if desired outcomes were met.
"The clout that PC (Prison Consultants) portends to maintain for influence and direction sounded very attractive," wrote Green, who is serving a 78-month sentence for stealing millions from investors.
The company hired an Indianapolis-based psychologist on Green's behalf. After reviewing Green's records but having never met him, the psychologist wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons that stated that Green was eligible for the treatment program, according to a court document.
The Bureau of Prisons, which assigns inmates to facilities throughout the United States, denied Green's request and instead placed him at a medium-security Talladega, Ala., prison.
Nevertheless, the consultant's insight into prison procedures and rules was worth the price, even though the federal prison system is "fairly impenetrable to custom design," Green wrote.
Before reporting to prison, offenders often have questions that lawyers can't answer about the daily prison routines, said Jeff Steinback, a prominent Chicago defense lawyer who represented Scott Fawell, Gov. George Ryan's closest political adviser, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud.
"There is a place for that kind of advice, as long as it is well-intended and not simply a business," Steinback said. He typically pairs a newly sentenced defendant with someone who has already served time, to prepare them for incarceration.
Former Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, who finished a 6- 1/2 year prison sentence last year for racketeering conspiracy and fraud, said that she would have considered hiring a prison consultant had she known they existed. She was assigned to a federal prison in Dublin, Calif., and was shocked at how harshly inmates were treated, even at the low-security facility.
"I wish they would have told me about all the strip searches," said Loren-Maltese.
Chris Burke, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, said that he is not aware of any influence that consultants have on prison assignments. And some defense attorneys question the effectiveness of a prison consultant, pointing out that information about the ins-and-outs of prison life can be found online.
"This is such incredible bull -," said Chicago criminal defense lawyer Rick Halprin, who represented reputed mob boss Joey "the Clown" Lombardo.
If a defendant has questions about jailhouse lingo or rules, Halprin offers his own advice: "I'll tell you the etiquette: Don't gamble, don't loan money, don't borrow money and of course keep your mouth shut -- which none of them ever learn."
Menard, however, realizes that she is paying consultant Boyce $100 a month for more than his expertise on federal sentencing. He also serves as a counselor of sorts.
Her boyfriend, who formerly owned a payroll processing company, took responsibility for failing to pay state and federal taxes on behalf of his clients, she said. He owes $1.6 million in restitution, according to a court document.
Boyce assured her that everything will be OK.
"He said, 'Think about it as him being in the military. But there is no chance of him getting killed and you can actually visit him as much as you like,' " Menard said.
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