What Do Prison Consultants Do?

Plaxico Burress gets a new coach.

Plaxico Burress

Former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress has hired a prison consultant before beginning his two-year sentence for attempted criminal possession of a weapon. What do prison consultants do?

They help get you into the best prison and orient you on its rules and customs. Going to prison is a little bit like heading off to college. The first step is finding an institution that’s right for you. Then there’s a lot of anxiety: Who will be your roommate? Where is the library? What time does the dining hall close? How do you make a good impression with the people in charge? Will you make friends? A prison consultant addresses these concerns.

The process by which the Bureau of Prisons decides where to send a particular convict is called designation, and it begins when the probation officer submits a report on the future inmate’s crime, background, family situation, and medical condition. (The process is very similar in New York, where Burress pleaded guilty.) The bureau uses this report to generate a security point score, which will play a major role in placement. The defendant has about two weeks to suggest changes to the report and may benefit from a bit of strategic thinking. For example, if he’s likely to receive a high security score on account of a past violent crime, a prison consultant might advise him to play up an illness in the report so he’ll have a shot of landing in a federal medical center. On the other hand, a candidate for a minimum-security facility would want to avoid the medical centers, which hold prisoners of all security levels. A consultant might also suggest adding details to the report that would keep the defendant at an institution that’s close to home. (It might help to mention elderly parents who are unable to travel.) The consultant can also lobby the judge to recommend a specific placement.

Once the defendant receives an assignment, his consultant helps him go through the prison’s admissions and orientation manual. This document goes through every detail of prison life: schedule, recreational opportunities, jobs, commissary hours, visitation rules, where he can get a newspaper, etc. An experienced consultant can also use his network of clients within that institution to get tips on customs or culture not contained in the manual.

Consider a simple example like the telephone. A consultant will inform the prisoner about general rules, like the 300-minute-per-month and 15-minute-per-call usage limits, and the cost—23 cents per minute, which can be paid from the inmate’s wages or a debit card paid for by his family. The consultant will also find out about peak usage hours, so that the inmate can avoid long lines. Then there’s the rule that many white-collar criminals have trouble with: no business talk on the prison phones.

As for behavior in prisons, the consultant’s golden rule is to keep a low profile. Beyond that, the advice depends on the clientele. For celebrity inmates in minimum- and low-security federal institutions, it’s most important to stay in the guards’ good graces. Celebrities usually don’t have problems with co-inmates, except for the occasional request to barter services like bed-making for commissary money—a prison no-no. Consultants might also fill the new inmate’s social calendar with clients already in the institution. Prisoners headed for medium- and maximum-security facilities must be counseled on the various gangs and race relations in their prison. Still, even in these more dangerous settings, good relationships with the guards are paramount.

You don’t have to be a white-collar crook or a celebrity to hire a prison consultant. The wealthiest criminals are typically charged by the hour, with total bills in excess of $10,000. Lesser drug traffickers and violent convicts may hire a second-tier prison consultant—often a former inmate selling a package of services from $1,000 to $5,000. Prison consultants do sometimes take pro bono cases.

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Explainer thanks Herbert Hoelter of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.