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White-collar ex-cons say time in prison transformed them

Monday, March 7, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:43 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

NEW YORK — Martha Stewart took up the cause of prisoners’ rights during her five months in prison and calls her time behind bars “life altering and life affirming.” Other white-collar criminals have proclaimed themselves equally transformed after emerging from prison. But are they?

“If you’re changed, then let’s see the action,” said Fred Shapiro, a lawyer who served time for bank fraud in Philadelphia in the 1990s and went back to prison for a white-collar crime episode 10 years later. Stewart, released Friday after five months in prison for lying about a stock sale, is the latest in a long line of high-profile white-collar convicts who have returned to freedom saying they have been renewed.

“I can completely identify with her comments about prison,” David Novak said of Stewart. The flight school owner did time for mail fraud in 1997 and today acts as a consultant to other white-collar convicts.

“To this day, I look back at that time as probably the greatest blessing of my life,” says Novak, of Salt Lake City. “Not the going to prison part. But the opportunity to be still and reflect upon a lot of the poor judgments I made.”

His assessment is supported by Ellen Podgor, a professor of law at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Podgor and other experts say a number of people involved in high-profile white-collar crime cases in recent years appear to have been genuinely changed by the experience of being caught and doing hard time.

The most widely cited example is junk bond king Michael Milken, the former Drexel Burnham Lambert executive who pleaded guilty to securities violations in 1989, served 22 months in prison and paid a $200 million fine. Milken has remade himself as a philanthropist, pouring money and energy into cancer research and founding a well-known economic think tank.

Novak — sent to prison for filing a false insurance claim in a staged plane accident — said the first week of prison was enough to shake him, starting with the strip search and complete loss of control over the most routine daily decisions. Shapiro says the effect of prison didn’t sink in until his second sentence — 16 months in 2001-02 for opening credit card accounts in the names of dead consumers. Shapiro’s wife was diagnosed with cancer while he was locked up, and underwent three operations. His inability to be there by her side persuaded him to change his ways for good, he says.

Now, when they read Stewart’s words, Shapiro and Novak say they can’t help but empathize. But are they convinced the millionaire homemaker is really a changed woman?

“It’s very easy to come out of an experience with prison and talk a good game. Let’s see what you do with your life,” Novak says of Stewart.


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