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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Millionaires behind bars
By Myles Neligan
BBC News Online business reporter

Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart begins her 5-month sentence on Friday
The playwright and progressive political thinker George Bernard Shaw once wrote: "While we have prisons, it matters little which of us occupy the cells."

Tell that to Martha Stewart.

The millionaire US lifestyle guru, who on Friday began a five-month jail sentence for lying to stock market regulators, is unlikely to share this loftily detached view.

In fact, it would be surprising if Ms Stewart, a household name in the US, were not contemplating her spell as a guest of the state with some trepidation.

She has reason to be worried.

Hard time

Those who know the prison system say that while all new inmates find it difficult to adjust to life in jail, wealthy professionals with a high public profile face unique challenges.

If you continue to fight, the time will go more slowly
Herbert Hoelter, NCIA
They can have particular trouble coping with the loss of status and privacy that imprisonment brings, and run a higher risk of being bullied by fellow detainees.

"One of the most difficult issues from the psychological standpoint is totally subjecting yourself to authority," says Herbert Hoelter of the National Centre on Institutions and Alternatives, a Baltimore-based consultancy which specialises in negotiating reduced sentences for convicted criminals.

"These people go from making all the decisions in their daily lives to a situation where every decision is made for them. That's a very hard conversion."

Rich white-collar inmates are particularly ill-prepared for the monotony of the prison life, which consists of long periods of confinement punctuated by spells of menial, low-paid work.

'Soft touch'

Some commentators have made light of Ms Stewart's sentence, pointing out that she is to serve it in a minimum security facility in West Virginia known within the US prison system as "Camp Cupcake" because of its supposedly soft regime.

But according to David Novak, author of "Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration," and a professional advisor to criminals facing their first prison sentence, this nickname is misleading.

Martha Stewart
Stewart asked to begin her jail term as soon as possible
He describes the popular perception that there exists a network of comfortable prisons set up exclusively to house white collar criminals as a "tenacious and inaccurate myth."

"There is no such thing," he says.

"Eighty percent of prison inmates are there because of the war on drugs. Prison is a shocking environment."

According to Mr Hoelter, surviving prison psychologically intact requires a willingness to submit to the process of incarceration.

"I tell them not to fight what's going on," he says. "If you continue to fight, the time will go more slowly."

And Mr Novak has some reassuring words on the subject of physical violence, possibly the darkest fear of those entering prison for the first time.

He says that provided white collar criminals abide by the rules of prison etiquette, the worst treatment they can expect at the hands of other inmates is some verbal goading.

"Will there be taunts? Sure. But I have worked with a number of high-profile figures, and never have any of them been involved in any kind of physical altercation," he says.

"There are some basic rules. You don't touch people's possessions, you don't ask nosy questions. If you follow the rules, there will be no problems."

Silver lining

Ms Stewart can also take some comfort from the fact that she will be far from the only wealthy professional serving time behind bars.

Official attitudes to white collar crime have hardened in the last ten years, and especially since the Enron and Worldcom scandals.

Those that go in with a good attitude come out much more centred
David Novak
As a result, business high-fliers who stray onto the wrong side of the law now routinely face stiff jail sentences.

Other big names recently caught up in the net include Frank Quattrone, one of Wall Street's best known bankers during the 1990s technology boom, who in September received an 18-month sentence for obstruction of justice.

Earlier this year, former Enron finance chief Andrew Fastow and his wife Lea also received prison sentences, as did Sam Waksal, ex-head of biotech firm ImClone, and a friend of Ms Stewart's.

They may be joined in the months ahead by a string of other former giants of the boardroom, including Worldcom founder Bernie Ebbers, and former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay, who are currently facing criminal charges in the US courts.

All of them are doubtless wishing fervently that events had turned out differently.

However, strange as it may seem, the experience may ultimately prove a positive one.

"Those that go in with a good attitude come out much more centred," says Mr Novak.

"They recognise that they've had very good fortune, and they recognise that fortune comes with responsibility that they had not been attending to in the past."

See where Martha Stewart will serve her sentence

Stewart wishes to serve term now
15 Sep 04 |  Business
Wall Street star Quattrone jailed
08 Sep 04 |  Business
Five months in jail for Stewart
16 Jul 04 |  Business
Martha Stewart sentencing is due
16 Jul 04 |  Business
Enron wife to spend year in jail
06 May 04 |  Business

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