What happens to bankers and thrift executives who plead guilty to or are convicted of bank fraud, then sent to jail? They end up in a federal prison such as the one in Minersville,, Pa., that I visited earlier this month.
The jail I visited is not the kind of lockup seen in the gangster movies. Rather, it is on a campus-like setting and has several low-rise buildings surrounded by playing fields. There are no fences, and visitors are not questioned. They simply produce identification and sign in and out.
A Disturbing Presence
There is, however, another prison less than a mile away, with fences, razor-sharp wire, and tall prison-like buildings. Its proximity serves to remind the prisoners at the camp, as it called, that infractions of the rules will lead to their transfer to the real prison.
As a result, the camp is orderly, safe, and operates with only one or two guards for the 300 prisoners. The individual I went to visit reported that he had not seen a gun in his entire time there.
But listen to my friend talk about his life, and you will know you are visiting a prison.
* The inmates live in cubes measuring 7 by 8 feet, two to a cube, with a wardrobe, double-deck bed, desk, and two lockers.
* They are subject to continual counts to make sure they are still there.
* Missing a count or any other infraction leads to time in "the hole" - a room in the main prison where they can be confined without any human contact for as much as 23 hours a day.
* If they have to go off premises to testify or to a hospital, they are taken in handcuffs and shackles.
* Rules are strict. The visitors cannot bring even paperback books; they must be mailed. Inmates can be subject to breath and drug tests after a visitor leaves, though there is no monitoring of the visit. We were allowed to walk outside to talk, away from the crowded visitors' room. Passing of money could lead to time in the hole.
* Most important, there is no privacy. And while life there seemed to me to be more pleasant than in my basic-training days in the Army during the Korean War, the Army did not have the stigma attached.
The Prison Routine
What do the people do all day?
They have jobs maintaining the facility and food service - working as little as four hours a day for 12 cents an hour. For those trying to save money to pay fines or for their return to the outside, they can work eight hours or more, with some jobs - like in the warehouse - paying as much as $1.50 an hour.
Money from the outside is strictly limited. It is used for canteen purchases such as cigarettes. But the prison does have arts and crafts, a pool room, Ping-Pong, weight-lifting equipment, ballfields, a walking track, and two TV rooms.
Still, the No. I complaint is boredom and the slow passage of time. Educational programs are available, but they are generally of a level that would not interest white-collar people who have at least a high school diploma.
What brings most inmates to Minersville? There a plenty of former bankers and thrift execs, but the bulk of the population is in for drug dealing. One young prisoner held up a bank, but because he did not use a gun in the process, he was sent to the camp instead of the main prison.
What bothers many of the white collar prisoners is that they had to plead guilty to a lesser crime, even if they thought they were innocent, rather than risk a trial on a greater crime that could lead to several more years of incarceration.
"No one wants to gamble on five years of his life," my friend said.
Complaints About System
Additionally, many of the bankers believe that the first person to plead in a case and then turn state's evidence on friends and colleagues get a lighter sentence than either those who make pleas later or who believe they are innocent and have nothing to say that can be useful to prosecutors.
But while the inmates believe the system is unfair, the federal government is evidently winning cases and gaining pleas, for all of its prison facilities are bulging. Minersville alone has twice the number of prisoners it was intended for.
But most important, a visitor leaving the prison feels that, despite all the talk of this being a country club or a Club Fed, this was a prison, a place where the inmates watch their friends and relatives leave, then go back to counting the hours until they can be moved to a halfway house.
It is no consolation for the taxpayers supporting the FDIC and those who invested in or worked in banks and thrifts that were looted, but at least it is punishment that no one can look at without feeling that the prisoners are indeed paying their debt for what they did to the financial system and to society.