‘It was horrifying’: Ex-inmates describe fate that may await Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, other parents in college scandal

Demeaning experience of going to federal prison can’t be sugar-coated, former inmates say.

The Mercury News | Bay Area News Group | September 12, 2019

On the morning in 2015 that Holli Coulman surrendered at the Victorville minimum-security prison in the California high desert, she savored a final look around her home and made sure she enjoyed a good breakfast — because she was not sure when she would eat anything decent again.

After arriving, the former Hewlett-Packard executive assistant, who was convicted of fraud involving the use of a company credit card, kissed her husband goodbye outside the receiving room. She then crossed the threshold into life as a federal prisoner: She stood on a sheet of brown paper, handed over her clothing, bra and panties, and submitted to a search for contraband. Coulman, who now who advises female defendants for Wall Street Prison Consultants, said it would not be the worst indignity she would endure in her 15 months as an inmate in a federal prison.

On Friday, actress Felicity Huffman will find out whether her fate also involves self-surrendering at a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility. Eleven other wealthy parents who have pleaded guilty in the nationwide college admissions scandal will also find out their fate in the next two months.

To Huffman and these parents, Coulman and other former inmates warn that there is no way to sugar coat what it’s like behind bars.

“It was horrifying,” lifestyle guru Martha Stewart said in a 2017 interview. “Nothing is good about it, nothing.”

For white-collar defendants like Huffman, Bay Area parents charged in the scandal and former “Full House” star Lori Loughlin — who has pleaded not guilty and is fighting the charges — going to prison would mean leaving behind their families and spacious homes and entering a world in which they live in overcrowded, noisy dormitories, eat “atrocious” food, are regularly demeaned by guards and have no control over their time and personal space.

Given this reality, it’s not surprising that Huffman is fighting the one-month sentence recommended by prosecutors. Her attorneys, relying on an opinion by probation officials, say no one was monetarily harmed by her actions so she should receive probation, community service and a $20,000 fine at the most. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office has asked for some period of incarceration for parents who have taken plea deals, saying it’s necessary to show that even the rich and powerful are not above the law.

They also want a one-month term for Peter Jan Sartorio, of Menlo Park; a four-month sentence for Majorie Klapper, of Menlo Park; and a 15-month sentence for Augustin Huneeus Jr., of San Francisco, a Napa Valley vintner.

Prosecutors say Huffman, Sartorio, Klapper, Huneeus and other defendants engaged in “elaborate” and “brazen” criminal schemes to bribe their children’s way into top colleges while “perched at the apex of wealth, privilege and, in some instances, fame.” These parents took coveted college spots from other “more deserving” students by paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes so that their children could have their SAT and ACT scores boosted or be fraudulently designated as athletic recruits.

“For wrongdoing that is predicated on wealth and rationalized by a sense of privilege, incarceration is the only leveler,” prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum. “In prison everyone is treated the same, dressed the same, and intermingled regardless of affluence, position or fame.”

‘No control whatsoever’

Stewart told Katie Couric in a 2017 podcast that she believed that no one should have to endure the “indignity” of federal prison time — “except for murderers and a few other categories.”

The lifestyle guru spent five months at a women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia, in 2004 and 2005 after being convicted of lying to federal investigators about a stock trade. She said in another interview with Oprah Winfrey that the loss of control was particularly difficult for a business mogul like her.

“They come from a world where there’s order. They have people under them, and they tell them what to do. When you get into federal prison, you have no control whatsoever,” Michael Frantz said of the white-collar defendants he works with as director of Jail Time Consulting. He served 36 months in a federal facility for tax evasion and is one of a small number of consultants hired to help clients navigate the U.S. criminal justice system and prepare for life behind bars.

In her best-selling book, “Orange is the New Black,” author Piper Kerman wrote: “There are a dizzying number of official and unofficial rules, schedules and rituals. Learn them quickly or suffer the consequences, such as being thought an idiot, being called an idiot, getting on another prisoner’s bad side, getting on a guard’s bad side, getting on your counselor’s bad side, being forced to clean the bathrooms, eating last in line when everything edible is gone, getting a ‘shot’ or incident report put in your record and getting sent to the Special Housing Unit or SHU.”

In a minimum-security prison — the most likely destination for Huffman and other middle-age parents caught up “Operation Varsity Blues” — violence and prison gangs are unlikely a serious issue.

Still, Huffman and other parents should expect that other inmates, coming from less privileged backgrounds and serving longer sentences for drug offenses, may resent their wealth, said Larry Levine, founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants.

On the other hand, these inmates may try to befriend them to get special favors, Levine added. He would advise Huffman and other parents to show respect, not expect special treatment and not whine about their cases. He would also tell them, “Keep your ears open, mouths shut and avoid drama.”

Dealing with the guards 

But trying to get along with inmates from different backgrounds is just one challenge. Another is dealing with the guards, former prisoners say.

Both Kerman and Coulman offer accounts of guards sexually harassing or abusing female inmates. Coulman said she put up with the guards’ harassment because she feared losing privileges — or worse — if she complained; she served 60 days in solitary confinement after she went public about a safety issue involving female inmates.

Levine said the guards have little training compared to their counterparts in state prison and go out of their way to make the experience punitive and demeaning.

“The guards hate each other, they hate their jobs, they are bitter and mean towards the inmates,” said Levine, who served 10 years in prisons around the country after being convicted on racketeering, securities fraud and narcotics trafficking charges.

Early preparation

Preparation for life behind bars needs to start months before sentencing, say Frantz

and Levine, who are working with some of the parents charged in the scandal. Attorneys for Huffman and Bay Area parents with upcoming sentencing dates did not respond to requests for comment about how their clients are coping.

Once defendants plead guilty, they must try to get into safe prisons as close to home as possible, arrange for time to put their affairs in order and undergo a crucial pre-sentencing interview with probation officers, Frantz and Levine say.

In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said it could not comment on where any of the “Operation Varsity Blues” parents could end up. The bureau has a policy of trying to assign inmates within 500 miles of their homes, but that doesn’t always happen if there are “specific security, programming or population concerns.”

The pre-sentencing interview, which goes over a defendant’s family history, work experience, mental health and prior criminal history, is used by a probation officer to recommend a sentence to a judge. It also creates a template that prison officials use to determine whether inmates are eligible for vocational and rehabilitative programs that could reduce their time served, Frantz said.

He said he also he helps clients apply ahead of time for “perks” that may seem minor but have a huge effect on quality of life. These can include getting bottom bunk assignments, additional blankets and pillows, and extra visits from loved ones.

Coulman said she was told to wire $360 to her prison account before surrendering so she could buy items from the commissary as soon as possible: work boots, toiletries, Benadryl for sleep and a wristwatch so she would be on time for head count. Coulman said other female inmates made her first day bearable by supplementing her prison-issued smock and pre-used underwear with shampoo, lotion, ear plugs, sweat pants and a Hershey bar.

“Groundhog Day”

Levine describes day-to-day life for inmates as “Groundhog Day”: Up at 6 a.m. to get to breakfast, then work, lunch, work again, dinner, and lights out at 9:30 or 10 p.m. Stewart scrubbed floors and cleaned offices; other inmates find work in the kitchen, and Levine said he had a clerical job. Even the most menial job offers a sense of purpose, Levine added.

Frantz said prison can otherwise be painfully boring, the tedium occasionally broken by visits to the commissary, standing in line to make 15-minute payphone calls, 30-minute computer sessions and visits with loved ones.

Levine tells clients to use their free time productively: exercise, do crafts, read in the law library or use their skills to help other inmates.

Knowing her record would bar her from ever working again as an executive assistant, Coulman studied to be a paralegal and now works in the Public Defender’s Office in Dallas. She tells women going to prison: “Understand that what you’re going through is scary, but you have to have a plan for what to do with the rest of your life once this part is over.”

When asked if there is anything at all beneficial about her prison time, Coulman said, “It’s a cliche, but if you get through this, it makes you stronger.”