“I was a federal criminal defense attorney at a certain point in my legal career. I got indicted as the result of some of my conduct in a securities fraud case in the state of New Jersey. It was a mistake. I didn’t receive any money for what I did,” Webster said. “It was misguided loyalty and an incredibly stupid error on my part, but I did it and admitted to doing it, and the judge imposed a 13-month sentence.”
A native of The Bronx, N.Y., Webster was born into a family of police officers as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all wore a badge on their chest. After studying at New York University and Hofstra and earning his law degree at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, he practiced for 19 years before his conviction. After his release in 2002, he opened his business. He and his wife moved to Lebanon two years ago.
No stranger to prisonsWebster stays on the go as his work carries him more than 150,000 air miles annually. He has been to more than 200 prisons across the U.S. and consults face to face with about two-thirds of his clients, spending as much as two to three days with them preparing them for prison life.What is the hardest part for these mostly wealthy and privileged felons once they hear the cell doors clink behind them?
“For most of them it is to recognize they are no longer the alpha dog, the alpha male in the pack,” he said. “Many of my Wall Street clients have had that problem. They were the captains of industry, and they get there, and they’re a nobody. Nobody cares who you were.”
Webster analyzes his clients’ cases and tries to piece together how they went from where they were to where they stand now, awaiting a prison sentence. He knows the effects but searches for the causes.
“People at 50 don’t sit there and say, ‘I’m gonna go embezzle some funds from a bank.’ There is usually a reason for it. What caused this to happen?
“Now we have people who are looking at 20 to 30 to 40 years or life for relatively small crimes, for financial crimes, and I’m appalled by that,” Webster said. “We’re talking money here. We’re not talking that he shot somebody, a violent crime.”
Webster focuses on diversionary programs, on intermittent sentencing and alternatives to straight-up incarceration.
As for Martha Stewart, she wound up serving five months in 2004 in “Camp Cupcake,” a.k.a. Alderson Federal Prison Camp, in West Virginia, before she was released on house arrest. And NFL quarterback Michael Vick served his 22-month sentence at Leavenworth Camp in Kansas.
Justice system needs makeoverFrom Webster’s view the justice system needs a thorough evaluation and overhaul.
“The collateral consequences of many people going to prison are devastating, not just the very wealthy, high-profile clients that I work with, but many of them find themselves in a situation where they lose their house. … We almost create a cycle of crime. To me, it makes no sense.
“The stiffer sentences we give, the longer you’re in prison, the higher the rate of recidivism. That’s just the inverse of what we want. This just isn’t working,” he said.
“There are four reasons we put anybody in prison: One is isolation: You’re a dangerous person, and we need a big wall between you and civilized society. Those are not my clients.
“Two is punishment: You should be punished for what you did, but prison is not the only way to punish somebody.
“The third reason is rehabilitation: That is absolutely nonsense. There is absolutely no rehabilitation in any prison in the U.S.
“And then there is retribution: When you break the rules, society has a right to get mad and to seek retribution. I come up with alternatives to those. Let’s have retribution, but let’s make it punishment that doesn’t cost taxpayers $40,000 to $50,000 a year and that doesn’t destroy this man’s life.
“You may have done something wrong, but your wife and your children certainly did not. Why should they be punished?”
Thus, Webster works for retribution and restorative justice. The lawbreaker is punished and is made to pay back the victims of his crime. But it may mean he serves his time on weekends so he can work and take care of his family’s needs.
“If you’re forced to work two jobs to support you’re family, then Little Johnny comes home to you and says, ‘Daddy, why can’t we go to the park anymore on weekends like we used to?’ You’re gonna have to have a conversation with him one day that says, ‘Because Daddy messed up. Daddy screwed up, and I have to pay back the people.’
“You’re gonna become a role model for your son or you’re daughter and let them know, ‘Yep, I made a mistake, and here’s what happens when you make a mistake.’ And that’s the approach I take in terms of sentence mitigation,” Webster said.
Educated behind barsWhen Webster served his time he went through something referred to as “diesel therapy,” as he was shipped to six facilities in four states.
“Little did I know at the time they were giving me training for my future career… When I was ready to go to prison, my wife, my mother and my son were asking what happens next, and I didn’t have any answers. I tried reaching out to companies or people that would be able to help me and my family out a little bit. There really was nobody.”
Webster learned there were 14 factors the justice system scrutinized before determining the category of federal prison facility (minimum security, low, medium, high and super max) that a felon would be sent to. The main factors studied include the nature of the crime, if any violence was involved or if there is any violence in the person’s background, the length of prison sentence, age and history of drug use.
“What I try to do for my client is demystify it for them. I don’t want it to be scary going in. I also want to turn their heads around. I want them to stop looking backwards and start looking forward. I know when I’ve hit a home run when I get my client to say, ‘All right, I’m looking forward to getting this over and done with. I want to start my prison sentence now.’”
Do the time quietlyAs consultant, Webster prepares people for prison culture. He teaches them the regulations and how to survive. A basic rule is to “stay under the radar.”
“I don’t care who you think you are, God gave you two ears and one mouth. He expected you to listen twice as often as he wanted you to speak,” Webster said. “That’s a real important lesson for prison: Listen. Keep you ears open and keep your mouth shut. If you go in there trying to be the alpha dog, trust me, there’s a bigger, meaner s.o.b. standing real close. Don’t do it.
“Most of the white-collar guys I work (with) do not go to prison you like see on TV. They’re not going to be raped and abused and assaulted. … However, it’s not Club Fed. You know you’re in prison every single day.
“Your job is pretty simple: Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be. It’s not hard to get by in prison if you just follow the rules.”
The real punishment of federal prison, Webster said, is “sheer boredom.” For that reason he insists that his clients focus on something, such as reading or pursuing college-level classes, and he tells them to limit TV watching.
Webster can serve about four or five clients at a time, most of whom find him via word of mouth through lawyers he has worked with. His fees for prison prep run $3,500 to $10,000, while for mitigation work it ranges from $25,500 to $150,000.
Webster finds more reward in his profession than simply the money. “I get to positively affect a lot of human beings, which I rarely was able to do as an attorney. Every contract I sign makes clear two things: I will work with their family and friends. I give every client my office, home and cell phone numbers. They can call me any time they want to.”
Redemption is keyOnce a client realizes they really are going behind the wall, Webster informs them, “You can sit there and watch Jerry Springer on TV for three years and walk out a moron. Or we can develop a program where you can come out a bigger, better, stronger person—emotionally, physically, spiritually. I want that done spiritually. I tell them, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to get closer to your God.’”
Webster has developed a three-step process for his clients that includes acceptance of responsibility, contrition and redemption. Redemption is the big one and the final step.“I have prepared a list of 50 names, and I read this list of famous people who have influenced the world and had an impact, and everyone of them is a felon. I tell them, ‘Now you can go back and be your own George Washington in your own world. You can be a leader. When you walk out, you can take that scarlet “F” right off your chest.’
“There are a lot of collateral consequences from going to prison, but you can still go forward, and you can still be a hero of sort to your own family or your own community or to your own faith.”
He tells his clients once they’ve served their time: “Don’t let the government punish you again. Don’t you punish yourself again. Let’s redeem ourselves. Let’s go forward and do good things.”Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.