Today marks one month since disgraced former Houston Community College Trustee Chris Oliver was ordered to surrender to a minimum security federal prison in Louisiana to serve out his nearly six year sentence.
Oliver, who held the distinction of being the longest-serving member of the HCC board of trustees, joined 1,050 inmates at the Oakdale II prison in Oakdale, LA, which is about a one hour drive northeast of Lake Charles.
Justin Paperny, who served 18 months in a federal minimum security prison, much like the one Oliver is in, said the former HCC trustee most likely experienced “culture shock” on his first day behind bars.
“If your background comes from privilege and opportunity, like mine, having friends, having things always going your way, then being in a place where someone is always telling you what to do — what time you can go to the chow hall, what your job is, what time you can go to sleep or wake up, what time you can be in your bunk area — it can be overwhelming to be in such a strict regimen,” Paperny said. “Someone is always pulling the strings of your life. You’re like a puppet with no control.”
Paperny is now a California-based prison consultant, who works with those facing prison. His company is White Collar Advice. He also headlines speaking engagements across the country from universities to Fortune 500 companies, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In 2007 at the age of 31, Paperny pleaded guilty to conspiring with the founder of an investment company that operated a hedge fund to commit securities fraud.
“I facilitated a Ponzi scheme,” he told The Texas Monitor. “I lost my job and for the next three-and-a-half years, I made a lot of bad decisions. I lied to my lawyers, I didn’t work openly with them. I lied to the FBI when they interviewed me about my conduct and what I knew. I was living in denial, all because I wanted to keep up this image of who I once was. It put me on a bad path and ultimately led to a longer prison term and heavier financial sanctions.”
Ultimately, in 2008, he self-surrendered, like Oliver did, to a minimum security federal prison.
Oliver’s first day
Paperny said he knows the fear and lack-of-privacy that the first day in prison can bring — which is likely what Oliver probably felt.
“The criminal justice system can be brutal, to say the least,” he said.
One first day experience from Paperny’s book, “Lessons from Prison:”
“Come with me,” the officer said.
He led me through a maze of corridors and took me inside another room.
“I need you to strip naked. Throw all your clothes in the basket. I’ll be back.” The officer then walked out from the shell of a room. Feeling peculiar and somewhat violated, I took off my clothes.
I stood in that room, stark naked, for perhaps 15 minutes before the officer returned. He had a mouthful of chewing tobacco and he used a plastic Big Gulp cup from 7-Eleven as a spittoon. I didn’t detect any emphasis on bedside manner as the correctional officer seemed to check me out. He was fully outfitted in a gray officer’s uniform, with pant legs tucked into black jackboots. A black leather belt cinched around his prodigious belly, and the belt had numerous loops for all sorts of pens, handcuffs, clubs, and other artifacts that distinguish the profession of corrections. He wore a bright badge proudly on his chest.
“First time.” He said it more as a statement than a question as he looked me up and down.
I felt as if I were a horse he was evaluating to purchase. By the look of contempt on his face, I didn’t feel as if I was measuring up. Did he want to look at my teeth?
“Yes sir,” I was deferential to his clear authority. “I’ve never been incarcerated before.”
“Ah crap,” the officer said. “It ain’t nothing.”
I didn’t know what to do as he stood looking at me naked. It seemed to me as if an inordinate amount of time was passing. Finally, he picked up a white clipboard and clicked one of the many pens that he pulled from a loop in his belt.
“Let’s get this rodeo started,” he said. “Any tattoos?” “No, sir. None.”
The officer checked his clipboard. “Lift your arms.”
I reached up with my palms forward as if surrendering. “Lift your testicles,” he told me.
I lowered my arms and complied with his request.
“Turn around,” he said.
I gave the officer my back side.
I bent at the waist as if I were trying to touch the floor without bending my knees.
I opened my legs wider.
“Not your legs,” the officer barked, “your cheeks.”
I felt as if he were purposely trying to humiliate me. Satisfied with what he saw, the officer told me to squat and cough.
“You heard me. Squat and cough!”
After I forced a cough, the officer ordered me to lift my feet off the ground. Not understanding, I leaned to my right and lifted my left leg as if I were a sumo wrestler.
The officer laughed at me. “Not like that. Let me see the soles of your feet.”
“You are around a population that possibly you’ve never spent time around before,” Paperny said. “It’s not all white collar criminals.”
Paperny’s advice to Oliver for that first day would be to observe and to contemplate.
“There’s an adjustment,” Paperney said. “There are some prisoners who have had a great deal of success in the past, made money, known people. Some of them want to hold on to that letter of success and immediately want to share that with people and try to impress people. I’m adamantly opposed to that.”
He continued: “The first day can be a day to decompress, spend time alone, understand your environment. Or it can be a day to try to impress people and trying to make the wrong friends. Your first day is going to impact whether prison is a positive experience or do you go down a horrific road of boredom and having a six-year sentence feel like a 60-year sentence.”
In addition, according to the inmate handbook, you can bring few comforts from home. Up to ten photographs are allowed, but nothing racy. A watch can be worn in, as long as it’s not valued at more than $100. You can also bring in a soft-covered, black Bible or Quran upon “approval by the Chaplain.”
A white-collar country club or a prison?
Paperny also talked about how those outside of prison often describe minimum security prison as “Club Fed” or as a “white collar country club.”
Certainly, it’s easy for someone who has never served time to make that observation.
Oakdale II offers craft activities “designed to allow the inmates to express themselves in a creative manner.” Those crafts include “leather craft, beadwork, clay, and crochet,” the handbook states.
Lots of board games are available in the housing units, too, including “Dominoes, chess, card games, checkers, Yahtzee, Backgammon and Scrabble.” Gambling is forbidden, however.
Inmates can play more active games on regulation-sized courts in the prison. “They consist of handball, racquetball, tennis, horseshoes, basketball, cricket, boccie ball, pickle ball and badminton,” according to the handbook.
Prisoners can also play team sports as well. “Intramural sports cover a wide range of interests including basketball, volleyball, soccer, flag football and softball,” the handbook states.
There’s also a music program at Oakdale II, as long as you like guitar. Guitars are the only instruments available for check-out.
“I hear it all the time, ‘You’re just going to a white collar country club,’” Paperny said. “I’ve been a member of a country club. It is not a country club.”
Indeed, one local country club has a dress code for its members, including business slacks and collared shirts for men. On the links, golf shirts must remain tucked in at all times or have a fitted waistband. Denim is not appropriate.
Oakdale II has a dress code, too.
It mostly consists of khaki.
“Shirts will be buttoned and tucked into trousers,” according to prison rules. “Oversized clothing is not authorized. The uniform is not to be altered.”
If inmates are working in the cafeteria, they must change into a white shirt and pants known as “Food Service whites.”
“Food Service whites are not to be worn with the khaki uniform,” the handbook states.
The rules allow for one exception: “Athletic type shorts, sweat suits and warm-ups, that are neat and clean in appearance, may be worn on weekends, holidays and after the 4:00 p.m. count.” (There are four “counts” a day where guards make sure all prisoners are accounted for).
And unlike a country club, you are going to be assigned a job.
“If you’re physically fit, you are going to work,” Paperny said.
He notes that kitchen jobs are popular in prison.
“Scrubbing pots and pans, the buffet line, baking” all needs to get done three times a day, Paperny said.
Other jobs include orderly, which consists of scrubbing floors and toilets, emptying the trash, mopping, and cleaning the TV room.
He might be assigned a recreation job, with sports equipment to be tracked and handed out — or the library, to assist with the checking out of books.
“There are many, many jobs in the facility,” Paperny said. “I assure you he’s working. The question is, is he working to pass the time, or is he working a job that takes a minimum amount of effort, then going to the library to read, to write, to think, to strategize on what the next phase of his life is going to be.”
Paperny: After prison, Oliver can rebuild and even thrive
“I’ve had clients who’ve had it worse and they’ve come out on the other side and they’ve rebuilt successfully,” Paperny said. “I have. I facilitated a Ponzi scheme for Christ’s sake. My name was all over Google.”
Oliver can likely relate. A Google search of him name is all about the former trustee’s bribery scandal.
“You see your name ruined online, how do you build a new career? I created victims. I was sorry. I wanted to make amends. A better life is possible,” Paperny said. “Accept it fully and it starts with seeking to make amends to your community. Accept what you’ve done.”
Oliver needs to start writing letters from prison to everyone he knows.
“I know 99 percent of them probably go in the round file, but maybe one responds,” Paperny said. “Rather than watching TV, rather than sitting in the chow hall complaining, rather than finding a job in prison that just keeps him busy, he should be finding a way to regrow his network, finding a way to demonstrate that he can be a value to people.”
Oliver must take responsibility,” he said.
“If you want to rebuild your reputation, become employable, start a new business, it starts with learning to tell your story effectively,” Paperny said. “Own your conduct.”
The right attitude is also key, he said.
“Are you nurturing your network, are you looking to rebuild your reputation? If you don’t get into that proactive adjustment that first day, you can begin not just to associate with the wrong people, but then you can get into a routine where you start to feel wronged,” Paperny said. “You’re associating with other people who say, ‘The judge screwed me, I should have gone to trial, it was my lawyer’s fault.’”
In the end, time served is just a blip, according to Paperny.
“What he needs to do is look at this experience as a little blip in his life, hopefully, he’ll live to be 100 let’s say and he’ll look back at this as just a sliver of his life,” he said. “The goal is that we don’t let it define us. We don’t want whatever sentence we received to become a life sentence. That is the challenge he has from the first day in prison to the last day: not letting the government get any more time than they’ve already gotten. That’s the challenge.”
Paperny recalls job interviews after he left prison.
He would bring the Department of Justice press release detailing his guilty plea.
“You need to read this,” Paperny would tell the interviewer. “It’s true. I did it. But I’d like to walk you through what I’ve been doing to make amends for this very terrible experience in my life that hurt people.
“I ripped off the Band-Aid.”
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.