A few hours after Martha Stewart was chauffeured from prison, declaring her life fundamentally changed, Fred Shapiro studied the photos of the homemaking millionaire flooding the Internet, wondering whether to believe her.
It’s not that Shapiro is skeptical. It’s just that he’s been there.
“If you’re changed, then let’s see the action,” said Shapiro, a lawyer who served time for a locally notorious bank fraud in Philadelphia in the 1990s, then went back to prison for a separate episode of white-collar crime 10 years later. “Everyone says they’ve changed after they’ve left prison, but only time will tell.”
Plenty of precedent
Stewart, released Friday after five months in prison for lying about a stock sale, is the latest in a long line of high-profile white-collar convicts — from junk bond king Michael Milken to hotel queen Leona Helmsley — who have returned to freedom proclaiming themselves changed people.
But are they really? What to make of Stewart’s assertion, posted on her company’s web site, that prison “has been life altering and life affirming?” The spotlight and public relations campaign surrounding Stewart, if anything, seems to make those more difficult questions to answer.
“I can completely identify with her comments about prison,” said David Novak, a flight school owner who did time for mail fraud in 1997, and today acts as a sentencing consultant to other white-collar convicts.
“To this day, I look back at that time as probably the greatest blessing of my life,” says Novak, of Salt Lake City. “Not the going to prison part. But the opportunity to be still and reflect upon a lot of the poor judgments I made.”
Ellen Podgor, a professor of law at Georgia State University in Atlanta, agreed.
Stewart escaping stigma?
A prison term “is mind altering. I don’t think it’s just for the press, what’s being said,” said Podgor, an author of two books on white-collar crime.
“But the stigma, society’s stigma, that is the greatest penalty faced by white-collar criminals.... That is not happening here. This case is different,” she said, noting the surging price of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. stock and the public’s apparent interest in her products.
Podgor and other experts say recent years have seen a string of high-profile white-collar crime cases involving people who do appear to have been genuinely changed by the experience of being caught and doing hard time.
The most widely cited example is Milken, the former Drexel Burnham Lambert executive who plead guilty to securities violations in 1989, served 22 months in prison and paid a $200 million fine. Milken, while casting doubt on the government’s case against him, has remade himself as a philanthropist, pouring money and energy into cancer research and founding a well-known economic think tank.
Others who have gone to prison for white-collar crime have been affected just as profoundly, if less publicly.
“One way or the other, prison can and does change a person,” said Howard Rubenstein, a New York public relations guru who has shepherded Helmsley and numerous others through the ordeal.
“There are some who learn a lesson and truly accept themselves and are contrite. They recognize they’ve done something wrong,” he said. “Others turn sour, nasty, difficult and blame everybody but themselves. There isn’t one answer to the question, that everybody comes out the same way.”
Celebrity shock therapy
Rubenstein would not speak specifically about any of his clients. But he and others said that, particularly for those accustomed to power, prison is equivalent to shock therapy, suddenly exposing them to people and circumstances they could never have imagined.
Novak — sent to prison for filing a false insurance claim in a staged plane accident — said the first week of prison was enough to shake him, starting with the strip search and complete loss of control over the most routine daily decisions. His views of other people began to change beginning when fellow inmates greeted him with gifts of deodorant, toothpaste and other necessities.
“To this day, every time I attend the sentencing hearing of a client I get nauseous that morning. I develop a facial tick. I get cotton mouth. Because I’m going through it again, and quite frankly I never ever want to forget that feeling,” he said.
Shapiro says the effect of prison didn’t sink in until his second sentence — 16 months in 2001 and 2002 for opening credit card accounts in the names of dead consumers. Shapiro’s wife was diagnosed with cancer while he was locked up, and underwent surgery three times. The fact that he couldn’t be by her side convinced him to change his ways for good, he says.
Only time will tell
Now, when they read Stewart’s words, Shapiro and Novak say they can’t help but empathize. But are they convinced the millionaire homemaker is really a changed woman? They can’t be sure.
“It’s very easy to come out of an experience with prison and talk a good game. Let’s see what you do with your life,” Novak says of Stewart.
And Shapiro says even time may not make it clear to the public whether Stewart has changed at the core.
“Character is who you are when no one is looking,” he says. “Only she will know if she has changed.”