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Inside the federal prison camp where Jen Shah could serve her 6½-year sentence

Experts say the minimum-security institutions — which lack the cells and barbed wire characteristic of higher-security prisons — are "the gold standard" of federal prisons.
Jen Shah.
Jen Shah.Chad Kirkland / Bravo/NBC

Although it's not publicly known where "Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" star Jen Shah will report to prison Friday, her lawyers have pushed for her to serve her 6½-year sentence for wire fraud at a federal prison camp.

Experts say if you have to serve time, the minimum-security institutions are the best places to do it.

"A minimum-security camp is obviously the gold standard for a defendant," NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.

While not quite the lavish “Shah Ski Chalet” — the $7.4 million, 9,400-square-foot, five-bedroom mansion where Shah lived in the first two seasons of “Real Housewives" — federal prison camps don't have the cells, barbed wire or stringent regulations characteristic of higher-security prisons.

Instead, inmates live in dormitory-style housing, and there’s little or no fencing surrounding the facilities, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The camps house mostly nonviolent offenders who are serving short sentences or who committed white-collar crimes, according to Cevallos and criminal defense attorney Alan Ellis.

Ellis said the camps are "more laid-back" than low-security prisons, which have double-fenced security perimeters and a higher staff-to-inmate ratio, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Shah's request

At Shah's sentencing last month — where the judge handed down her term for running a telemarketing scheme that defrauded elderly people out of thousands of dollars — her lawyer requested that she serve her time at Federal Prison Camp Bryan, a Texas women’s camp with more than 500 inmates, about 100 miles northeast of Austin.

Shah's lawyers did not respond to questions this week about where she will serve.

Court documents show the judge recommended she be housed in a facility in the south-central region, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico and includes FPC Bryan and several minimum-security satellite camps, which are adjacent to higher-security camps. There are 65 satellite camps and seven standalone federal prison camps nationwide, according to a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson.

Inmates' locations are not available until after they are in custody, and their assigned facilities depend on several factors, including the level of security they require, their medical needs, proximity to their residences and where beds are available, the spokesperson said.

'Like having a sabbatical'

Life inside the camps is structured around work and programs, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The handbook for FPC Bryan says inmates earn 12 cents to $1.15 an hour for their jobs, which include food service and factory work.

At satellite camps, inmates can have jobs inside the higher-security institutions or at off-site programs.

When they are not working, inmates at FPC Bryan can take classes in business skills, foreign language and other subjects, play sports, watch TV, do arts and crafts and attend religious services, the handbook says. They can also have visitors on weekends and holidays, in addition to video calls.

One of Ellis’ former clients who served time at a federal prison camp went so far as to compare it to “having a sabbatical” that gave him time to catch up on reading, Ellis said.

Shah plans to use her time away to tackle an unspecified substance abuse issue, her lawyer said at her sentencing last month.

According to Inner City Press, a New York-based investigative news agency, Priya Chaudhry told the judge that Shah wants to serve her sentence in a facility that offers a residential drug abuse program, also known as an RDAP, which the Bureau of Prisons describes as its "most intensive" substance abuse treatment program. It lasts nine months and takes up half of each day, while the other half is devoted to work, school or vocational activities, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

RDAP participants live in units separate from the general population. And if they successfully complete the program, they can earn up to a year off their sentences, according to the FPC Bryan handbook.

If Shah gains admission to the program, Cevallos said, “it’s fantastic."

“A year is a huge deal, especially if you’re in the federal system, where you really do your time,” he added.

The early release the program offers has also made it ripe for abuse, said Cevallos and Ellis, who pointed to the 2019 federal indictment of three Michigan residents who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud for coaching inmates about how to falsely claim substance use disorders to gain admission to an RDAP.

Samuel Copenhaver and Constance Moerland were each sentenced to one year in prison and three years of supervised release, court records show. Tony Tuan Pham was sentenced to six years in prison and three years' supervised release, according to the Justice Department.

The FPC Bryan handbook notes that applicants are screened to see whether there is documentation proving a history of substance abuse. If that proof exists, prospective participants interview with drug abuse program coordinators to determine whether they can meet the American Psychiatric Association's criteria for diagnosis of a substance use or dependence disorder.

When she pleaded guilty in July, Shah told the judge she had been treated two years earlier "for alcohol and depression," court documents show. Shah told the judge she was not hospitalized for the treatment.

"Jen Shah’s resolve to make her victims whole and to turn her life around is unyielding," her attorney told NBC News in a statement Thursday. "She is committed to serving her sentence with courage and purpose, fueled by her desire to make amends for the hurt she has caused and to help others in her new community.

"No obstacle will deter Jen from making the most of her time in prison and she’s determined to make restitution to those whose lives she has impacted." 

Shah could also earn up to 54 days a year off her sentence for good behavior, according to Bureau of Prisons policy. For Shah, that could shave more than 320 days off her sentence.

If she earns that time for good behavior and completes the RDAP, Shah could be released sometime in 2027.

Celebrities are no strangers to camps

If Shah winds up at FPC Bryan, she could be there with other high-profile inmates. The judge who sentenced Elizabeth Holmes in November for defrauding investors in her failed blood testing company, Theranos, recommended she serve her 11-year sentence at FPC Bryan, court documents show.

Todd and Julie Chrisley, who flaunted their opulent lifestyle and family drama on the long-running reality TV show "Chrisley Knows Best," began serving their sentences for bank fraud, tax evasions and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. at federal prison camps last month.

Todd Chrisley was sentenced to 12 years at FPC Pensacola, a men's prison in Florida, while Julie Chrisley was sentenced to the satellite camp at Federal Medical Center Lexington in Kentucky, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson confirmed.

The couple's daughter, Savannah Chrisley, 25, said on her podcast that she is able to email with and visit her parents. She said her father is working in the camp chapel and her mother plays cards and attends church. 

Jerry Harris, a breakout star of the Netflix docuseries “Cheer,” is serving his 12-year prison sentence on federal charges involving child sexual abuse images at the medical facility at FMC Lexington, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said.

Following her 2014 fraud conviction, "Real Housewives of New Jersey" star Teresa Giudice served 11 months at Federal Correctional Institution Danbury in Connecticut, a low-security prison with an adjacent minimum-security satellite camp. After her release, she told Bravo's Andy Cohen that she was in the camp part of the facility that lacked cells, bars or fencing.

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin spent 11 days and two months, respectively, at FCI Dublin, a low-security prison with an adjacent satellite camp 91 miles southwest of Sacramento, California, for their roles in the so-called Varsity Blues college admissions scheme.

Martha Stewart served a five-month sentence for insider trading at FPC Alderson in West Virginia in late 2004 and early 2005, spending her time teaching yoga, taking a pottery class, scrubbing floors and cleaning offices.