It’s sometimes fun to read stories about the prison accommodations of convicted financial fraudsters, partly because they often involve words like manservant and the homosexual posse, and partly because we like to feel outraged that very rich white-collar criminals are often given preferential treatment by prison authorities. The Post’s story today about Raj Rajaratnam’s prison digs is a classic of the genre, with sources claiming that the ex-hedge-funder is “doing his time in the lap of luxury” and “reigning like a king,” with the help of a tricked-out cell and a prison assistant named Eddie.
This is all fun reading. But — at the risk of being a humorless dolt — I feel compelled to point out that the “luxury prison” narrative is a constructed fiction, and even the best prison in the world is still prison. You still wouldn’t want to go there, even if you did get a private balcony.
As a reminder, here is what happens in any U.S. prison: You are confined to a small room for many hours a day. You eat food that is designed to meet minimal nutrition standards and tastes so bad that many people think it’s unconstitutional, are allowed to exercise only in cramped quarters under strict supervision for a legally mandated amount of time, and are deprived of regular contact with your friends and family. As an inmate, you might be dehumanized by correctional officers, abused by fellow inmates, or driven to mental illness by the isolation and mundane nature of prison life. If you’re lucky enough to be paroled, you’ll bear the stigmatization of society for the rest of your life; if not, you’ll die alone in a concrete block.
Are we supposed to feel sorry for Raj Rajaratnam? Not necessarily. He’s a convict, after all, and maybe you believe he deserves the harshest possible fate. It’s true that his prison experience, like that of other rich white-collar criminals, is easier than that of people on death row, in solitary confinement, or doing time for a violent offense, and that his being wealthy and powerful has something to do with that relative ease. (It also might have something to do with the fact that he’s severely ill with diabetes and might need a kidney transplant.)
But even if Rajaratnam got the most lenient incarceration possible, it still doesn’t come close to the freedom he enjoyed before he landed in prison. Here is a sample passage from the inmate orientation handbook for FMC Devens, the so-called “luxury prison” where Rajaratnam is currently housed:
Accountability Checks: Inmates must be accounted for at all times. An accountability check is commonly referred to as “Count Time.” Official counts will be conducted at 12:05 AM, 3:00 AM, 5:00 AM, 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM. (4:00 PM and 10:00 PM will be a standing Count.) On holidays and weekends, there is an additional “stand up” count held at 10:00 AM. There is NO talking or playing of radios during a count. Each inmate must be standing during the “stand up” count (with the exception of those who have medical restrictions). There will be no movement until the count has been cleared. Inmates may not open/close lockers, etc., during counts.
If you would truly swap your own life for one like this — if you’d be okay with a guy showing up to your apartment five times a day, patting you down for contraband, and demanding that you stay silent — then, by all means, enjoy the “Club Fed” jokes and schadenfreude.
If not, then maybe think about whose interests you’re serving by minimizing the burden of imprisonment. Even with his cushy prison digs, it’s a safe bet that Rajaratnam would rather be at home.