By Christopher Zoukis
Jack Donson is the President of My Federal Prison Consultants, and current Director of Programs and Case Management Services for FedCURE (a national sentencing reform coalition). He is a former Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Case Manager. During his 23 year career within the FBOP he received several national awards including an award for Excellence in Administration & Detection Procedures, the National Community Corrections Award, and the National Correctional Treatment Specialist of the Year Award. During his career with the Bureau he was the Lead Negotiator for the Hostage Negotiations Team, trained senior staff in a variety of disciplines, and held the positions of Unit Manager, Case Management Coordinator, and Central Inmate Monitoring Coordinator. Now Mr. Donson is in the private sector as a prison consultant where he coaches federal criminal defendants on how to survive federal prison.
Christopher Zoukis: What made you go into the field of prison consulting after being employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 23 years?
Jack Donson: I got the idea in the late 1980’s when I attended federal parole hearings. At that time, the case manager sat in on the hearings not only during the actual hearing, but also when the hearing examiners deliberated. During these hearings I would have the opportunity to hear the “representative” make their pitch for parole. The representative was usually a consultant who calculated the relevant guidelines, then advocated parole for their client. Most representatives weren’t as effective as they presented themselves to be.
Plus, when the examiners deliberated, they frequently made reference to the representative’s inadequacies. What blew my mind was that when I’d ask what the inmate paid, it averaged about $2,000, and that was in the 1980’s. From that point on, I began planning my business with the mindset of how I could help clients with my intimate knowledge of the system. I made notes over the years when inmates found themselves in challenging situations and I use these examples today in my prison coaching.
CZ: On your website you state that you’ve always tried to walk the fine line between doing right by the inmates under your care and by fellow FBOP colleagues. Did you find this challenging while in the FBOP? How do your former colleagues respond when they hear that you are now in the private sector in this capacity?
JD: It was very challenging to advocate for my caseload without being labeled an “inmate lover.” I was fortunate to have the respect of the staff. I was a go-to person on policy issues and also helped staff pass certification tests, so I was well liked by the majority of my colleagues. During this period I mentored new case managers and was also an annual training instructor. In terms of how I was treated by fellow FBOP staff considering that I wasn’t afraid to do right by those on my caseload, I was respected and I was an authority figure considering my training status. As such, I didn’t have as challenging a time as others might have had in this situation.
CZ: At what point should a client retain the services of My Federal Prison Consultants? What kinds of pre-sentencing services does My Federal Prison Consultants offer clients?
JD: It is extremely important for me to be part of the legal team and become involved prior to plea agreements being signed. As such, it is best to retain my services as early as possible. I honestly think when the fear and anxiety are removed the defendant is more likely to plead in a more informed manner and sooner — before his funds are depleted. I can help bring both of these to fruition in an expedient manner.
In terms of pre-sentencing services, I read the draft Pre-Sentence Report from an entirely different perspective having processed designations for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. While with the FBOP I also screened the institution pipeline for over 15 years and had to re-score thousands of new arrivals. This was in the position of Alternate Case Management Coordinator, which I was for a total of 19 years.
Outside of my expert PSR review and objections, I also counsel clients in an attempt to prepare them for incarceration and the court processes which are to come. I can help clients to bring their worries under control and to ensure that they receive the most favorable outcome from any judicial hearing.
CZ: How do you prepare clients for federal incarceration?
JD: I meet with clients and their families as many times as needed. The idea is to inform them of what is to occur and help them to put the best foot forward throughout the entire process. Some clients meet with me once and some return many times. I provide my clients with literature, internet links to articles, forms, and more depending on what their needs are. I cover the various BOP policy nuances and give advice they will not receive from BOP staff. I am a resource for the client, their family, and their attorney. I stay with my clients and their families until they are released from incarceration. Clients and their families can contact me via telephone, email, and postal mail.
CZ: Do you provide services to clients post-sentencing?
JD: The short answer here is yes. I am very effective at assisting clients with in-prison matters. In fact, I have contacts all over the country and have actually trained one of the current BOP Regional Directors. I do make it clear that my contacts are not utilized for any special treatment, but only to pick my contacts’ brains on policy issues, changes, facilities, and so on.
While I do assist with classification, designation, disciplinary, and other sorts on in-prison matters, I don’t accept business when people call for transfers and other areas where my expertise is not put to good use. This is because, in certain areas (e.g., transfers), I believe that it is dishonest to accept money from clients when I know that it is improbable for an outside consultant to effect the desired objective. I don’t simply take my clients’ money for the sake of taking it. I work for an honest living and only accept funds for tasks which it is possible to complete.
CZ: How much do your consulting services cost? Do you bill by the hour or by the service? Do you require a retainer?
JD: My hourly rate is $200, but I have a service fee floor of $500. Typically I schedule office appointments for a consultation for $500 (for 2 or 3 hours), then give clients the option of retaining my services and deducting the $500 initial fee from the retainer fee of a minimum of $2,500. My retainers have ranged from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the complexities of the case, length of sentence, high profile nature, etc. If I am retained for a special situation or to write a report for counsel or client, I tend to charge the $500 minimum as long as it does not result in a long-term relationship with the client.
Ideally clients will retain my services as early on in the process as possible. This way I can assist with the most areas as possible. As I think of it, I can be involved from soup to nuts. From indictment to release.
I make a point of only charging for what I can actually accomplish. Many other consultants charge for a variety of matters which they can’t influence, or charge ridiculous amounts of money for a relatively small amount of work. I am not one of those consultants. As such, my fee schedule is simple, yet complete. I charge a minimum of $500 and have an hourly rate of $200. I only take on cases which have merit — and in which I can fulfill the client’s expectations — and I always exceed client expectations.
CZ: What type of clients do you usually consult with? Are they the typical white collar criminal defendant type, or from all walks of life?
JD: Even though my focus is on clients charged with white collar crimes, I have clients from all over the criminal spectrum and all over the country. From a classification standpoint, I can do much for clients who go to higher security level prisons. This has to do with BOP personnel misclassifying inmates and assigning them to higher level security prisons than policy stipulates. Often it appears as if errors are made during the DSC and designation phase. Regardless of where the client is incarcerated, I can help. In fact, I have clients in USPs (maximum security federal prisons), medium security federal prisons, low security federal prisons, and federal prison camps.
CZ: Once a client goes to prison, can they stay in contact with you to troubleshoot issues as the present themselves? If so, how does a client stay in contact with you?
JD: I correspond with clients via email, telephone, and postal mail. I can also visit clients in person if needed. Of course, communications with My Federal Prison Consultants has to be viewed in the light of all correspondence having the potential of being monitored by BOP personnel. This is why I prefer to develop a relationship with the client and their attorney prior to incarceration. This way we can participate in unmonitored legal calls and utilize privileged correspondence when the attorney is involved. From a consulting perspective, attorneys often assume I am a former inmate, but seem to feel more comfortable in dealing with me when they realize that I’m a retired government employee.
CZ: What do you do to assist families of incarcerated clients?
JD: I think one of my strongest assets is that I have always been a people person with a big heart. I really am not in this for the money and my clients’ relations sense this when we meet and interact. I like to establish a relationship not only with the client, but their family, too, prior to the client’s incarceration. This way, if the family needs someone to reach out when problems arise or if they read or hear about some sort of alarming information, I am there for them to guide them through whatever problems might arise and to provide clarification when needed. I frequently consult with families via telephone and email concerning a vast array of issues (e.g., visiting, SHU placement, etc.) and to simply provide support when needed.
CZ: The Second Chance Act increased the allowable halfway house placement from a maximum of 6 months to that of 12 months for federal inmates. Can My Federal Prison Consultants assist clients in accessing this additional placement time?
JD: This is one of those areas where most consultants are a bit disingenuous. While there are ways to tilt the odds in favor of the client receiving more halfway house time, there really isn’t a lot which a consultant can do to effectuate this with the exception of informing the client of how the process works and the factors taken into consideration. This is why I don’t charge, nor should anyone, just for “increased RRC” or halfway house placement.
As a part of my pre-incarceration services I discuss how to maximize halfway house placement. I first explain to my clients how halfway house placement is analyzed and which factors weight the equation one way or another. For example, persons who have a home to go to and a job waiting tend to receive less time in a halfway house since halfway house placement is based upon need, not want. As such, I counsel my clients on what factors are included in the equation and how to maximize their applicable halfway house placement.
I also inform my clients about external factors concerning halfway house placement. For example, the actual bed space of a particular halfway house has a lot to do with how much time a client will be able to spend at the particular halfway house.
There are other components here which most consultants and clients don’t realize. For example, the BOP has not only refused to honor the Second Chance Act (SCA), but if you read it, the SCA advised the BOP to amend the Community Confinement Center (CCC) Utilization policy years ago and it has not yet been brought into compliance. Many case managers are still going by the paragraphs that have been stricken, like issuing a maximum of 6 months halfway house placement. These limits — which are plainly stated in BOP policy — are technically not in compliance with the SCA, yet they are what case managers tend to abide by. When I have found that the BOP is not complying in an applicable situation, I often draft letters to the applicable parties in an effort to motivate them to revise their errors in an appropriate manner.
CZ: If a client has a problem with a FBOP staff member while incarcerated, can you intercede on his or her behalf?
JD: I can contact the BOP on the behalf of a client if I feel it is necessary. This is a fine line to walk since it can be easy to make matters worse. BOP staff members sometimes retaliate, if outside pressure is employed. As such, personal intervention is often a last resort and one I enter into only if I feel that it is absolutely required. This often comes down to a judgment call of what the best course of action is to fulfill the client’s objectives.
When problems do arise, I usually mail the client an information release along with a cop-out for requested file documentation. The release places staff on notice that outside professionals are taking note of what occurs — professionals who know and understand Bureau policy and practice — and the cop-out presents the remedy the client is seeking.
If it is decided that outside pressure is required, I can either draft a letter for an attorney to mail or I can mail it myself — on the client’s behalf — as their consultant. Often this is not required since many issues can be resolved just by informing the client of the policy and nuances of the system which are involved.
CZ: If there are any errors in the client’s Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSR), can you suggest objections to retained counsel or draft objections yourself?
JD: I work best in this regard when I have access to the PSR when it first arrives from the U.S. Probation Office. Since deadlines are so tight, I really need to be involved as soon as possible in order to critique the document within the applicable timeframe, something many attorneys fail to do and have to opt for an addendum to the report or argue objections in court because of missing the deadline.
PSR objections can’t be overstated. The BOP considers this document to literally be akin to the Bible. Whatever it states, the Bureau takes as absolute truth, regardless of if the document is entirely correct or not. For that matter, the judge, too, takes the PSR to be the whole story. So, regardless of if the defendant is being sentenced or being designated, this document will dictate much.
With this being said, I can greatly assist clients with PSR objections. With my extensive experience with the BOP — and in particular, reviewing PSRs for the Bureau for classification and designation purposes — I can either draft a report or I can provide some feedback to retained counsel.
CZ: When is the ideal time for a client to retain My Federal Prison Consultants?
JD: The best time to retain us is before a plea is either issued or signed, ideally prior to the issuance of the plea agreement. We really can save clients a lot of anxiety and unease by being retained sooner rather than later. From working with the BOP for 23 years, and being in private practice for a period, I’ve gained significant experience with the federal court system. As such, I can guide a client through the system in a more effective and efficient manner than they could on their own. By bringing my experience to the table, processes can expedited, money can be saved, and anxiety and uncertainty can be alleviated.
CZ: On your website you state that you don’t teach self-defense techniques because of the plethora of potential consequences which can result from fighting. Is violence prevalent in federal prison? In your practice, what do you instruct clients to do if a violent confrontation presents itself?
JD: Generally speaking, my clients are not the type of persons who welcome violent confrontations. Thus, I teach submission techniques. There are cameras and witnesses everywhere and all BOP staff members carry body alarms on their persons. Once a body alarm is activated it takes mere seconds for staff to respond. As such, fights are over almost as fast as they start. Rarely do fights in the lower security levels result in anything more than some swelling and a bloody nose or lip. So, the risk to reward equation greatly favors mitigation and submission as opposed to engaging in a physical altercation.
In terms of the consequences for fighting, it will depend greatly upon the inmate’s culpability. If the inmate is a victim of assault and doesn’t fight back, they will likely go to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) for a short period of time and be let back out on the compound. But if the inmate is a willing participant, they will at a minimum receive 5 additional points on their custody classification form (if they haven’t been in a violent altercation within the last several years) and will probably be transferred to a higher level of security because of the points increase.
As for the prevalence of violence, the higher the security level, the more violence there is. For example, in USPs (maximum security federal prisons) inmates are gassed daily in SHU cells and fights are very common. In direct opposition to this, in federal prison camps, violence is almost nonexistent. Low security federal prisons start to rock a bit, but not at a regular or sustained level. Mediums are a bit of a mixed bag. While there can be extreme violence, most often this is individualized, not gang-related.
Regardless of where my clients are going to be housed, I teach methods of diffusing volatile situations. Practice and experience have shown me that when a client knows how to side-step easily avoidable problems and assert themselves in a respectful manner, the instances of violent altercations are minimized and quality of life is improved.
CZ: Do you limit your practice to federal criminal defendants and inmates, or do you also accept those charged with or convicted of state charges?
JD: Since my area of expertise is with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the federal court system, I restrict my practice to federal criminal defendants and inmates. I find that by only practicing where I’m an expert in the field, my clients are the better for it.
CZ: Many prison consultants state that they can effectuate transfers. Is there any truth to this? Is there anything you can do to instigate or influence client transfers within the FBOP?
JD: I am suspicious of the consultants who charge for transfers and other like actions (like treaty transfers) that the BOP does in the course of their regular duties. As you are probably aware, transfers from external pressure are extremely rare and most of the complaints I receive from people who were burned by consultants was that they paid thousands only to be denied transfer. So they end up paying for the consultant to write the administrative remedies, which are eventually denied. I’ve also seen inmates pay upwards of $5,000 to gain acceptance into the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) when they were ineligible. In cases like this, the money was not only wasted, but the client was left hanging for months until the administrative remedy was finally denied by the BOP’s Central Office.
CZ: You’re currently the Director of Programs and Case Management for FedCURE, a member of the Prison Reform Work Group, and a member of the Corrections Committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Do you find that your work with these associations assists with your consulting work? If so, how?
JD: Being involved with these organizations keeps me sharp on the various issues I deal with in my practice and brings me into contact with a variety of advocates, lawyers, and other corrections professionals. I strongly support FedCURE’s agenda for reform legislation. As such, my work with FedCURE is pro bono.
CZ: Other prison consultants are known to work together in a firm setting where different consultants cover specific geographical areas. If a client retains the services of My Federal Prison Consultants, will you directly consult with them or will one of your staffers be their primary point of contact?
JD: In today’s world of technology, geography is not an impediment. I travel all over the country even though there is plenty of business in the New York City metro area given all of the applicable districts. In fact, I just Skyped with a client and his attorney from Alabama last week.
As for who consults with my clients, that would be me. Since I’m the one with 23 years of experience in the Federal Bureau of Prison, I trust myself to consult with my clients, not a staffer who lacks the breadth of experience which I possess.
CZ: Some consultants refuse to work with offenders who have heinous crimes or are informants. Does My Federal Prison Consultants have any such categorical restrictions?
JD: I’m open to working with almost any client, though, I have never been contacted by a defendant indicted with terrorism related charges. I might have to think about the implications of such representation.
I look at people as people and don’t pass judgment. That’s how I operated in the prison system as well. I didn’t care if the prisoner was in for a sex offense, a bank robbery, a drug offense, or a white collar offense. I’m a firm believer in treating everyone the same. People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. As such, I respect my clients as valued people, not as wrongdoers who should be disparaged.
CZ: I understand that you’re currently in the process of writing a text about the state of the American criminal justice system. What is the text’s title, what is it about, and when will it be available for purchase?
JD: The text — which I’ve tentatively titled “25 Years Behind Bars: A Call for Reform” — is a work in progress. Truth be told, I started working on the text directly before retiring from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but found that I needed a year to decompress prior to really delving into it. My goal is to have the text completed this year, in 2013.
The text is a comprehensive look at the federal prison evolution, laws supporting it, organizations involved with it, and will end with what I consider a model prison system which could bring us out of the 20th century, third world model of corrections, and into what American corrections could truly be: a vehicle for rehabilitating offenders and supporting society, not damning both.
CZ: How can interested individuals learn more about My Federal Prison Consultants?
JD: Potential clients can go to the My Federal Prison Consultants’ website at MFPCLLC.com. There they will find a wealth of information concerning my experience and services offered to a variety of groups. Interested parties can also email me directly at Jack@MFPCLLC.com or call me at 212-461-2252.