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White-Collar Cons Ask The Pros

Wealthy first-time convicts are turning to a novel cottage industry: prison coaches with advice on what it's like inside the big house.

Feeding off of notorious financial scandals, consultants school anxious inmates for fees of up to $20,000. White-collar convicts such as Martha Stewart and Bernard Madoff sought their help to learn about inmate life.

"After all, it's not like planning your vacation," Ira Sorkin, Madoff's lawyer, says of the service that the Wall Street swindler used to prepare for his 150-year prison term.

Madoff and Stewart got their penitentiary insight from the Baltimore-based National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. Herbert Hoelter, its co-founder, says the firm waived its fee for Madoff because his assets were frozen.

At least a half-dozen similar firms have emerged across the country. Steven Oberfest, for instance, touts himself as an "inmate adaptation specialist" and offers a course in close-quarters combat.

"I can prepare you to go into hell," says Oberfest, an ex-convict who opened his firm after the 2002 Enron collapse.

Oberfest and his competitors are unapologetic about their business models, which play on the fears of first-time offenders sometimes going from lavish penthouses and estates to dank cellblocks and prison yards.

Larry Levine, a Los Angeles-area consultant, this year changed his company name from American Prison Consultants to Wall Street Prison Consultants.

Levine, who served 10 years for drug trafficking, securities violations and distribution of machine guns, says his "Fedtime101" course covers it all. He says he helps offenders avoid assault, cope with the "daily grind," decode prison lingo and even avoid "bad prison jobs."

His website has photos depicting the harsh transition "from the exchange floor to the prison yard." Last week, the New York Stock Exchange Group demanded that Levine drop the references, arguing that they tarnish the exchange's image.

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