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Richard Bistrong
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Richard Bistrong: What not to do in prison

Last week I talked about the judicial gift of a year and a day in connection with a number of FCPA sentences. But a word of advice if that’s your sentence: When you get to prison, keep it to yourself.

Fellow inmates who hear “a year and a day” will automatically think cooperator. And being a cooperator (if you were) isn’t something you want to go out of your way to advertise.

Federal Prison Camps — where most convicted white collar defendants serve their sentences — usually aren’t that dangerous, even for cooperators. I had cooperated for five years with law enforcement and was never subject to harassment or threat. 

If a  fight breaks out in a Camp, or if someone is threatened, everyone is quickly marched to the SHU or special housing unit, while it gets sorted out. The staff doesn’t really care about the who started it. They just want to stop it.

But why go out of your way to make things more difficult for yourself? So don’t talk about your year-and-a-day sentence. First impressions are everything and tend to stick.

What else shouldn’t you do during your first days in prison?

Here are a few things I learned on the inside:

Don’t ask the staff a lot of questions. You’ll have questions about everything. Don’t ask. Wait for someone who has offered to help you out, perhaps a cellie or someone from your state, city, etc. Here’s a real-world example from my time in the Camp: An inmate new to the facility saw a number of inmates talking on their cellphones. Those were contraband phones. The newby went up to the bubble (where the correctional officer supervisor is stationed), and asked, “Who do I need to speak to so I can get a cell phone?” Bad move.

Lose the title and your ego. Maybe you were an executive, maybe you had or still have a lot of money, and a big house, a boat, an executive jet, and so on. Don’t talk about it. The inmates and the staff don’t care and don’t want to hear about it. There are no CEO’s in prison. Here’s a better start: On your first day, tell your cellies you want to clean the cube (cell) and ask where they keep the mop. I did,  and it was met with surprise and respect. Humility will serve you well.

Pay careful attention to what others are doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t see others doing. I remember one day a new inmate to the GED department to be a tutor (that was also my job in prison) shows up for his first day of work. The newby took the chair another tutor had used every day for the past five years. I said, “That chair belongs to Mike.” The newby said, “No one has title to a chair.” When Mike walked in, the scene went as expected. Things didn’t escalate beyond shouting that time but it was ugly. In  prison, the simple things can take on extraordinary significance. Don’t assume anything. Keep your eyes open and maintain a low profile.

Don’t get personal. Whatever you do, on those first few days, don’t ask your fellow inmates personal questions. That comes only with time and earned trust. Also, remember that any question you ask might be asked back at you. So it’s usually best to keep quiet.

Don’t try to make lifelong friends in prison. You walk in alone and you’ll walk out alone. Find a few people who want to quietly pass the time, just like you should be doing.  I played a lot of chess and read a book a week (you can have someone order from Amazon with shipping to the prison).


On my last day, the Camp supervisor said to me, “Bistrong, we had no problem with you, you helped out some of the guys with their academics, and you kept to yourself.”

That’s about the best thing staff can say to an inmate leaving prison.

Oh, and during my outtake interview, I was asked, “Bistrong, what did you to do get here.” I replied, “Sir, I violated the FCPA.” He said “Never heard of it, but don’t do it again.”


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics for 2015. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He can be contacted by email here and on twitter @richardbistrong. He’ll be a speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.

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1 Comment

  1. Richard, thank you for sharing with us this most difficult time in your life. Let's hope you learned the lesson for the rest of us!

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