Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Inmate Crisis - Let Them Out!

The COVID-19 crisis has motivated me to return to blogging, something I haven't done much in a long time. And what motivated me is the increasing reports of Corona Virus in prison. Hearing the stories brings me straight back to my days packed cheek to jowl with 200 other guys in a dorm, back to the days when one guy on the other side of the dorm caught a cold and a day later we all had it; back to the days when a visit to the overloaded prison health office was an exercise in futility - no matter what the symptom, the response was 'take an aspirin'. It makes me so thankful to no longer be there, but worried for those who are. 

The actual inmate population is about as far from the stereotype as night and day. The average Joe Smith imagines bulked-up young tough guys who seem like they could withstand a nuclear blast. The reality is that the majority of inmates are elderly, or non-violent, or close to the end of their sentences, or awaiting trial, or with a host of underlying health conditions. In other words, most don't need to be in jail, especially in a pandemic!

All I can say is - let them out before it's too late!! If we don't, we'll have yet another humanitarian disaster on our hands. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Upcoming Engagements - Corona Virus Postponements

So many upcoming engagements...I was looking forward to seeing you all! Now all I hope is you are safe and well, in a good place to manage the crisis and that we can meet again soon. I'll be contacting all of you who have scheduled me over the next few months to figure out new dates or whether you'd like to switch to Zoom or some other sort of remote meeting. For those of you who have already made deposits I will be sending you refunds as well. This was just a quick way of getting the message out there but I'll be contacting you all individually in the upcoming days. Keep well and keep safe!

Friday, January 24, 2020

Publishing and Editing

Loyal readers of this blog know I'm a pretty darn good writer. It's one of my few skills and I'm proud of it. I've put those skills to use, together with a big dose of introspection and humility, to complete two books on my experiences: Behind the Codeine Curtain, about my life in Russia working for Russia's richest oligarch, why and how I decided to steal $10 million from him, and my downfall once I was 'found out'. The second book, Camp Cupcake, is about my time in prison, specifically the year I spent in 'prison rehab' as well as time spent in solitary confinement. It's a serious topic, but the book, besides being insightful and interesting, is often funny and very entertaining.  These books are currently with an agent and being readied for publication. I hope you will soon be able to read them online or in print. If you are curious and can't wait, contact me and I will send you a copy of the manuscript.

In addition, in my spare time I love to edit other people's work. Yes, I do charge a fee for this, just as the editor who first helped me with Behind the Codeine Curtain did. But it's reasonable and worth it. For me, it's not really about the money but about putting my skills to good use in helping other aspiring writers perfect their craft. Everyone, no matter how great or famous, needs a second pair of eyes. 

Contact me if you're interested!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Speaking Engagements

My experiences could fill a book - several in fact! Manuscripts are with my agent and will hopefully soon be published. In addition to writing, I  have a full calendar of public speaking engagements, having appeared at Harvard University, Columbia University, Fordham Law School, The University of Arizona, the FBI and many professional organizations and companies. I speak of my experiences, ranging from working for Russia's richest oligarch, stealing from him, serving time in a federal prison. solitary confinement, incarceration and sentencing.  For law students I volunteer my time because I believe my experiences can serve as a deterrent. For other organizations, I charge a standard speaking fee and share my knowledge and expertise in white collar crime to assist organizations and companies in stopping it and prosecuting it. Give me a call if you're interested.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

2014-Present - A Brief Recap - Why I Stopped Blogging

One inncocent prison Sunday, in late August 2014, I was going about my weekend activities - yoga, guitar playing, writing my next blog post on the RDAP prison rehab center I had just transferred to - when I heard a voice on the loudspeaker ordering me to the program director's office.

My heart did a pitter-pat. Being called to his office was never good news - this wasn't a benign rehab program like Betty Ford where you'd be overjoyed at the privilege of meeting the director - but being called in on a Sunday was extra unnerving. The programming staff didn't work weekends so this meant, what, he was interrupting his day of golf and relaxation to come talk with little ol me?

I quickly changed out of my weekend 'grays' into my formal 'greens' and hightailed it to his office, knocking on the closed door. "Come in," a voice intoned.

When I entered my heart fell to the floor - not only was the RDAP director sitting there staring at me with a frown on his face but so too was the camp warden, known by inmates as "The Shark." They didn't ask me to sit so I stood there warily glancing about the room as they exchanged glances. I could just see the director's computer screen from my position and, OMG, what was that he was looking at ----- my blog?

"You're quite a writer," the Shark told me with a sneer. I had heard this in my past life as a compliment but his tone and expression made clear he thought the opposite.

"We've been reading your blog," said the program director in a squeaky voice. "You're sure lucky you didn't say anything bad about my RDAP."

"But you said bad things about my camp!," said the warden. "I can't have this! You've gotta stop this immediately!"

I'd sort of half dreaded/half expected this moment, and had carefully researched my prison rights before coming to prison. The bottom line was that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of inmate's freedom of expression, including writing and blogs, as long as it didn't endanger prison security.

"I'm sorry if there's something you don't like," I said, "It's just my perspective. I didn't mean to offend anyone but I have the right to write even as an inmate."

"The right to write?" the Shark yelled. "You're an inmate, you only have the rights I say you have. And I say you have none!"


"Including the right to only speak when I tell you too! You know what we could do to you? Do you have any idea? Take you out of RDAP for one, make you lose your year off, send you north where you'll be shoveling snow at 4am, send a guard over to turn your locker and bed every god damn morning and evening, put you on a BoP bus to nowhere, put you on a chain gang! Do you hear me?"

"Yes," I said. "I hear you."

"So what are you going to do?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"You don't know?" he yelled. "You don't know? Do I have to put the fucking words into your mouth? You're going to stop this god damn blogging, be a good, quiet inmate and do your time in silence. Got it?"

"Got it," I mumbled.

"Now get outa here."

As I walked out of the office the RDAP director called after me: "You're sure lucky  you didn't write anything bad about my RDAP program."

I went back to my "home" and flopped down on my bunk. Inmates swarmed, wanting to learn what happened so they could fuel the inmate gossip mill. I was too upset to talk. I think it was the unsubtle reminder of the pure powerlessness of being an inmate. What was I going to do, fight for my rights and lose the few little things I had left, the chance of seeing my kids? Losing the year off that RDAP dangled in front of me like a pot of gold at the end of the shitshow?

At the same time, blogging meant so much to me. It was my fragile connection to the outside world, the one-bit of normalcy in my life. Every morning I waited in anticipation for the few minutes I'd have at the e-mail computer to dash off my next missive to be posted by my mom and sister. It was also my therapy, my way to vent about life here and get the frustrations out of my system.

Still, the choice was clear - no more blogging.

Several days later, I was at my job in the chow hall slaving away over a huge pot of boiling hot dogs when the kitchen guard came up and said I'd been paged to the warden's office. What the fuck? I'd stopped blogging!!!

I trudged over to the van stop that would take me to South Camp where the warden's office was located my mind swirling. What happened? Is this about the blogging? Had he read a post he really didn't like? As I walked, lost in my worries, I didn't notice two prison guards walking toward me until they grabbed my arms, twisting them behind my back. They then led me to a white, windowless van, threw me up against the side, put handcuffs on and then shoved me inside.

A few minutes later we pulled up to the maximum security prison, a dark, scary, barred prison straight out of central casting. Guards rushed out, dragged me inside and slammed me into a cell. A few minutes later they shoved an orange paper jumpsuit through the slat in the door ordering me to dress. The jumpsuit was marked on the back with two big black letters - SU.

Though I didn't know why, I knew what SU meant. Segregation Unit.

I was being put into Solitary Confinement.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

One Year Down

Thinking of Freedom

After a long, partially self-imposed silence, I decided to write this overdo post in honor of May 5, otherwise known as Leigh Sprague Incarceration Day. No, it’s not a national holiday (at least not yet), but rather the anniversary of that awful day exactly one-year ago when I “checked myself” in to Lompoc Prison Camp for a 50-month, all-expense paid stay. In honor of the big day, a friend of mine here ‘inside’ brought me (unbidden, I might add) a can of Diet Coke together with half a lime that he happened to stumble across.
Ahh, the simple pleasures I once took for granted.
Seriously, though, I’m not sure if this is an anniversary to be celebrated or mourned. But either way it means a lot to me. Most importantly, it means that half of my sentence, after being adjusted for good time and drug treatment (RDAP) time off, has passed. The 50% mark. As one old-timer told me: “It’s all downhill from here.” Some days another year seems like an eternity. But when I think about how quickly the first year passed, release seems so close that I can almost taste it. Can’t let my mind go there too often thought or it starts to play tricks on me.
This has been an eventful year to say the least. A year to remember. A year that will go down in infamy. Sorry, I realize that I’m getting over-dramatic. But I shudder to think back to that first day, how scared I was, how disoriented, how depressed. Over time, though, I’ve gradually adjusted, adapted, acclimated. For better or for worse, this life of mine here in prison has become more-or-less normal….
Or maybe better to say not entirely abnormal.
I have my bunk, I have my locker, I have my things. I have my acquaintances and I have my schedule. I walk 10-miles a day around the prison track and look forward to taco day in the Chow Hall. In that way life is normal; I guess you could say I’m a teeny-tiny bit institutionalized. Many of the things that caused me stress in the real world – job and taxes and bills and shopping – are no longer a part of my life. But I still think about my kids and family constantly, missing them every minute of every day. I still gaze out at the road that passes within feet of the track, enviously watching free people freely driving free cars down the free street. I picture myself behind the wheel, maybe going nowhere but, at the same time, going everywhere.
I want that person to be me.
I want to be free.
My prison experience has benefitted from my 9 months’ here at RDAP, the residential drug treatment and behavioral modification program that, once I complete it next month, will shave one-year off my sentence. At first I suffered in the program, bucking at all the rules and resenting it’s focus on group-work and change. 

But in comparison to many inmates’ prison experiences – which for the most part consist of wasting time in front of the TV and on the weight pile – I’ve gained a lot from the program. I recognized the errors in my thinking that made me a criminal just as much as my drug-dealer bunkie. I’m glad to be at the finish line but feel like a much better person now than the broken man that walked through RDAP’s doors last July. The ‘new improved’ me. All thanks to the kind-ol’ BoP.
So that’s all for now. I’ve had some issues with freedom of expression so can’t promise when I’ll write next other than to say that it will be before my next anniversary: that day when I walk once-and-for-all through these doors to the Greyhound station in nearby Santa Maria. 
Until then, keep well and keep in touch. And promise me not to take for granted that most special of gifts: freedom; freedom to be with your loved ones, freedom to go where you want, freedom to say and be and do whatever you happen to choose. I once took those freedoms for granted. But I never will again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Russia, do I Miss You?

Let Me Count The Ways...

I've been teaching Russian to a fellow inmate, a big, burly, lumberjack of a guy with a thick brown beard whom I'll call Paul. We've started, fittingly enough, with that most important category - swearwords - so the experience has been as useful for him as for me, dredging up as it has certain long-dormant words that were at one time crucial to my survival in rough-and-tumble Moscow. 

More seriously, it's been interesting for me to view Russia through Paul's eyes. You see, Paul plans to move to Russia the second after he's released from prison and the travel strictures of probation. He views Russia as a magical place free of America's more onerous societal and social mores. He dreams of vodka. And of pretty young Slavic girls unspoiled by American feminism. And of freedom from onerous taxation and pervasive surveillance. Of being able to think and act in a decidedly non-PC way.

In short, he dreams of being able to cavort and drink and swear and act in a Don-Draper-goes-international manner in which middle-age Americans have long ceased to indulge. Unsatisfied and disillusioned with the US and what he thinks he's learned (as an inmate) of its very flawed democracy, he's latched onto an even more flawed kleptocracy as the answer to his prayers.

The experience is interesting for me because Paul's view, with its focus on freedoms, is the opposite of how I've long thought of Russia. It's just been such a long time that I've heard the word "Russia" associated with the words "free" and "freedom" that it got me to thinking whether I ever thought the same.

Upon reflection, I realized that, once upon a time, way back when I first moved to the place in 1995, I did, although my markers were different: not the ability to drink or stay up all night but the transformation of a totalitarian system into what I thought was a new burgeoning democracy. I saw a Russia transforming before my very eyes, a Russia becoming (or so I thought) free and democratic. 

How depressingly wrong I was. In terms of freedom and development and openness and optimism so much has since changed for the worse. Not that Paul accepts my protestations: he's made up his mind that in Russia he'll be free to do as he pleases. And maybe he will, if what he pleases is to drink vodka all night. Just goes to show, I suppose, that one man's idea of heaven can be another man's idea of hell. 

As those of you who know me know, by the time I fled Moscow at the tip of the oligarch's sword those several years ago, I was incredibly disillusioned with the place. Burned out. Fed up.

Admiration had long since turned to hatred: for the more sordid aspects of the culture, for what I saw as a harsh indifference to equality and democracy, freedom and enlightenment, as a result of my experiences working with its corrupt and crude elite, its billionaire oligarchs.

The collective ideal still held by the majority, the big-brother-in-the-Kremlin-knows-best mentality, the stuck-in-the-peasantry attitudes toward gender and child-rearing and politics, the barely hidden xenophobia and racism, all of those things had soured me on Russia, despite my near-assimilation and the country's rich and deep culture. While I loved many Russians, I really had come to hate their country. Since then, it's only gotten worse, with Putin's ascendancy to near Stalin-like power and near-Stalin like demeanor.
So despite the awful circumstances of my departure, and my fervent wish to be wherever my family happens to be (which for much of the past three years was Russia), my overwhelming feeling for these past years was: good bye and good riddance. But you know what? I do, in my own way, miss the place. Not enough to go back. Or to wish I could recreate the mistaken bourgeoisie life that I so crudely shredded with my theft. But the fact is, Russia was a major part of my life for many years - a domineering parent, an overbearing friend, a dysfunctional spouse - but a major part nonetheless. 

As I sit here, images of my lost life - what I do miss - flash through my mind: of our "dvor", or courtyard, where my kids and I spent countless hours playing on the slide and the swings; of my first new car ever, a tiny green Czech Skoda that strained to reach 50 mph; of skating with my kids on a frigid winter afternoon on the frozen pond at Chistye Prudy, taking breaks for swigs of hot chocolate from a thermos; of evenings at the kitchen table with friends and family, eating sushi and sipping Georgian wine; of our apartment and khachapuri and traffic jams and bums and weddings.

In short, of life.

Russia was my life. For a long time. And the jarring, violent way that it was torn from me, like a jilted lover from my arms, still stings. Russia, for me, has come to represent everything I have lost.

I don't expect to go back. Ever. Nor do I really want to. My family, thank God, is no longer there and, unlike Paul, who in his disillusionment with the US has
latched onto a distant shangri la that is little more than a mirage, I don't idealize the place.

Despite my tepid nostalgia, the bad in my mind still far outweighs the good. For me, after all my travels, the US is good enough for me, even if my version of the US happens for the moment to be a prison.

The fact is, I've seen worse. So unlike Paul, and many other prisoners, who've essentially been disenfranchised from the system and view their country and government with disillusion, if not derision, I've finally realized where I belong. And, sad to say, it's not Russia, that failed kleptocracy across the sea. So until someone convinces me otherwise, or until I, like my inmate brothers become completely and totally disillusioned with this flawed old US of A, I guess I'll go on disliking the values and beliefs propounded by Putin and his ilk.