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Will this be Black's all-inclusive destination?

Even the low-security section at Coleman prison promises a stay of deep deprivation and crashing tedium

From Friday's Globe and Mail

COLEMAN, FLA. — No e-mail or Internet, no doors on the toilet cubicles and certainly no golf course. Club Fed this is not.

Shackled hand and foot, an attentive prison guard gripping his elbow, a bony inmate was hobbling through the white-steel front doors of the sprawling, fortress-like building in which fallen press baron and convicted fraud artist Conrad Black may be spending the next few years.

To do so, the prisoner - heading out for medical treatment, a guard said - had to pass through several locked doors and cross a walkway flanked by towering coils of razor wire.

For good measure, a reporter awaiting an appointment in the lobby was briefly locked inside the glass-walled visiting room as the man was led through.

"Just for security, you understand," the receptionist explained helpfully.

All this in the low-security block of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, the biggest prison in the United States, comprising four separate institutions and a total inmate population of more than 5,000.

If federal prison authorities heed the recommendation of Chicago sentencing judge Amy St. Eve, Lord Black will join more than 2,000 other low-security convicts at Coleman when he surrenders in March to begin his 78-month stretch for fraud and obstruction of justice.

Most of his dormitory mates will be doing time for non-violent drug and firearms offences, serving fewer than 10 years, with perpetrators of white-collar crimes in a distinct minority.

What they all share, however, is relief they are not in one of Coleman's other buildings, said a grey-uniformed off-duty prison guard buying cigarettes at a nearby gas station.

The food is marginally better, the programs are more varied, visiting privileges allow a measure of physical contact and there's considerably less chance of rough treatment at the hands of fellow cons, the guard said.

"The guys in low security want to stay there, big-time, which is a real incentive to behave, because it doesn't take much to get you moved up to medium security."

All the same, low security does not mean the fenceless quasi-freedom of minimum security, a designation for which Lord Black, as a foreigner, is ineligible because of the perceived flight risk.

And, make no mistake, this is a real prison, from which nobody has ever escaped.

Just 12 years old, the red and beige brick buildings of Coleman lie 80 kilometres northwest of Orlando on 120-plus hectares of neatly trimmed lawns and lush oaks and magnolias, criss-crossed by roads of pristine tarmac.

From the air, if you didn't notice the guard towers overlooking the two maximum-security penitentiaries, it might resemble a university.

But up close, even its low-security wing looks substantially less appetizing, with its barred windows, unsmiling prison guards and ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

On a sunny morning this week, behind the twin mesh of razor wire, a handful of prisoners lounged and jogged around its recreation field, dotted with bleachers and basketball hoops.

Other diversions from the monotony of the 40-hour work week and its starting wage of 12 cents an hour include a gym, libraries (including a law library), shuffleboard, bocce ball and access to counselling and rehab programs.

Inmates eager to enhance their post-release prospects can also pursue high-school equivalency diplomas and vocational training in such fields as cooking, horticulture and the construction trades.

Business classes are also taught, to which Lord Black might conceivably make a useful contribution.

"I can get on with anyone and adjust to almost anything," he remarked a few days before sentencing, predicting his spell behind bars would be "quite endurable."

But nobody will be calling him Lord Black of Crossharbour; he'll have an inmate number like everybody else and he's unlikely to be acclaimed as a celebrity.

"I'd never heard of the guy until this week," said prison spokesman Charles Ratledge, whose phone suddenly began ringing off the hook with Canadian media calls.

Nor is Lord Black's name on the lips of the 700 mostly black residents of Coleman, an impoverished community of billboards, shacks and trailers that, unlike many prison towns, draws little benefit from the huge institution a few kilometres up the road.

"People who work there mostly come from around Ocala [a half-hour drive north]; we don't hardly see them," said Aruna, an expatriate from India who bought the D&C grocery store in Coleman three years ago and now wishes she hadn't, citing a string of break-ins and a tide of bad customer credit.

"This is a bad, bad town."

It's still not certain that Coleman prison is Lord Black's destination, as his trial lawyers requested. That decision will be made closer to his March 3 surrender date, depending on space availability.

But because he has been allowed to keep his Palm Beach mansion, and prison authorities try to keep inmates within a day's drive of their homes, Florida looks to be a good bet. (A low-security facility in Miami has been cited as a possible alternative to Coleman.) Wherever he lands, he will have to serve at least 85 per cent of his 6½ years before any chance of parole.

So if he does check into Coleman, what might a day in his life look like?

It will start at 6 a.m., when he rises to don a white or grey T-shirt, khaki pants and black, lace-up work shoes.

There won't be much by his bedside. Personal belongings from the outside world are limited to religious texts and artifacts, medical needs such as eyeglasses or dentures, wedding rings, family photographs and legal paperwork.

But under rules that have toughened in recent years, most of those items are shipped in post-arrival. "You're basically not allowed to bring anything in when you get here," Mr. Ratledge said.

Privacy, too, is at a premium. Showers are taken in a communal setting and there are no doors on the toilet cubicles.

Breakfast and other meals are heavy on high-carb, high-fat staples: meat, eggs, bread, pasta, potatoes, vegetables, canned fish, canned fruit and vending machine snacks, washed down with coffee, water and juice.

As a new arrival, Lord Black's 40-hour work week will likely begin with kitchen duties, peeling potatoes and washing dishes perhaps, punctuated by a mid-afternoon head count back in his dorm.

Other daily tasks involve buffing floors, cleaning sinks and toilets, taking out trash and yard work, which, along with exercise, allows many white-collar criminals to shed a few kilos while incarcerated and, in Florida, to emerge with a suntan.

But none of that compensates for the crashing tedium of prison life.

His day's work done, Lord Black will be able to watch television, read newspapers, correspond via screened mail, and enjoy short, non-conjugal visits where inmates and approved loved ones and friends can talk and hug each other but not much more.

Visits take place in a locked room, in plain sight of the main lobby, lined with hard chairs and notices in English and Spanish urging all to keep the place tidy "and be mindful that the inmates clean this area."

Telephone contact, however, is limited to 300 minutes a month and, perhaps toughest of all for a press mogul who thrived on information, there is no Internet access, and no e-mail.

"That's the thing everybody wants but nobody gets," said the prison guard at the gas station. "There's good reasons for that; imagine the security problems."

In a televised interview this week, imprisoned former Tyco International Inc. chief executive Dennis Kozlowski, serving eight to 15 years for looting his company, described his fall from grace as a horrible adjustment, "a very, very significant change in your life." As for advice for Lord Black, "he should start thinking about the books he's going to be writing." Mr. Kozlowski said.

Thinking about those books, however, is about as far as Lord Black will be able to get, since he won't be able to write for publication while behind bars.

"We don't allow that," Mr. Ratledge said.

And if he wants simply to research subject matter, that too will be problematic, unless he can find what he needs in the prison library. Legal documents aside, inmates are not allowed to have materials shipped in.

His money won't be much help, either. Aside from his prison wages, which eventually can top out at $1.15 an hour, inmates may spend a maximum of $290 a month at the prison commissary from their own savings.

Mr. Ratledge would not speculate on how Lord Black might fare at Coleman, if he is sent there.

But writer and formerly imprisoned mail-fraud artist David Novak, author of Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration, says one of the keys to survival in low security is minding one's own business, not least because many of the drug offenders have earned relatively light sentences by co-operating with authorities and are regarded as snitches.

Guards and inmates don't view white-collar felons with much enthusiasm either, according to Mr. Novak.

"Here's a guard looking at someone who made more money than he'll ever make, and who had the world by the tail and blew it."

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