LARRY LEVINE – THE PRISON CONSULTANT
How does anyone become the premier expert in the world in their chosen field? To accomplish so rare a feat, it helps to have relentless energy, an extraordinary work ethic, no fear of failure, and at least a decade of hands-on experience. Each of these attributes clearly apply to Larry Jay Levine – the world’s premier expert in federal prison consultation.
And just how would one gain ‘at least a decade of hands-on experience’ in the field of federal prisons? Simple – by spending 10 years as an inmate in 11 of them – from high security on down to medium, low, and finally, minimum security. “It could have been worse,” says Levine. “My ex-wife wrote a letter to the court with information on crimes even the prosecutors didn’t know about. Luckily, the statute of limitations had already passed.”
The Incarceration, A New Beginning
As described on one of Levine’s several websites, he was a Private Investigator in Los Angeles, California before entering federal custody in 1998. He also reveals that, in truth, he was working as an ‘efficiency expert’ for the mob when arrested by an FBI and Secret Service-led Task Force on charges of narcotics trafficking, securities fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice and possession of a machine gun.
“On my day of sentencing,” he recalls, “the judge slammed down his gavel, had me chained and shackled, and sentenced me to two, 10-year concurrent terms in federal prison.” His first 21 months were spent at the high-rise Federal Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in downtown Los Angeles, and over the next decade, he was shuttled off to 10 more federal correctional institutions of multiple custody & security levels in 5 different states.
Oftentimes, incarceration is the sad end of a person’s story. For Levine though, it was the fortuitous beginning of his newly inspired life. “While incarcerated,” he says, “I experienced firsthand the confusion and dangers first time offender’s face when entering federal custody. I was in the same position prison-bound people face today: scared, confused and overwhelmed by a criminal justice system I knew little about. I had no idea what to expect, no one to turn to, and was completely on my own.”
The Inmate, the Student
“Most inmates spend their time watching TV, playing cards, and jerking off,” he brashly says. In other words, they fritter their time away. “Instead, I spent my time in the prison law library.”
As Levine studied the law, he learned how the system works, or was supposed to work. Staying close to his cell, and the library, he minded his own business, was respectful and cordial to others, listened a lot and spoke as little as possible. “I didn’t get caught up in the drama,” he says. “Instead, I flew under the radar, and in ten years I had zero physical altercations. Zero. That’s unheard of, no one bothered with me.”
He observed prisoners being given the run-around and fed misinformation by predatory inmates and uncaring Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff members. “Like all federal bureaucracies,” he says, “the BOP operates with its own very complex set of rules called ‘Program Statements.’ The only problem is, prison staff routinely fail to follow them. The staff sets the tone in the prison, and when they make up their own rules at a whim, it creates additional chaos and confusion in the lives of inmates.”
As Levine traveled from one dysfunctional prison to another, he continued to read case studies and self-educate in criminal law. The more knowledge he gained, the more he learned how to fight back and win, always working within the rules.
“Absolutely, they will screw people in the prison system,” he says, “but not me. I knew the game better than they did. I put the staff on notice, this is between me and D.C., not you. Word soon got around, ‘do not engage this inmate, he knows policy better than you’.”Levine was never a troublemaker, which can only earn an inmate diminished privileges and even solitary confinement. Instead, he was a strategic thinker. Because of his knowledge of the system, he became a “management problem.” He would warn them to “follow your own policy,” while often informing staff members precisely what their policies were.
The Inmate, the Legal Adviser
With no formal background in the law, Levine began explaining criminal defense strategies to his fellow inmates and filing habeas corpus petitions on their behalf. As his successes built, so too did his confidence. He advised them on medical care and visitation rights, how to possibly reduce their federal sentences, request a transfer to a lower security center, secure a better job, and apply for extra halfway house time or a furlough.
Importantly, he also coached strategies for effective prisoner behavior. “The primary objective,” he told them, “is to think beyond your incarceration.” In the meantime, he taught methods for protecting themselves and surviving life behind bars. “To do that,” he’d say, “you need to know internal policies and how to effectively deal with BOP staff.”
In a March 2018 interview with Leslie Albrecht of the Wall Street Journal Market Watch, he described using the classic business school tool S.W.O.T. – an acronym for assessing your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then acting accordingly. He advised using this technique to “take control of what seems like uncontrollable situations in prison by using your brain.”
While at FCI La Tuna, Texas, Levine single-handedly filed a Class Action Habeas Corpus petition in El Paso Federal Court against the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons, claiming they and violated their own administrative policies by sending the transferred inmates to higher custody. Due to his actions, the DOJ was forced to act, and transferred hundreds of prisoners from Texas back to the West Coast to conform with the claims in his lawsuit.
Levine is convinced that the help he was giving his fellow inmates was a main factor in his regular movement from prison to prison. After all, the less educated the prisoner, the less threatened the staff. But it didn’t stop him and he selflessly provided advice and guidance, while at the same time honing his future craft, until his final movement – from the suffocating inside to the invigorating breath of freedom.
Freedom, the Invigorating Rebirth
In 2007, like a prize thoroughbred biting his bit in anticipation of the gate finally opening, Levine burst through and onto the legitimate business world’s fast track, assimilating into society like never before. “I was prepared,” he says, “and I hit the ground running.” He immediately founded American Prison Consultants and put his extensive legal training and experiences to good use by educating and defending the previously unrepresented.
“If you’re afraid, and the thought of going to prison scares the hell out of you, you’re not alone,” began his case to prospective clients. “Prisons are dangerous places,” he continued, “and having knowledge about prison policies, prison gangs, and the politics of prison life, are the keys to surviving successfully on the inside and coming home safely.”
He focused on the federal corrections system because that’s what he knew best. “There are 123 federal prisons across the U.S. and their policies are the same everywhere. The indicted get bond, they have money, they need my help.”His services centered around the trademarked ‘Fed Time 101’ prison survival educational courses (called modules), include advising on how to cope, survive and thrive in such unfamiliar territory. “Expect a total loss of privacy, including strip searches,” he tells his clients, advising them to be “quiet, respectful and observant.” He coaches them to “learn prison guard personality types” and how best to avoid getting “beaten, stabbed or raped.”
In addition to online courses, he offers various levels of customized services (e.g. Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc.), which may include offering insight and advice to his client’s attorney, lobbying a judge for a lighter sentence or a lower level security prison, and negotiating RDAP – entry into a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program which can lower a sentence by up to 12 months.
Levine understands first-hand the needs and concerns of the newly sentenced and quickly becomes a trusted voice to many.
“As usual, the big winners are the lawyers,” he says without hiding his sneer. “Most of them representing the accused couldn’t care less about their client. They work their 10 hours, get them pled out and behind bars as soon as possible.” As for the newly incarcerated, he says, “Many of them don’t even know their rights, and are completely unprepared for what happens next. I try to help them avoid that. They trust me, not their lawyers.”
White Collar Crime, the Growing Epidemic
In his early years as a prison consultant, Levine typically advised those accused of non-violent, narcotics-related transgressions. It was a noble cause and made for a good living. At the turn of the century, however, the business opportunity multiplied exponentially. It was the tail end of a twenty year financial market expansion. Lax regulations and greed-related excesses saw fraudulent behavior running rampant, first in the ‘dot.com’ bust of 2000-02, and again five years later when historic mortgage and securities fraud caused the near-collapse of the global financial system.
“It’s 2008 and I’m driving on the LA Freeway, stuck in traffic, as usual,” starts Levine. “I’m listening to the business news on the radio. Wall Street in chaos, the market melting down, mortgage falsifications and collusion everywhere. Then the Bernie Madoff news breaks. By the end of the day, I had created Wall Street Prison Consultants.”The Wall Street shenanigans had created a whole new wave of white collar clientele seeking out his services. With new prison consulting competitors regularly joining the fray, Levine was getting more than his share. None of the rivals could match his unique combination of inside experience, knowledge of the criminal justice and prison systems, and outsized personality.
Other than marketing through his various websites and other social media outlets, he doesn’t solicit business. “It’s all word of mouth,” he says. “These people and their lawyers know where to find me. And if they’re not interested, best of luck to them. My phone is ringing off the hook with or without them.”
The Expert Witness
Whenever a high profile (e.g. celebrity) criminal trial or prison sentence is in the headlines, which seems to be regularly, the networks have one ‘expert witness’ in the front of their rolodex – Larry Levine. He appears regularly on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, Bloomberg, HLN, and other media outlets.
Recently, he built a mini-broadcast studio in the back of his office. “If they want me on CNN at 8 a.m. eastern,” he says, “it’s 5 a.m. in LA. It was an easy decision.”
Anyone who’s checked out his past network appearances on YouTube will easily concur. While he is clearly an expert relating to criminal justice and prison system issues, he’s also a bold and highly-entertaining guest, often leaving the host nearly speechless. When the camera starts rolling, there’s no pretense or political correctness about Levine. The only role he’s playing is his true self. As evidence, here are a few snippets of his comments on varying cases:
“The higher profile a prisoner is, especially celebrities or rich guys, the more at risk they are once they go in. They’re going to need protection, so they should try to make friends with the prison guards, but without being obvious.”
“Famous inmates will get the most demeaning jobs, like cleaning the trash cans and pots and pans. Cleaning the prison shower is the worst. It’s disgusting. In prison, just like the real world, it’s not only what you know, it’s who you know. You have to know someone who can direct you to the best jobs. Pushing paper in an air-conditioned office – that’s the prize.”
His take on notable Ponzi scheme criminal, Bernie Madoff, as relayed on several networks in 2009, gives us an intriguing view on what his life is like “on the inside.” “Stealing money from a bank or insurance company, that’s considered okay. But stealing money from regular people, especially that amount of money – no way. The guy is an economic terrorist and that’s unacceptable. I wouldn’t help him, and I don’t help people like him. He’s going from the penthouse to the big house, and I say good riddance.”
“Madoff should be in a minimum security prison, essentially a camp. But the amount he stole takes him off the sentencing charts. He’ll end up in medium security, living in a cell, and there will be a long line of dangerous people who would love to spend a few minutes alone with him. Many of them have no ‘out date,’ meaning they’re never getting out anyway, so there’s no risk for them.”
“Child molesters, referred to as ‘chomos,’ are the lowest of the low in prison. The other inmates hate them and will be trying to take them out. Guys like Jerry Sandusky, or Jared Fogle, you know, the Subway guy, had better be kept in solitary confinement, or they’ll find them dead one day, and it won’t be pretty. It’s called ‘escape by death’.”
“Rats (i.e. informants) are also hated, and there was no bigger rat than Boston mob boss, Whitey Bulger. He was a psychopath, a ruthless killer, incarcerated in 2013. It took a few years, but when they finally got to him, they gouged his eyes out and ripped his tongue out. The message was clear to anyone else who’s considering becoming an informant – if you do, you won’t have eyes to see anything, and you won’t have the tongue to be a rat.”
“This Chris Watts guy who killed his own family – pregnant wife, two young daughters – he’s even worse off, a dead man walking. He probably won’t last a year, and it won’t matter where they try to hide him.”
Facing Adversity and Winning Big
Levine learned self-reliance early on, including joining the military directly out of high school. “I was on my own,” he recalls. “I didn’t rely on anyone. I’ve never asked for help and I never will.”
“My criminal indictment is the high point of my life,” he says. “I was going to die out there. When I was inside, I had stents put in, got my head straight, and turned my life into a big ‘f…ing’ positive. I’m 57 years old – I have my whole life ahead of me. Now I’m helping people. I get paid well to be an asshole.”
Some family members are proud of what he’s accomplished, he says, while others are not. A few are even jealous, he says, and he has a theory as to why. “My success makes some people look at their own pitiful lives – their stagnant, unaccomplished lives – and they blame everyone but themselves, including the ex-con who’s doing great.”
Levine has advice for the nay-sayers: “Stop being so stupid. Stop with the whining and blaming. Instead, take a look directly in your mirror. There’s your problem. Use your brain, get to work, go out and change your life. I have no tolerance for stupidity.”
This fearless guy has been transforming rapidly into a full-blown entrepreneur. To his thriving consultancy business and expert witness role, you can add hosting a weekly radio program called ‘Street Justice,’ accessed on several internet radio sites. He also owns Moorpark Survival, a retail survival store, and a telephone company which offers inmates in some federal detention centers discounted telephone calls.
To the question, ‘Why the survival store?’ he retorts, “Have you noticed how dangerous it is out there lately?” Mea culpa. “Besides,” he explains, “whether you’re on the inside or out here, the theme’s the same, it’s about survival.”
As for the telephone company, it’s another way he’s helping inmates. “Every inmate gets a certain amount of phone minutes per month,” he says, “and they give some high profile guys, like Paul Manafort, unlimited calls. Why would they do that,” he queries, before quickly answering. “Because they charge a ridiculous fee per minute and make a fortune.” His company offers the same service to inmates for less than half the BOP rates.
In all, Levine has not only survived his time inside, the experience sparked an entrepreneurial drive that is growing hotter by the year. In a ‘bigger picture’ sense, his accomplishments needs to be examined more deeply to ascertain if they can be duplicated on a mass scale.
The Bigger ‘Big House’ Picture
Because the rate of recidivism in the U.S. (i.e. ex-cons who go back to a life of crime and incarceration) is said to be a staggering 76%, we think the benefits of Levine’s brand of prison consultancy should be studied by the BOP for a broader purpose. The simple question is, can a more effective rehabilitative process be developed to meaningfully improve this outcome?
By educating inmates to protect themselves and use their brains to make their time in detention more productive, could the general prison population be offered more hope – a brighter vision of what their new life on the outside could someday look like? Could they be taught new skills and a sense of purpose, something meaningful to strive for day-to-day?
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ or even ‘maybe,’ then such a program should be offered to any inmate with an interest, including those unable to afford services such as Levine offers. By doing so, perhaps the horrendous rate of recidivism would begin to plummet in the same manner that Levine’s life has ascended. How brilliant and valuable would that be?
Recently, the ‘First Step Act’ was signed into law in bipartisan fashion in our tragically divided Congress. It’s been called ‘a major win in the effort to improve conditions in prisons and end mass incarceration.’Is this the criminal justice reform bill we’ve been waiting for, one that will begin to address the recidivism crisis and other system ailments? We asked the expert, and here is Levine’s considered reaction.
“For starters,” he said, “the bill is a ‘hand job’.” We asked him to please stop holding back and tell us how he really feels, which he did as follows:
“I get calls about the bill every day and here’s what I’m telling people. It has just been signed into law. Now, it must be codified and published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Then, they have to create a ‘Program Statement,’ how the new law will apply to inmates.”
Levine made it crystal clear that he is skeptical and reserving judgment until he sees what the law really says, and especially, what it means in the daily lives of inmates. More to come on this in the years ahead, we’re certain.
The Entrepreneur’s Bigger Picture
In the meantime, the ‘bigger picture’ for Levine includes some leisure time away from his various businesses, believe it or not. We asked him what he does to relax, to get away from the fray. His initial response was “I don’t even know if I can do that.”
But with further prompting, he acknowledged that he enjoys time at the racetrack, watching movies (90 just last year), and he visits Vegas on occasion, for both business and pleasure.
He doesn’t travel often though, saying, “I don’t like to fly.” Afraid of flying, we asked with surprise. “Oh no, I’m not afraid,” he shot back. “I’m never afraid of anything. But I do get concerned.” Concerned about what, we asked. “For the safety of the others on the plane, especially the women and kids,” he responded. In what way, we asked. “I’m concerned that just by being on board, I’ll bring the plane down.” We made a note never to fly with him.
Speaking of kids, when he’s not working, his true love is spending time with his family – his wife of three years, his three kids and his three grandkids. This sounded so normal, so heartwarming, we thought it was a good place to close the article.
We expect to see and hear a lot more from this charismatic prison consultant and entrepreneur in the years to come, and believe me, we will be watching. Especially as relates to the critical issue of prison reform and the assimilation of ex-convicts back into productive roles in society.
We wish Larry Jay Levine well in possibly playing an important role in this worthy effort, and in all his future endeavors.