High-profile defendants in the news often put out a 911 to consultant David Novak, who guides those “impacted by the realities of federal incarceration” from pretrial preparation through prison and beyond. Before launching his business in 1997, Novak served time in federal prison for mail fraud.
American Way: What kind of mindset does the typical white-collar offender bring to this experience?
David Novak: They’re successful, tenacious people who think they can overcome all obstacles. They rarely, if ever, think they’ll really go to prison. Once there, they tend to identify more with the staff members than their fellow inmates, which can get them into trouble.

American Way: You mean physical danger?
Novak: No. The federal prisons house 175,000 men and women; there’s actually less violence than in a city of that size. But custom and etiquette must be followed. Never initiate communication with a guard or other staff member or talk to them alone. Don’t butt into conversations. Don’t ask questions.
American Way: How does the “Club Fed” image mislead new inmates?
Novak: Thanks to TV and movies, they think they will be in there with doctors and senators, but the great majority of federal prisoners are in for drug violations. I worked with one client who brought golf clubs, a tennis racket, a laptop, and a chauffeur when he surrendered himself. He was ribbed mercilessly for the next 18 months. Even though there’s no concertina wire or gun towers, these places are still prisons.

American Way: How did you cope with federal prison?
Novak: I became an observer and a prolific journaler. After I was released, my attorney asked me to write a letter explaining the experience to others. The letter turned into a book [Down Time: A Guide to Federal Incarceration] and pretty soon, lots of attorneys were calling me for advice.

American Way: Are you working with some well-known clients right now?
Novak: You’d recognize quite a few of the names.

American Way: Can you just drop a teasing hint?
Novak: You’d recognize quite a few of the names.