Big-House Guru

Ron Cohen counsels new inmates on surviving life behind bars. He should know. He's been there.

Pacing the Addison hotel room he calls home, a cell phone pressed to his ear, Ron Cohen is speaking in a firm but understanding voice to a 26-year-old Florida man who is standing outside a federal penitentiary in Fort Dix, New Jersey, preparing to surrender himself to begin serving a 39-month sentence for drug dealing. It is nearing 2 p.m., and the apprehensive young college graduate, with just 10 minutes of freedom remaining, is asking that Cohen remind him once again of the procedure he'll go through when he steps through the front door of the prison. It is the fourth time he's called since the day began.

They have, in fact, been talking off and on since March about what the convicted felon can expect once he's locked up, everything from how to get along with guards and fellow inmates to what kind of programs are available to federal prisoners; how best to deal with the complete loss of control of his life, the grinding boredom, even the very real possibility that a "Dear John" letter will eventually come from his girlfriend.

Ron Cohen is just a cell-phone call away from his clients as they enter prison.
Carlton Stowers
Ron Cohen is just a cell-phone call away from his clients as they enter prison.

Such is the service provided by a unique venture called The Client Advisory Group, whose purpose is to help prepare lawbreakers for the time they will spend in federal custody. For a $150-per-hour fee, Cohen walks his clients through every aspect of their upcoming incarceration.

He doesn't sugarcoat it, and certainly he speaks with a voice of authority. He's been there and done it--on four occasions. Now 55, he can look back on 10 years spent behind bars, convicted of mail and wire fraud, securities fraud and parole violation. Before being released in January 2000, the one-time high-rolling Dallas investment adviser had done time in seven different federal prisons.

Time was when the University of Washington-educated Cohen was looked upon as a financial wizard, gaining the trust of doctors, lawyers, socialites and high-ranking executives, all convinced he would turn their investments into lightning-quick fortunes. Cohen charmed them with hypnotic promises of 30 percent monthly returns on their money. What he failed to mention was his ever-increasing addiction to good scotch. Or that he was paying them phony profits with the investments of newly acquired clients. Before his scam finally imploded and he was shipped off to prison, his clients were in the hole for a total of almost $80 million.

Once released, he went right back to business. And, eventually, back to prison. Today his résumé reads like a tour of American federal correctional facilities: Seagoville, two years, mail fraud. Fort Worth, La Tuna, Phoenix, Terre Haute and Atlanta, seven years, security fraud. Seagoville again, nine months, parole violation. Texarkana, 57 months, mail and wire fraud. (Time off for good behavior shortened some of those sentences.)

"It took me a long time to learn my lesson," he admits.

It was while doing time in Texarkana that Cohen finally committed to changing his ways. He took advantage of the 500-hour in-prison treatment program for his alcoholism and began paying regular visits to the facility's psychiatrist. And soon, the idea of a legitimate business occurred to him. Watching a banker convicted of taking kickbacks arrive wearing a Rolex, jogging suit and Air Jordans and asking if it was necessary to reserve a tee time at the prison golf course, he realized that most white-collar criminals didn't have a clue what prison life was going to be like. "There was another guy," Cohen remembers, "who showed up with his own minifridge, a cell phone and convinced he would be able to order out for pizza when his wife came for weekend conjugal visits."

Such was the unfounded image of the minimum-security federal pens that house white-collar criminals. "It's bull," Cohen says. "There's no such thing as Club Fed."

Lawyers, Cohen says, might have represented their clients in the courtroom, but they did nothing to prepare them for life as a convict. That, he reflects, was where he felt he could provide a badly needed service. Dallas defense attorney Tom Mills agrees. "The truth is," he says, "lawyers have no idea what goes on in these facilities. Ron has been very helpful to me and several of my clients. One of the things he does exceptionally well is size up people and determine what kind of emotional help they're going to need to get through what lies ahead." Mills is one of many who has referred clients to Cohen.

His $150-per-hour fee, Cohen says, is sometimes paid directly by the client or a member of his family, sometimes by the client's lawyer.

Today, when a call for help comes, Cohen contacts his parole officer for the go-ahead to catch the next plane out of D-FW. Recently, he spent several days with a new client in New Orleans. Before that he'd been in Minneapolis for five days, speaking with a father and son who were looking at lengthy sentences.

Since last June, he's counseled more than 50 clients, and his modest-at-first business has grown to a point where he's now considering hiring additional counselors. He's looking for someone who has done time, is now out and walking the straight and narrow. "And," he says, "there's a woman in Louisiana I've been talking with about counseling female convicts."

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