Big-House Guru

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

Also championing his pursuit is a former Dallas County district attorney's investigator who once helped put him away. F. David Moore, now in private practice as a forensic accountant, remembers those days when he was gathering information that would lead to Cohen's conviction. "In virtually every fraud case I ever worked," he says, "the motivation was pure greed. Ron was the exception. I think he wanted so badly to please people and to be accepted, he just couldn't bring himself to pass along the bad news that an investment he'd recommended had gone sour. So, he began robbing Peter to pay Paul, creating pressures that he simply wasn't able to handle. It was inevitable that it was all going to collapse on him.

"I know there are people still angry with him over the money they lost. I've talked with a number of them. They'll tell you they're still mad at him...but that they can't help but like the guy. The fact that he's such a personable individual has helped him greatly in his new venture, and he's doing something that I see as very worthwhile."

Mills tells of a client who confided to Cohen that he was still regularly using cocaine, even as his pre-sentence hearing neared. "The client had not admitted that to me," Mills recalls. "But when I learned it, I was able to go to the judge and explain the situation and help get him into a prison which offered a good rehab program."

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.

Not only has Cohen won the endorsement of more than 100 defense attorneys throughout the country, he was recently the guest speaker at the American Board of Criminal Lawyers Association gathering in Atlanta. The District of Columbia Bar asked that he write an article on preparing a client for prison for its monthly newsletter and speak to its quarterly gathering in October.

"Most of the folks I deal with," he says, "never dreamed they might one day wind up in jail. Then, when the reality sets in, their life becomes a nightmare of doubt, fear and uncertainty. The sooner a guy can get some answers to the questions he's having about what is in store, the better he's going to be able to cope. I like to think that after I get involved, the nights of lying awake, worrying, come to an end."

He also extends his services to wives and parents. "In a sense, they, too, are facing time. Recently, I spoke with a father whose son was going away. He not only wanted to know what his boy could expect in prison but needed to know what was in store for him the first time he stepped into the visiting room to see his boy," he says.

That Cohen stays in touch with the inmates and families throughout the incarceration, says investigator Moore, is an added bonus.

What Cohen sells is reality. "It doesn't matter how much money your family has or how much you've got stashed away in some off-shore account," he points out. "Once you get to prison you've lost control of your life. You're not going to have wine with dinner, can't go where you please. You're going to sleep in a bed not nearly as comfortable as the one back home, listening to three or four other guys snoring every night. And you're going to be taking orders 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The trick, he says, is to make no waves and embrace no unrealistic expectations. "The sooner the inmate and his family understand that fighting the system is nonproductive, the better," he says. Among the lengthy list of "tips" he offers: Arrive at prison's door aware that you don't flaunt your financial status ("Leave the swagger at the door."); prison personnel are not there to serve you ("Don't argue with them."); avoid trying to make close friends inside ("Be cordial to everyone but don't get into any cliques."); be prepared for the fact that previous relationships may not survive ("The Dear John letter is painful, but survivable. Don't go in thinking once you come out everything is going to be the same as it was."); and, finally, stay as busy as possible ("The mental torture is the worst part of prison life.").

Ideally, Cohen says, he receives a call before a convict has reached the pre-sentencing stage of his troubles. "I can determine if he's eligible for any programs that might help reduce his sentence. There are worthwhile programs that will not only benefit a person but could trim months off of a sentence. But, you have to know what prisons offer them."

Almost without exception, his clients initially express a desire to be placed in whatever federal facility is closest to home. "Naturally, they want to be somewhere where visits from family and friends are most convenient. That's not always the best thing. In the first place, that institution might not offer the programs that are most beneficial. And, I explain, the truth of the matter is that after a while, the visits aren't going to be as regular as they think. People on the outside get on with their lives."

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