Wrong arm of the law

When Bill Lerach, Dickie Scruggs and Mel Weiss, once among the US’s most feted class action lawyers, check into prison, each will be handed a uniform, photographed, fingerprinted and asked to disrobe for a mandatory cavity search. Whatever personal property they have will be taken from them and inventoried. It will either be held until their release or shipped back home. Inmates’ families often report being startled when civilian clothing lands unannounced on their doorstep a few weeks after their loved one was incarcerated.

Lerach, Scruggs and Weiss will be shown to their living quarters, most likely a bunk bed in a barracks-style dormitory typical of minimum-security camp facilities. The population is usually a mix of drug offenders, white-collar criminals and longer-term detainees approaching the end of their sentences. Fights are few; misbehaviour can mean transfer to a higher-security facility with bars, barbed wire and watchtowers.

Each will be assigned a job, such as plating food for fellow prisoners. They will be able to keep a few hundred dollars in a commissary account that can be replenished by friends and family through Western Union wire transfers or money orders sent to a Bureau of Prisons office in Des Moines.

While in jail, Lerach et al may see some familiar faces. One lawyer recently released from the prison camp in Otisville, New York, says there was usually about a half-dozen lawyers inside. The lawyer, who declined to be identified, says the group was well regarded and approached frequently for help with appeals or habeas corpus petitions. But, like other prisoners, he says, they spent most of their time on more mundane pursuits, such as mopping floors.

As long as they behave, they’ll have the privilege of making 300 minutes’ worth of calls per month, 400 during November and December (monitored by the Bureau of Prisons, of course). They can get mail but it will be searched for contraband. And there will be noise.

Legal Week