Time is money

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 12:00am

You have got to love American capitalists. When they say that every problem is an opportunity, they really mean it. Even if the problem is a stint in prison because of corporate skullduggery.

Just over two years after a wave of accounting fraud and other corporate crimes was met with a ferocious crackdown by prosecutors and the courts, some highly prominent business figures have gone, or are about to go, to jail. Among them are the media and merchandising icon Martha Stewart, the former top technology banker Frank Quattrone, and Lea Fastow, the wife of the former Enron chief financial officer.

As a result, several cottage industries have been expanding. The first one is in books on how to survive prison. Amazon.com lists a series of guides, from the straightforward Behind Bars - Surviving Prison, to the humorous Who Moved my Soap? The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison. The media, of course, has seized on the authors of these books, and any white collar crooks it can get hold of to reveal what kind of conditions the Stewarts, Quattrones and Fastows of this world will be facing. They have included former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, who spent three years in prison on tax and money laundering charges. She helpfully told CNN in July that a woman's prison can be a 'lesbian hell'.

In the next few weeks, we can also expect to hear from Nick Leeson, the British trader who caused the collapse of the 233-year-old Barings Bank, and who served 61/2 years in prison. He is a keynote speaker in Miami next month at a Due Diligence and Asset Recovery Symposium.

There have been many articles about the minimum-security federal penitentiary in Connecticut in which Stewart is expected to serve her five-month sentence for lying to prosecutors about a stock sale. We have learned about the lack of privacy, the possibility of sexual encounters, the danger of snitching on your fellow prisoners, the food (not too bad, it seems), and the kind of work that Stewart might have to do (it could include cleaning the toilets). According to some reports, Stewart herself has been calling former inmates.

Still, Stewart - who says she will miss her dogs, cats, canaries, horses and chickens - may still have the last laugh. Shares in her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, have surged in the past two weeks as investors bet on a comeback when she is released in spring, and on the announcement that she will work with Mark Burnett, the TV producer behind such shows as Survivor and Donald Trump's The Apprentice.

Just imagine how much could be made out of the reality TV series and the autobiographical book, Martha Behind Bars.