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'The Great Equalizer': Navigating Pre-Trial Detention

A new consultancy firm offers advice for first-time detainees, from someone who’s been there.
(Photo: OFFFSTOCK/Shutterstock)

(Photo: OFFFSTOCK/Shutterstock)

For a first-time offender, incarceration is bound to be a confusing and upsetting experience. As Leon Neyfakh recently wrote for Slate, there is a “surprisingly robust genre” of how-to-survive guidebooks marketed toward people entering prison. There is also a real-life industry of “prison coaches,” like the one depicted in the comedy “Get Hard,” as Caroline Grueskin found at The Marshall Project.

But Anthony Lowenstein, president and founder of a new consultancy group, Detention Dynamics, says he saw some gaps in these prep services that he wanted to fill. He offers his services to everyone, regardless of the charge, but he focuses on the crucial pre-trial detention stage. His advice is tough and blunt, and he says it comes from his own experience in a detention center in Connecticut years ago. I spoke with Lowenstein this week; this is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Why did you start this company?

We looked at what a lot of the standard, run-of-the-mill prison consultancies are doing, and they’re predominantly focused on post-conviction—once you get to federal prison. And they’re really focused on white-collar criminals, which leaves on the table everyone else. What we’re focused on, exclusively, is the pre-trial period, for first-time offenders.

That time can last anywhere from a couple of weeks all the way up to five years—where you’re kept in terrible conditions, and with no access to the services and programs and everything else that folks who have been convicted and are in prison may have access to. In the state of Connecticut, you are locked in your cell 20 hours a day. For a first-time offender, coming from any kind of enjoyable life, that’s a completely different paradigm.

A person never having experienced this environment has to have a road map for keeping their head above water. They’re potentially losing everything: jobs, friends, and associations. If they were the primary income earner for the home, now the spouse has to figure that out. The bills keep coming, that income has now stopped. We lay out a plan for the individual and the family. It’s very straightforward; you have to go into survival mode.

For the detainee, the very first thing they have to do is to focus on their case. They have to have the mindset, “If I am able to understand this legal landscape better, I will be better prepared to help in my defense.” You’re locked in your cell 20 hours a day; the prosecution is not. The prosecution has nowhere near the same amount of time as you do. So that’s your primary objective: to understand and learn the language of the institution that has you detained.

It is about survival. You don’t know, you can’t know the person next to you. If they see you upset, they might ask you to tell them about your case, and ask how you are doing. But you’re in an environment where everybody wants to go home. One of the first things we instruct is to not discuss your case with anybody other than your attorney. You are in a predatory environment.

You’re referring to how other inmates could possibly trade information about you in exchange for getting their own sentences shortened or commuted?

Exactly. And the other side of it is mental health. Individuals who have been through this before understand the first minute when they come into a detention center what they need to do. Get a bunk pass, make sure their telephone gets set up, all that stuff. The first-time detainee knows none of that—has no idea where to even get a toothbrush. So, through the family, we guide them through the steps and establish a plan.

First order of business: Get in touch with a lawyer, and start fighting your case from day one. Then make sure you and your family understand how to get the telephone account set up, which is a complex process unto itself. Step three: Establish who you are. Everyone is going to be curious about who you are. “Where are you from? What are you here for?” It’s nobody’s business. But you have to remain cordial. We instruct them on how to do that, and how to keep what I call the “pod predators” away, and to keep themselves safe.

That all makes sense, but it must be hard for people to hear that they’re not going to be able to form friendships with the people around them, or ever let their guard down.

It is, but we’re not there to make friends. This isn’t summer camp. This is the most serious thing you will ever do in your life. You’re there to assist in your own defense, and go home to your loved ones.

The other part of it is about the conversations that take place between the detainee and their family over the telephone. The telephone is the number one source for the prosecution, while you’re detained, to obtain new information regarding your case. If your spouse is hollering at you and saying, “I can’t believe you did this,” and you say you’re sorry for having done it, you’re done. That’s being recorded, and that’s a confession of sorts. That’s the biggest mistake a detainee can make—to start talking about their case.

But then aren’t your conversations with the detainee also being recorded? How do you communicate with your clients?

If there is to be a direct communication with the detainee, we go through the attorney’s office, because that is a confidential, privileged legal call—we sign a confidentiality agreement with the attorney, and then that call is not recorded. The attorney can include us in a three-way call. In many cases, specific advice is needed, but we can’t do that through an open telephone or a letter.

Attorneys don’t have the bandwidth for you or your family to call them with your worries about what’s going on in detention. Attorneys are focused on winning your case; they’re not social workers. Our role is to ameliorate that.

How much of your advice is drawn from personal experience?

I have been detained, yes. I have seen and experienced it firsthand. Here in Connecticut, I defended my home against a home invader. That person ended up passing away. I was detained, I was charged, and I was held initially on a million-dollar bond. It took two-and-a-half years of detention to resolve that case. In Connecticut, the bond dictated what security level you were, regardless of what the actual charge was. So, I was up there in the most oppressive, aggressive detention facility imaginable in the state of Connecticut.

But for those two-and-a-half years, I didn’t buy a TV, I didn’t get a CD player, I didn’t get anything fancy. I got law books, and I spent every waking moment reviewing my case and participating in my defense. A little AM radio and some coffee is all you need. It’s about keeping your head in the game.

Why were you detained for so long? Did your case go to trial?

No, eventually I plead out and I accepted a misdemeanor and time served. I was detained for two-and-a-half years. You can appear in court 10, 15, or 20 times for motions and crime lab results and things like that. There’s such a backlog. It’s just the process—it just grinds and grinds and grinds.

What kind of representation did you have? Were you working with a public defender?

No, I hired a top attorney. The cost was almost six figures. That’s the decision that had to be made. Thankfully I had a team of supporters who said they would fight it with me.

What advice did you get from anyone about how to navigate pre-trial detention?

None whatsoever. You’re left to figure it all out on your own. And mistakes can be made very quickly. My main advice to everyone is to sit down, be quiet, and observe. For the first couple of weeks, keep your mouth shut, your ears open, and watch.

In an email to me, you wrote that you wanted to change the conversation around bail and pre-trial detention—that people should know that this isn’t just a hardship for the underprivileged, but that it’s difficult for everyone.

Yes. A person of little means, for instance on a $3,000 bond, who can’t make the 10 percent, is experiencing the exact same thing that a person is, who is perhaps of some means, on a $500,000 bond, who can’t make that either. A lot of the literature and the position statements that I’ve seen out there seem to say that this is only an issue related to those of a lower socioeconomic class. It’s not. It’s an issue regardless of class. If you can’t make the bond, you can’t make the bond. It’s just that simple.

At any given time in pre-trial detention, you’ve got people from every socioeconomic class. Individuals of means will have to make that decision: Do I cash out all of my family’s assets and position them to a bondsman? You could also have a strong cash position but a poor asset position. The bond’s not going to be written if you can’t use assets to back the bond, and you’re still not going to qualify for a public defender. So here’s the awful decision: Do I remain in custody, and use what assets I have in cash to hire a strong, top-gun attorney to fight my case? A good attorney may cost $50,000 or $70,000. So many people make that terrible decision and decide that they have to remain in custody.

Pre-trial detention is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic class you come from. You are all treated the same, you are all classified with an inmate number, you are all subject to the same rules, and you all eat the same dinner at night. Your survival depends on your understanding that.

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.