Conrad Black Lords it behind bars
Six months into his US jail sentence, the disgraced newspaper proprietor is giving lectures to his fellow cons – and striking a defiant pose
Published 08/09/2008 | 11:55
Belligerently protesting his innocence, poring for hours over legal documents that he expects will clear his name, feuding with the press, and pontificating on history and current affairs to an audience of lesser mortals – much is as it always has been in the life of Conrad Black.
Except of course, the pompous peer – whose former ownership of The Daily Telegraph won him the keys to the British establishment – is holed up in a low-security prison in Florida, where he is six months into a six-and-a-half year jail term for fraud and obstructing justice.
Much to his joy, Black is emerging as the professor of Coleman correctional facility, working in the library and filling his days with reading and writing, including work on a 12-week lecture series on American history that is attracting an intrigued following among fellow inmates.
Such are the good relations with fellow prisoners that some have helped him play cat-and-mouse games with the journalists who have, from time to time, camped outside Coleman, the razor wire-bordered site that lies 50 miles north-west of Orlando.
When Rupert Murdoch's New York Post sent dozens of letters seeking information about Black to other inmates, many of them told him about the correspondence and, according to the peer, "facilitated an amusing bit of disinformation".
The New York Post's claim that the reality of prison life only really hit home when Black was subjected to "a full-body cavity search", was pure fiction, Black claims – although he does allow that "parts of my torso have rarely been the subject of such flattering curiosity".
A similar approach by a British tabloid elicited an informant who claimed that Black had been given the nickname "Lordy" by fellow inmates, and was establishing himself as something of a kingpin in his part of the jail, organising one of his two cellmates to act as a kind of gofer.
Whether or not these testimonies can be exactly relied upon, it is clear that Black is holding up well, treating the experience as an intriguing novelty for an inquiring mind. His mood is "philosophical", he told readers of his own former flagship Canadian daily, the National Post.
"This facility is not oppressive; there is no violence, many of the people here are quite interesting, and I have had no unpleasantness with anyone. It is far from a country club and is a material contrast from life in my homes, but it is not uncivilised and I am putting the time to good use and planning the relaunch of my career when this lengthy and tiresome persecution is over," he wrote recently.
"If saintly men like Gandhi could choose to clean latrines, and Thomas More could voluntarily wear a hair shirt, this experience won't kill me."
Work in the library is a privileged position, and a fast promotion from the menial chores such as dishwashing given to Black in the first days of his incarceration. It also gives him access to newspapers and to email, which he uses to communicate with lawyers and – via some sneaky forwarding of correspondence – to the editors of the National Post, which has been helpfully keeping readers abreast of Black's daily routine.
Supporters and enemies alike have been keen to discover how the peer would adapt to life as prisoner 18330-424, a still astonishing reversal of fortune for a man who once controlled the third-largest newspaper corporation in the English-speaking world and commanded the high society cocktail scene in London, New York and his native Toronto. A Chicago jury decided he had defrauded the outside shareholders of his Hollinger International empire to the tune of $6.1m, by inserting phoney clauses into business deals that enriched him and four co-conspirators. A panel of three appeals court judges rejected his attempt to overturn the verdict and, in recent days, a review of their appeal decision has been denied.
Andrew Frey, Black's appeal lawyer, says the former media mogul is as engaged as ever in work to clear his name, and plans are afoot for an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, on the grounds that the guilty verdict raises important questions over what constitutes honest service by company directors. "We're not the Hail Mary stage yet, we still have substantial issues," Mr Frey told The Independent. "He's a fighter, and he feels unjustly treated. He's on email, even federal prisoners have limited access to email to communicate with lawyers. He makes the decision about whether to continue, and we run our drafts past him. He's a smart fellow."
As well as his colourful protestations of innocence, and his determination to keep fighting the "putrification" of American justice, Black has also been keeping us up to date on his views on the US economy (not in recession) and election (Barack Obama will lose), much as he did with occasional editorial appearances in his newspapers back in the day. To the outside world, it seems as if Black has not gone away. Only last week, his biography of Richard Nixon, published and publicised during his trial last year, won a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal, and he is promising a more personal follow-up, saying he is spending prison time writing his own story and preparing to resurrect his career on his release, scheduled for 2013. In the meanwhile, that lecture series on American history has, he says, attracted the interest of publishers.
All this work is proving a distraction from the grinding routines of daily life in the prison, where inmates have reported how he often skips breakfast, takes a 4pm nap, fills the evenings playing in the chess league and attends Roman Catholic mass every Sunday. Inside as he did out, he regales his unlikely new acquaintances with tales from a business career that spanned four decades. "The inmates are more interested in how he cut the throats of his competition than the basic fundamentals of business," according to one of the New York Post's secret correspondents. One additional source of comfort has been the loyalty of Black's wife, the pungent right-wing columnist Barbara Amiel. Her addiction to high-society excess was cast in many accounts of the trial as the animus behind Black's treatment of Hollinger as a personal piggy bank, and catty gossip at the time suggested she would slip away from her husband of 16 years as soon as he was behind bars.
To the contrary, her visits have continued, and she remains mainly holed up in the couple's $37m Palm Beach mansion, within reach of her husband. She has penned more than one ferocious defence of her husband in her own column in the Canadian business magazine Macleans, where she has recounted how former friends have deserted the couple like rats leaving a ship.
Despite Coleman's reputation as one of the least severe of low-security prisons, where inmates have significant freedom to move about the facilities and can wear street clothes rather than uniform inside the jail, visits are strictly regimented. A complex points system permits only up to three weekend visits a month, or nine weekday visits. A 17-page document sets out the rules for visitors to Coleman, including a ban on embracing or kissing loved ones, except at the start and end of visits.
There is also a ban on "sleeveless garments, sweat pants, sweat shirts, sun dresses, leotards, wrap-around skirts, crop tops, low-cut blouses or low-cut dresses, low-cut jeans or low-cut shirts, halter tops, bathing suits or backless tops, hats, caps, headbands or headscarves, and Spandex pants", and a warning that underwire bras are also out, since they set off the metal detectors. It was a warning that Lady Black ignored on one occasion, when she had to retire to the car park to re-engineer the garment. "Twenty minutes of beaver-like gnawing, wires removed, I pass inspection," she wrote.
For the time being, the couple are adopting a tone of weary forbearance – and maintaining their hope of ultimate vindication. "Time and sober analysis," Black said in his most recent missive from the prison library, "will reveal that parts of the US and Canadian justice systems, and not I, have been disgraced."