A little time in prison is good for business. Just ask Jeff Scheeler, the chief financial officer for First Title Agency.
When the bus transporting Scheeler approached the gates of the men’s correctional section of the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky., the sight of the razor wire, guards, dogs and signs warning inmates to stay back or risk being shot had an immediate and profound impact on him.
“Seeing that was eye-opening,” he says.
Opening eyes, of course, is the point. In an era scarred by business scandals like those at Enron, WorldCom and Tyco International, tales of white-collar crime have become all too familiar. So for the past four years, Paul Fiorelli, director for the University’s center for business ethics and social responsibility, has loaded students from his executive M.B.A. classes onto buses and traveled to Lexington to see firsthand the consequences of bad judgment.
This year, Scheeler and 31 of his classmates made the trip, where, over the course of the day, they ate prison food, caught sometimes-uncomfortable glimpses of prison life and spent time talking with inmates from the adjacent women’s work camp, which once housed the “queen of mean,” hotel empress Leona Helmsley.
This isn’t “Scared Straight” for executives, says Fiorelli. It is, however, a powerful reminder. “When we talked to the ladies from the work camp,” Scheeler says, “I realized that they could be in for any number of reasons that I hadn’t considered—mail fraud, wire fraud—and I became a little uneasy. Having worked in a highly regulated industry for more than 10 years, I’ve always tried to do the right thing. But there are always gray areas, and it unnerves me to think that something I do—something I feel very strongly is legal, right and ethical—could be perceived differently by others. I’ll think differently about future decisions.”
The annual visits had their genesis in 1999, when Fiorelli was a Supreme Court Fellow in Washington, D.C. At a sentencing conference, he happened to sit next to Chris Erlewine, general counsel for the United States Bureau of Prisons. The two talked, and Fiorelli put forth the idea of prison visits. Erlewine agreed to contact the warden in Lexington on Fiorelli’s behalf.
“A few graduate programs are doing something similar, but not a lot,” Fiorelli says. “It’s kind of a special thing.”
So on an overcast morning in January, Scheeler and his classmates left cell phones, pagers and all sharp objects on the bus and followed the guards into the men’s facility. There they were processed, stamped with ultraviolet ink, and marched off to lunch, only to find themselves sharing the hallway with about 400 inmates. For many in the class, this was an awkward—even apprehensive—experience.
“They were all lined up,” says Jill Isley, finance manager with Hill-Rom Co., which manufactures hospital furniture and various healthcare-related systems. “We had to march through in the middle, and I remember how uncomfortable I felt. I couldn’t look them in the eye.”
Following lunch, the students broke into two groups to tour the men’s facility with its chapel, drug-treatment facility, exercise yard, segregation unit for prisoners who need to be isolated from the general population, and UNICOR production facility, where inmates manufacture goods for the federal government. Isley says seeing the inmates going about their work struck a chord.
“I work every day, and they work every day,” she says. “I work 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., they work 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. So how is that different? Well, when they get done at 5:00 p.m., they don’t go home.”
Although lack of freedom and privacy are synonymous with most people’s concept of prison, seeing the reality still surprises some students, Fiorelli says.
“We would go into sleeping quarters,” he says. “There might be a guy sleeping there and they’d walk us right in.
“One of the students made the comment that you could read 100 Harvard Business Review cases on white-collar crime and still not get the same sense as when you walk through the halls, talk to people and see them in their environment. You say ‘Wow, this is what it’s like to look at razor wire all day. This is what it’s like to have zero privacy, to have zero control of your life, to have no liberty.’ ”
In contrast, security was much more lax in the women’s work camp. And after getting a feel for the basics of prison life in the men’s area, the class spent the last hour of the visit in the camp talking with five inmates, including a 72-year-old grandmotherly type who’s serving a 15-year sentence for embezzlement. For many in the class, hearing these inmates discuss the circumstances surrounding their crimes was particularly thought provoking, even though some of the stories themselves didn’t ring true.
“I think back at the many deals, decisions, personnel issues and personal situations that I have been involved with,” says Jose Guerra, an information technology management consultant, “and I wonder how many times I might have been near the edge. I know I won’t dramatically change the way I do things as a result of the visit, but it has raised my sensitivity and awareness on making sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed, at least from a legal perspective.”
At 3:30 p.m., Scheeler and his classmates walked out of the camp and headed for the bus. By then, Scheeler’s preconceptions had done an about-face.
“I thought this trip was going to be a colossal waste of time,” he says. “But it turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire program.”