Consultant, released, sees prison opportunity

Eight and a half years after the judge sent him upstate, Pennsylvania's parole board signed David Downey's card and sent him home from Waymart State Corrections Institution -- where the state had moved him after Graterford and Camp Hill – back to suburban Philadelphia, and his business plan.

He had been convicted of drug delivery resulting in the 2005 death of teenaged escort service worker Ashley Burg, killed by a cocaine overdose at his home.

A government intelligence veteran turned business consultant, Downey had been a source of mine, a salty voice on corporate security, federal contracting and mismanagement. I remembered his gravel voice, his walrus mustache, his insistence that coarsening American manners were fueling the rise in corporate misbehavior. And his own wildman edge.

“Doc” was lighter, clean-shaven, with brush-cut silver hair, when we met for breakfast at a diner near King of Prussia, a week after his release. He was blunt as ever: “I’ve been a drunk. My dad was a drunk. If I took a drink tomorrow, I’d be dead in a month,” he told me.

Like any good consultant, Downey is leveraging his recent experience to a new market: He’s been pitching his new firm, In - Gear LLP, to lawyers in Philadelphia and Washington, as a security consultant and adviser to corporate officers and other white-collar people convicted of crimes.

“Prison is not facilitating any recovery,” says Downey. “It is dangerous and scary.” A company owner or officer, a suburban multiple-DUI offender, a nonprofit embezzler, typically “ has no idea. I can train them on what to expect. I can save them anxiety and emotional pain."

Downey has seen up close the effect of state budget cuts: “Over eight years I saw degradation, the declining scale of food, facilities and blankes. They give you less,” he told me. “There’s issues now with toilet paper, with soap distribution;” some locations even limit water service. Front of all is the human element: ethnic factions, corrections officers with their rules and bosses and power struggles, lies, disease, physical and mental power struggles, the absence of the trust that is supposed to bind working relationships: “Many people, when they enter, have no idea what they are dealing with.”

And for lawyers "who lost in court, "they want to save that relationship with the client,” Downey says he can help with that, too. 

“For guys who have not been exposed to prison, who never got the word on the street on what it’s like, this becomes a real culture shock. I’ve seen it,” said Blue Bell attorney Thomas Egan III, who helped with Downey’s appeal. “David might have something valuable to offer them.”

Downey was better educated, had been better paid, than many prisoners. But that didn’t matter: “People like college guys, military, have to understand their standing doesn’t matter. They have to get educated about what’s coming down the lane.” As a corrections officer who knew his public service record told Downey, “I admire what you used to do. But I got to control 70 (hard cases) in this room. You’re just an inmate in a nasty place.”

Downey preaches consistency – not seeking enemies, figuring out when to stand your ground and push back. And helping others, your way, for self-respect and profit: “I’d talk to Philly prisoners about things I knew. The stock market. How a cash account works. What a receipt is.” He developed a class teaching venture and equity funding. “But the warden won’t let you hold people to account for their homework.” He moved on to less formal counseling.

That helped him make peace with urban inmates – African Americans from North Philly and Norristown, whites from Kensington, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Enough inmates want to be Muslims, he says, that the group can afford to be selective, rejecting inmates felt likely to “use the trash can by the exit door as a kufi depository” where Muslim garb and discipline might be left instead of taken to heart. “You have to regard the Muslims. I do. Their leadership knew they could rely on me for advice. They invited me to dinners. They just want to have their religion respected.” He had a tougher time with the “country boys, Appalachian, from those little Pennsylvania towns. Some of those people don’t respect human life, or anything.”

Prison staff also takes careful attention. “Tell a guard something, and they may use it against you six months later,” he says. The system is tough on corrections officers: “They say they wear a vest for two reasons. The front, to protect them from us. The back, from each other. It’s all about control.”

Downey insists he’s not bitter: “I don’t have a beef with the state prison system. I’m not angry about how it operates. I can be helpful in helping men and women deal with it.”

How to make it better? Stop trying to stretch increasingly poor food across three meals: “Only feed the prisoners twice a day,” but better: "Inmates can make major meals with ramen noodles and a piece of fish."

Also, "make a better library, and put people in charge who are considerate. And end the weight programs,” there’s no net upside to prison muscles. “Create aerobic programs instead. And certify teachers, give people incentives to take a course.”

That’s Downey’s vision in a nutshell: understanding, accepting, adapting in a harsh environment, and preparing for the day when the prisoner is back among us all. Now he'll see if he can sell that to others heading inside.