Big Dogs in the Big House | Ex-Context | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Big Dogs in the Big House

High-profile cases are giving criminals a bad name

Cop shows are popular in prison like they are out here in the real world, but a lot of guys inside don't watch the ending. Guys who have been through the criminal justice gristmill root for underdogs—or the "bad guys," as some people refer to them. We are solidly behind the likes of Tony Soprano and Jesse James.

Of course, nearly everyone has enough anti-authoritarian sentiment to have rooted for Butch and Sundance, Bonnie and Clyde and Ocean's Eleven or Twelve or whatever. But cons and ex-cons can go the extra mile and find empathy with real-life characters like Willie Sutton, the "Chicken Hill Bandit" Joseph Gaito, Vincent "the Chin" Gigante and maybe even Pablo Escobar. It's not always easy to justify intellectually, but viscerally, we like to see people get away with things or at least have good long runs.

There are limits: You wouldn't want to be a rapist or a child molester in prison, or someone who cons old people out of their life savings. Those avocations will guarantee a bad bit. On the flip side, a bookie or a pot grower or someone who robs banks with a note will generally be well accepted.

Ingrained as these feelings are in the demimonde, lately they have been stretched to the breaking point. Why? Because more top dogs have been running afoul of the law.

One of the chief officers of Verizon and I were in the same prison for a while. He was a nice guy, friendly and polite, and he did a lot of favors for a lot of guys. Still, he gave off an aura that made a lot of guys think that he didn't think he was one of us. He would readily admit that he embezzled all that money; he just didn't seem to think that embezzling made him a criminal. So for a long time, whenever he walked into the chow hall, someone would shout, "Can you hear me now?"

Or how about Enron's Ken Lay and Jeffery Skilling? They don't even seem to grasp that what they were doing was stealing. A lot of people go to trial pretending to be innocent, but these guys really seem to think they didn't do anything wrong. They will do bad time if they take that attitude to the joint with them. It probably wouldn't hurt to lose some of that smartest-guy-in-the-room cockiness either. Then again, if they held onto enough of that money, they'll find friends — or at least guys who will pretend to like them, as long as they pay.

What broke it for me was former California Congressman, and current convicted felon, Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Usually, whenever I read that the feds have confiscated someone's hard-earned, ill-gotten gains, I feel for the guy. If he's doing the time, why can't he keep the money, especially if it wasn't stolen? But before getting nailed for accepting bribes, Cunningham co-authored the "No Frills Prison Bill" — because he thought that prison wasn't miserable enough.

Here's a couple of letters for you to remember, Dukester: PC. It stands for protective custody. As soon as it gets around the joint about the prison bill, pull one of the cops aside and tell him that you want to go into PC.

Even the real big boys are playing the convict game — guys who had seats at the big table, including Dick Cheney's aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Maybe they think it will help them to pick up chicks or something. Scooter, by the way, is not the sort of nickname you want to bring to jail with you. Fortunately for him, though, I don't think that he's going to have to go. His I-was-only-following-orders defense has the smell of something that's going to work.

It seems to me that even the No. 1 top dog, George W. Bush, has been treading a fine line when it comes to the law. He probably even stepped over it, what with the unconstitutional wiretaps and leaking classified material and lying to Congress about intelligence reports. But I could be wrong. Greater legal minds than mine have determined that this conduct doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense — like oral sex in the Oval Office, for instance.

Still, the whole thing has turned me off from crime … and almost made me happy that I have a job.