The victory of Coleman prison’s famous professor, Conrad Black

Evening Standard, 6 July, 2010

They had a party in Coleman prison, north Florida on June 24. The guest of honour was the prison's most famous inmate, Conrad Black, Lord Black of Coldharbour, former media mogul. The occasion was a unanimous decision by the US Supreme Court that day which called into question Black's 2008 conviction on fraud.

Ersatz pizzas and ice cream were devoured. “The Supremes”, as Black called the nine justices of America's top court, were toasted. Black's 2008 fraud trial in Chicago was fiendishly complicated, and the press often ignored the mind-numbing legal niceties in favour of lurid detail of Black's lavish lifestyle.

Black has always robustly maintained his innocence of all the charges and indeed he was cleared at the time on nine of the 13, including the fundamental allegations that he had run his holding company, Hollinger, as a “kleptocracy”. But the jury did find him guilty of obstructing justice — for removing papers from his office.

He was also convicted on three counts of mail fraud. Sentenced to six and a half years, he has already served 28 months. The Supreme Court has now held that Black's prosecutors misused the law under which he was convicted.
He will now appeal and hope to be released. I was told it was best to turn up at the prison early and in the simplest of clothes. Car keys and mobiles have to be left in a locker in the waiting room. All you can take inside is $20 in $1 bills and change.

I waited with family and friends of other prisoners. When they realised I was visiting Black, several came up to praise him — because he has been teaching their illiterate sons to read and write, thus giving them the chance of a life beyond drug-dealing.

I was escorted through several lock-ups and barbed wire fences into a large room like an auditorium. Prisoners were sitting with their WAGs and other visitors, each at his own table. It seemed a bit like a school prom.
Black, pale but thinner in his green prison uniform, greeted me; we sat and talked for four hours. He was keen to hear all the latest political news from London and we gradually wore through the $20 in the slot machines that dispensed junk food. Black has made the best of his involuntary confinement. He can receive and send emails; his devoted wife Barbara and friends have kept him constantly supplied with news.

This has enabled him to develop a new career as a columnist. He told me he had really enjoyed helping young inmates — “people who had drawn short straws from the system” — pass exams and have a new chance in life. And he took pleasure in teaching US history to older cons.

He says he has now seen the underside of the American dream — the flaws of its justice system, the scandalous wastage of millions of lives and the fraud of the War on Drugs.

He says he is trying “to rationalise my beliefs as a pure capitalist”. He always retained faith that “The Supremes” would see that his conviction itself was a fraud. He was right.

Black's lawyer, Miguel Estrada, will now apply for bail and a re-hearing before the Appeals Court. Black is confident — as always. The only sad thing about his release will be that the young illiterates in Coleman will have to look for another teacher.


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