If you are a convicted offender from a middle-class background about to be tossed into the prison system, there is a special service on offer for you. It is called Prison Consultants. During that ghastly period when the date for your sentencing has been set and the judge has warned you to come with an overnight bag, these consultants will initiate you into the unwritten rules and secret snares of prison life to ease the encounter you face.
And they know what they're talking about. "Our consultants, both male and female, have experience of prison life from 'behind the door'," the website announces. "They are graduates of the prison system, ex-offenders who are capable of offering words of wisdom based on real experience."
The brain behind this new business is Steven Dagworthy, who served half of his six-year jail sentence for what was described in court as a £3m Ponzi scheme. Afterwards, Dagworthy persuaded a business contact, Steve Hamer, a former chairman of Swansea City FC, to set up the business and employ him as consultant.
Another consultant is Joyti Waswani, reputedly the biggest female fraudster in British criminal history, whose story was made into a 2005 BBC drama documentary, The Secretary Who Stole £4 million, starring Meera Syal. She pilfered the money from the accounts of her bosses at Goldman Sachs, three company directors who were all so rich that they did not notice it had gone. After they eventually twigged, she served half of a seven-year sentence in three closed prisons under her then married name of Joyti De-Laurey.
This kind of business is new to these shores, but not to the US, where its like has been around for decades. The industry received a sudden burst of publicity in 2009, when it emerged that the fraudster Bernie Madoff, who was in solitary confinement awaiting sentence, was being given free advice from a firm based in Baltimore that had been in this line of work for 30 years. The advice had to come at no cost to Madoff, because all of his assets had been frozen, but the publicity was worth far more than any fee would have been. The case encouraged dozens of ex-convicts to enter the business, creating fierce competition.
The sales pitch used by prison consultants is that bad things can happen in prison to people who go in there not knowing the unwritten rules. They tell horror stories of middle-class convicts being bullied and fleeced inside – but then they have to, because if there was no threat, they would have no clients.
However, if the statements of some high-profile ex-prisoners are to be believed, white-collar prisoners are not generally victimised by their fellow inmates, and only encounter hostility if they behave in way that other prisoners consider provocative. The worst experience that the convicted perjurer Jeffrey Archer recounted in three volumes of prison memoirs was the noise from a shared television. One evening, he asked for it to be turned down. "I was greeted," he lamented, "with a universal chorus of 'fuck off!'"
Lord Taylor of Warwick, the Tory peer jailed for fiddling his expenses, told The Voice: "I experienced God's love through the friendship and compassion of other prisoners. Many seemed grateful for the advice I gave them about their own problems. There was one black guy in particular who made the most delicious porridge I have ever tasted."
Vicky Pryce, sentenced to eight months for perverting the course of justice after taking speeding points for her then husband Chris Huhne, wrote in her memoir: "Many people think that prison must be a terrifying place with lots of violent women locked behind bars. It isn't."
If you can't do the time, they say, don't do the crime: but if you can, don't waste your money on a consultant.