Defiant Conrad Black starts life as a prisoner

Defiant and bombastic to the last, Conrad Black hurled Churchillian rhetoric at his accusers yesterday before bidding farewell to his wife, Barbara Amiel, and surrendering to authorities at the largest penitentiary in the United States.

"They will have their fleeting moment of brutish triumph," the former press baron said, but added: "It's no real triumph for them; it's a complete travesty of justice. It doesn't bother me because it won't last long."

As he began his six-and-a half year sentence at the Coleman Correctional centre, near Orlando, Florida, inmate 18330-424 was facing up to the grim reality and mind-numbing monotony of prison life.

However sugar-coated the initiation process, Black will have to endure a bleak and rigid regime. The prison rules, laid out at a mandatory "admission and orientation programme" for new inmates, will mean a life marked by the noise of clanging doors, endless headcounts and queues. The quality of the food will be poor and there is always the risk of bullying by other inmates.

"At any time, anything can go wrong," said one of Black's fellow prisoners, Roger Grace, who is serving 12 years for his role in a cocaine deal.

Black's lawyers are filing an appeal, which will be heard in June. If it fails, he will have to serve 85 per cent of his sentence before parole; if he succeeds, he could be out after serving little more than three months.

The Orlando jail's Inmate Information Handbook encourages new prisoners to look on the bright side of life. "Our goal is to minimise the negative experiences you have during incarceration and provide opportunities for personal growth and development," the handbook says. "Good luck during your stay at Coleman."

But that could be hard for the man once known for his flamboyant lifestyle and extravagant spending habits. Last night, Black was due to make his first stop at Coleman's receiving and discharge department, where he will be issued with prison shirts, trousers, underwear and socks, in sets of four which must be worn for at least six months. He will also get a single pair of boots for every year he serves.

Like anyone else doing time, his clothing will have a tag with his inmate number and an identification card for access to a prison shop. There, he will have the opportunity to pick and choose between sweets, deodorants and board games.

Black remains optimistic that his conviction will be reversed on appeal. He spoke at length to Canada's Financial Post newspaper before surrendering yesterday afternoon, comparing himself to Martha Stewart, the entrepreneurial domestic guru who emerged from her time in prison to resume her iconic role in US life.

"It's not the least bit stigmatising," he said breezily. "This bourgeois theory that it's a frightful blotting of the ledger is a lot of nonsense. It didn't happen to Martha Stewart. And besides, I am innocent. If I'd actually done anything illegal, I wouldn't contest it, I would repent it."

In this, Black has a point, as more than one out of every 100 American adults is now in prison, a total of 2.3 million people. But even low-security prisons such as Coleman can be menacing and a celebrity inmate like Black could attract trouble. The facility insists that every inmate must have a job, whether it be mopping floors or teaching other inmates. They are paid between 16 cents and a dollar (8p and 50p) an hour, depending on the job. Black will have to work day shifts as well as evening, weekend and holiday rotas.

As he headed to jail, Black said he was not bothered in the slightest by the prospect of joining convicted drug dealers and other criminals inside: "This is not a scary place. There's no violence there. I expect it to be somewhat boring. It's a hell of a way to lose weight, but I'll lose weight."

What he will immediately lose is his privacy; especially if he is assigned to a three-man cubicle. But there will one perk: he will get a shower every day, a privilege granted only at low-security prisons.

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