Prisoner 18330-424: Black Lords it behind bars

Six months into his US jail sentence, the disgraced newspaper proprietor is giving lectures to his fellow cons – and striking a defiant pose

Belligerently protesting his innocence, poring for hours over legal documents that he expects will clear his name, feuding with the press, and pontificating on history and current affairs to an audience of lesser mortals – much is as it always has been in the life of Conrad Black.

Except of course, the pompous peer – whose former ownership of The Daily Telegraph won him the keys to the British establishment – is holed up in a low-security prison in Florida, where he is six months into a six-and-a-half year jail term for fraud and obstructing justice.

Much to his joy, Black is emerging as the professor of Coleman correctional facility, working in the library and filling his days with reading and writing, including work on a 12-week lecture series on American history that is attracting an intrigued following among fellow inmates.

Such are the good relations with fellow prisoners that some have helped him play cat-and-mouse games with the journalists who have, from time to time, camped outside Coleman, the razor wire-bordered site that lies 50 miles north-west of Orlando.

When Rupert Murdoch's New York Post sent dozens of letters seeking information about Black to other inmates, many of them told him about the correspondence and, according to the peer, "facilitated an amusing bit of disinformation".

The New York Post's claim that the reality of prison life only really hit home when Black was subjected to "a full-body cavity search", was pure fiction, Black claims – although he does allow that "parts of my torso have rarely been the subject of such flattering curiosity".

A similar approach by a British tabloid elicited an informant who claimed that Black had been given the nickname "Lordy" by fellow inmates, and was establishing himself as something of a kingpin in his part of the jail, organising one of his two cellmates to act as a kind of gofer.

Whether or not these testimonies can be exactly relied upon, it is clear that Black is holding up well, treating the experience as an intriguing novelty for an inquiring mind. His mood is "philosophical", he told readers of his own former flagship Canadian daily, the National Post.

"This facility is not oppressive; there is no violence, many of the people here are quite interesting, and I have had no unpleasantness with anyone. It is far from a country club and is a material contrast from life in my homes, but it is not uncivilised and I am putting the time to good use and planning the relaunch of my career when this lengthy and tiresome persecution is over," he wrote recently.

"If saintly men like Gandhi could choose to clean latrines, and Thomas More could voluntarily wear a hair shirt, this experience won't kill me."

Work in the library is a privileged position, and a fast promotion from the menial chores such as dishwashing given to Black in the first days of his incarceration. It also gives him access to newspapers and to email, which he uses to communicate with lawyers and – via some sneaky forwarding of correspondence – to the editors of the National Post, which has been helpfully keeping readers abreast of Black's daily routine.

Supporters and enemies alike have been keen to discover how the peer would adapt to life as prisoner 18330-424, a still astonishing reversal of fortune for a man who once controlled the third-largest newspaper corporation in the English-speaking world and commanded the high society cocktail scene in London, New York and his native Toronto. A Chicago jury decided he had defrauded the outside shareholders of his Hollinger International empire to the tune of $6.1m, by inserting phoney clauses into business deals that enriched him and four co-conspirators. A panel of three appeals court judges rejected his attempt to overturn the verdict and, in recent days, a review of their appeal decision has been denied.

Andrew Frey, Black's appeal lawyer, says the former media mogul is as engaged as ever in work to clear his name, and plans are afoot for an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, on the grounds that the guilty verdict raises important questions over what constitutes honest service by company directors. "We're not the Hail Mary stage yet, we still have substantial issues," Mr Frey told The Independent. "He's a fighter, and he feels unjustly treated. He's on email, even federal prisoners have limited access to email to communicate with lawyers. He makes the decision about whether to continue, and we run our drafts past him. He's a smart fellow."

As well as his colourful protestations of innocence, and his determination to keep fighting the "putrification" of American justice, Black has also been keeping us up to date on his views on the US economy (not in recession) and election (Barack Obama will lose), much as he did with occasional editorial appearances in his newspapers back in the day. To the outside world, it seems as if Black has not gone away. Only last week, his biography of Richard Nixon, published and publicised during his trial last year, won a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal, and he is promising a more personal follow-up, saying he is spending prison time writing his own story and preparing to resurrect his career on his release, scheduled for 2013. In the meanwhile, that lecture series on American history has, he says, attracted the interest of publishers.

All this work is proving a distraction from the grinding routines of daily life in the prison, where inmates have reported how he often skips breakfast, takes a 4pm nap, fills the evenings playing in the chess league and attends Roman Catholic mass every Sunday. Inside as he did out, he regales his unlikely new acquaintances with tales from a business career that spanned four decades. "The inmates are more interested in how he cut the throats of his competition than the basic fundamentals of business," according to one of the New York Post's secret correspondents. One additional source of comfort has been the loyalty of Black's wife, the pungent right-wing columnist Barbara Amiel. Her addiction to high-society excess was cast in many accounts of the trial as the animus behind Black's treatment of Hollinger as a personal piggy bank, and catty gossip at the time suggested she would slip away from her husband of 16 years as soon as he was behind bars.

To the contrary, her visits have continued, and she remains mainly holed up in the couple's $37m Palm Beach mansion, within reach of her husband. She has penned more than one ferocious defence of her husband in her own column in the Canadian business magazine Macleans, where she has recounted how former friends have deserted the couple like rats leaving a ship.

Despite Coleman's reputation as one of the least severe of low-security prisons, where inmates have significant freedom to move about the facilities and can wear street clothes rather than uniform inside the jail, visits are strictly regimented. A complex points system permits only up to three weekend visits a month, or nine weekday visits. A 17-page document sets out the rules for visitors to Coleman, including a ban on embracing or kissing loved ones, except at the start and end of visits.

There is also a ban on "sleeveless garments, sweat pants, sweat shirts, sun dresses, leotards, wrap-around skirts, crop tops, low-cut blouses or low-cut dresses, low-cut jeans or low-cut shirts, halter tops, bathing suits or backless tops, hats, caps, headbands or headscarves, and Spandex pants", and a warning that underwire bras are also out, since they set off the metal detectors. It was a warning that Lady Black ignored on one occasion, when she had to retire to the car park to re-engineer the garment. "Twenty minutes of beaver-like gnawing, wires removed, I pass inspection," she wrote.

For the time being, the couple are adopting a tone of weary forbearance – and maintaining their hope of ultimate vindication. "Time and sober analysis," Black said in his most recent missive from the prison library, "will reveal that parts of the US and Canadian justice systems, and not I, have been disgraced."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own