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Money-Making Schemes That Ensnare Prisoners and Their Families

If it sounds too good to be true, legal experts say, it probably is.

If you believe the advertisements mailed to federal prisoners across the country, getting out of prison early is as simple as paying thousands of dollars to the right person.

Early release scams are rampant in prisons, experts say, as opportunists recognize the desperate and captive market they have in incarcerated people and their families. Word of each new company travels fast in the prison gossip mill, and those inside have few resources to adequately vet claims.

Read more about the Texas con artist who made millions promising prisoners' families the thing they wanted most: To bring their children home.

New schemes often pop up when there are changes to federal criminal law, prisoner advocates say. Several companies and individuals in the past year have peddled dubious strategies to win inmates’ release under the recently-passed First Step Act, for example.

Shon Hopwood, a formerly incarcerated lawyer and professor at Georgetown Law School, remembers how the ads came like clockwork. “We used to get bombarded with mailings from lawyers because at the end of June, the Supreme Court’s term would end,” Hopwood said. “They used to say, ‘We can use these cases and get everyone out of prison!’ The law rarely works that way.”

Lawyers say that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. They point to these common offers that prisoners and their families should be wary of.

“Confidential informants”

In 2017, Alvin Warrick and his co-conspirators went to prison for running a years-long, multi-million dollar scheme that stole from at least 22 families. It worked like this: Under what’s known as “Rule 35(b)” in the federal criminal code, inmates can get their sentences reduced in exchange for information on criminal activity. The rule usually applies to defendants who provide intelligence about co-conspirators. But Warrick, operating under a pseudonym, told prisoners that in exchange for thousands of dollars, the company could find that information for them. He claimed to run a network of confidential informants that would dig up valuable intelligence and pass it on to the client’s prosecutor.

Even if these secret sources actually existed, federal prosecutors say a court is extremely unlikely to accept intelligence that inmates paid to obtain. Warrick was not the first to sell this idea to prisoners and their families. In 2010, Monterro Paul and Marks Amos pleaded guilty to fraud in Mississippi for using fake badges to impersonate Drug Enforcement Agency officers, telling federal inmates and their families they could help them win shorter sentences. (When reached by phone Paul declined to comment, and Amos could not be reached.)

It’s a common offer still being touted to prisoners today. Terry Edgington, a federal inmate in Mississippi, shared with The Marshall Project advertisements from several companies promoting “Rule 35” deals for thousands of dollars. A fellow inmate, Edgington says, had his family send $15,000 to one company in hopes of a shorter sentence. As one now-defunct website asked: “how much is your loved one’s life worth?”

Paralegals acting as lawyers

According to Brandon Sample, a lawyer in Vermont who runs a listserv for federal inmates through Corrlinks, an in-prison email service, a bevy of “paralegal services” peddles unauthorized legal advice and motions that are destined to fail. Many offer vague legal research and end up writing filings and giving legal advice they don’t have the expertise for.

“They’re hope dealers. They know that everybody wants a chance, everybody wants to get out of prison quicker,” Sample said. “And in many states, it’s not a crime to engage in the unauthorized practice of law, or it’s a misdemeanor. So where does that fall in the [list] of priorities for prosecutors?”

In 2016, a Texas business called “Craig’s Paralegal Services” was hit with an injunction in a state court ordering the group to stop selling faulty legal advice to federal inmates. The founder, Craig Coscarelli, advertised to prisoners and their families through blogs, his own website, social media, newspapers and the Yellow Pages, legal filings show. But he wrote inadequate motions and provided advice without a law degree, according to the complaint filed by an oversight committee appointed by the state supreme court. One of the biggest consequences, the complaint said, is that “the prison inmates Coscarelli is scamming forever lose their right” to appeal or file a motion to get out of prison, if they already submitted one of his poorly prepared filings. In letters Coscarelli told some customers, “I gave you the deal of the century.” (He did not respond to a request for comment.)

Federal court records show that many such services have been sued by past customers for failing to produce promised motions, and some have also been sanctioned for the “unauthorized practice of law.” Families who claim their money was taken have also complained on online review sites like Ripoff Report, Yelp and the Better Business Bureau.

Lying your way into treatment

In January, the Justice Department went after an alleged scam that, according to the indictment, was exploiting both the Bureau of Prisons and inmates in its custody. A company called “RDAP Law Consultants” (referring to the BOP’s Residential Drug Abuse Program) claimed it could help inmates get into in-prison drug treatment programs, whether or not they had an addiction. Those programs, when completed, can shave time off someone’s sentence for good behavior.

According to the indictment, the company coached inmates to lie about past drug abuse, “mimic withdrawal symptoms,” set up medical appointments to establish a paper trail of addiction, and start drinking and using pills before they arrived at the facility. Each consultation cost families thousands of dollars — whether or not they could have gotten into the program without the organization’s help. Two of the men indicted, Tony Tuan Pham and Samuel Copenhaver, pleaded not guilty and could face decades behind bars if convicted. A third co-defendant, Constance Moerland, pleaded guilty, and is facing up to five years in prison. Their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

Others have made similar promises. This April, a lawyer in New York was convicted of conspiracy and false statements for lying about his client’s addiction in a letter to the Bureau of Prisons, in an attempt to get him into the program. He was sentenced to 60 days.

“They’re doing fraudulent stuff to get people in, but they also get people contacting them who are obviously qualified and still taking the money,” said former Bureau of Prisons official Jack Donson of these kinds of schemes.

Buying bonds to win freedom

In one of the more confusing offers out there, some companies have claimed that the government is holding all prisoners for financial reasons and that they can win their freedom by investing in Treasury bonds. In mailers, they explain that prisoners are being held as financial collateral for the government, and that they “use government bonds to buy back the judgement,” as one letter put it. The promotions use the language of the Sovereign Citizen movement, an extreme anti-government ideology that has proliferated in prisons.

One such organization, calling itself Omega-17 LLC, has offered prisoners a way out through this “bond” process since at least 2010, asking for an initial fee of $4,000, according to documents obtained by The Marshall Project. The group’s founder claims it is no longer operating. The fine print of a company mailer noted that they “are NOT attorneys and are NOT giving legal or tax advice….[they] are making no claims of correctness, functionality, results, either positive and/or negative.” Federal court records show judges have thrown out motions filed by the founder as "frivolous" and having no basis in the law.

Similar Sovereign Citizen operations sell a long list of reference materials to prisoners and their families, with some instructions costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. These guides often coach incarcerated people how to write and file claims and motions that will never succeed.

Have you or your family been the victim of an early-release scam? Tell us about it.

Christie Thompson Twitter Email is a staff writer reporting on mental health, solitary confinement, and prison conditions. Her investigative series with NPR examining violence in double-celled “solitary confinement” won a George Polk Award for Justice Reporting and was a finalist for an IRE Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award.