Experts: Prison will be 'huge shock' to Harry Thomas Jr.

Local,DC,Alan Blinder

Former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. once used public money so he could take glitzy golfing vacations. But in southeast Alabama later this week, he'll experience another type of overnight accommodation that tax dollars fund: prison.

Thomas -- who will be inmate No. 31866-016 -- is set to report to a federal prison camp in Montgomery on Wednesday to serve a 38-month sentence for stealing more than $353,000 earmarked for D.C. youth sports programs. Through his attorney, he declined to comment for this story.

Though the Alabama capital is nearly 800 miles from the District, Thomas requested that he do his time there, perhaps because prison experts rank the facility as one of the best places in the United States to serve a federal sentence. The minimum-security camp, they note, has ample work and educational opportunities for its approximately 900 inmates.

But even though the complex is no Alcatraz, Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who served time in federal prison, said the experience will stun Thomas.

"Going in, stripping naked, getting the full cavity search. ... It's just a huge shock to the system, especially for someone who was making the laws," Smith said. "You can't appreciate how jarring that is until you go through it."

Alabama alum
Harry Thomas Jr. won't be the first major D.C. figure to serve a federal prison sentence in Montgomery, Ala. Charles Colson, President Nixon's special counsel, did seven months at the complex.

That Thomas will even surrender at the prison will mark him for attention, Smith said, because most inmates come to the camp from tougher facilities.

"That will make people assume that he's softer than they are," Smith said. "One of the first things he'll have to deal with is not being seen as easy prey."SClBLarry Levine, a former federal inmate who founded Wall Street Prison Consultants, said Thomas should recognize early that he is no longer a power broker.

"Maybe in D.C. he was a big fish, but now he's no better than the drug dealer sleeping on the bunk next to him," Levine said. "If he comes off and thinks that he's better than someone else, there's a good possibility somebody's going to put their fist in his face."

Thomas' day will begin with a 5:15 a.m. wake-up, after which he'll report to work. The jobs range from landscaping to cooking -- and they all pay far less that the $125,000 Thomas made annually as a councilman. At the camp's laundry facility, for example, the starting pay is 23 cents an hour.

Smith said, though, that the worst of Thomas' long-running saga may be behind him.

"The first time he realized they were on him, that's the worst time," Smith said. "That is so stressful. It's kind of liberating to have it all off your back."

Levine said the sentence could even prove beneficial for Thomas.

"He can use his knowledge and experience to help others," he said. "Treat it as a learning experience."

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