A Therapist Who Preps White-Collar Criminals for Prison Time

After 30 years of working in the criminal-justice system, Andrew Snyder’s job is now to get first-time convicts ready to serve their sentences.

Andrew Snyder  (Rebecca Clarke)

The term “white-collar crime” is attributed to Edwin Sutherland, an American sociologist and criminologist who, in a 1939 speech to the American Sociological Association, used the term to describe professionals’ illegal behavior. Before Sutherland, criminals of all sorts tended to be lumped together, but Sutherland theorized that money-related crimes deserved special attention.

But, as prominently as corporate fraudsters have loomed in the public eye long after Sutherland’s coinage, prosecutions of white-collar crime are actually at a 20-year low. According to statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, the projected number of white-collar prosecutions in 2016 is higher than 6,000; the figure for 1995 was nearly 11,000.

Andrew Snyder has worked in the criminal-justice system for over 30 years, starting as a correctional officer with the California Department of Corrections. After retiring from the criminal-justice system, Snyder pursued a graduate degree and became a therapist to work with first-time offenders and their families before, during, and after serving time. Snyder also has a podcast, Prison Life, in which he speaks to white-collar criminals about their motivations and how their lives changed as a result of their misdeeds.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Snyder about his line of work, whether it’s possible to prepare for prison, and how he can help families through the process. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: How did you start in this line of work?

Andrew Snyder: My career began working for the California Department of Corrections. I started as a correctional officer working inside prison and dealt with inmates daily. It is often that officers counsel inmates, not only in times of misbehavior but also when they are facing challenges both inside and out of prison. After I retired, I became a marriage and family therapist and substance-abuse counselor.

In 2012, I had watched a documentary, Unraveled, about Marc Dreier. He was a prominent New York attorney who was convicted of fraud. The documentary showed him under home arrest before his sentencing. I realized, while watching that documentary, that first-time offenders going to prison weren't getting adequate and competent guidance. Largely, those doing the preparation are ex-convicts and ex-inmates. There isn't anyone with my background and my experience: I’ve worked in prisons as a correctional officer, and I practice marriage and family therapy, so I’m able to discuss those really difficult and emotional concerns with families.

I started formulating the business, and tried it out in 2013. I started working with families in all geographic locations. I'm based in Hawaii, but I do a lot of work in New York, California, and nationwide because I primarily work with inmates that are going to the federal system.

Lam: What's involved in preparing these first-time offenders and their families for prison?

Snyder: Truly, it's listening. I don't set the agenda per se. Many of my clients are distressed about going to prison and being away from their families. My job is to listen to their concerns and consider what will be most helpful to ease their worries and prepare them for their incarceration. We anticipate the likely challenges they will face, inside and out of prison, and focus on building support from other family and friends, planning for release, and reuniting after incarceration.

I let the families talk about what they feel are the biggest concerns. You can imagine the distress in everyone's minds about the prison experience. My clients are typically first-time offenders who have never been in trouble with the law before; their basis for what prison is [comes from] TV shows and movies—which is largely not true. It's embellished and hyped-up. It's about easing those concerns: Listening to what they have to say, and what's troubling them the most.

Then, we shift to preparing for prison based on what it really is. If you're a first-time offender convicted of a white-collar crime—let's say you have a 24-month sentence—you're likely going to a federal prison camp. That's a big difference, between going to a medium-security or maximum-security prison. The danger is much lower; there's a lot more autonomy than you would have at a higher-security institution. It's doable, but difficult: There are separation issues, being away from family. And for the family, having a father or mother away from them. That's what we focus on.

Lam: Tell me more about this gap: You mentioned that first-time offenders and their families have these preconceptions of what prison's going to be like. Your job is preparing them for what it's actually like?

Snyder: Right. The prison experience largely is based on what you're convicted of. If you’re someone who's going for bank fraud, it's going to be a lot different than if you're going in for murder—because the security level that you're going to be housed at is going to be different. They don't house all those inmates together. When you're going into a minimum-security institution, like a federal prison camp, the danger is so reduced by being there versus a maximum- or a medium-security prison. Those are hardcore criminals and they're dangerous. There's a lot of volatility, and a lot of assaults. It's much more difficult. The stress level is 10 times higher in those kinds of institutions, and remarkably as well for the officers that work in there.

Federal prison camp is—I’m not going to say a cakewalk—but it's much easier than a higher-security institution. What I impart on clients is: This is what it's likely going to be like for you. You're not going to be always looking over your shoulder thinking, “Who might attack me? Who may want to hurt me?” People at a federal prison camp realize that it's a blessing, and that it's something that can be taken away. So they don't misbehave at the level they do elsewhere in the institutions.

Lam: What kinds of criminals do you work with?

Snyder: Largely, it's white-collar. I've also worked with sex offenders receiving child pornography. That's a lot different than being convicted of a white-collar crime—the housing is going to be different. They're not allowed to be at federal prison camps. They have to be at least in a low-security, and the difference there is it's behind a perimeter fence.

There, you're likely to be discovered what your crime is. Jared Fogle, the pitchman for Subway, comes to mind. He has a 15-year sentence, which is not eligible for the federal prison camp. He went to low-security; I'm sure you read he was attacked inside prison. It’s different preparing the two: Both are first-time offenders, but the prison experiences can be very different.

Lam: How does one prepare for this kind of stress? Besides listening, what do you do to help prospective inmates and their families prepare?

Snyder: By listening, I can start to evaluate and assess their concerns. You can reduce anxiety by giving them the information, and letting them know what their experience will likely be like inside the prison. You talk about that with them, as well as their family.

I start with the offender by himself or herself. We talk one-on-one and get their concerns out, and then I meet with the family the next day. It's about giving them a map, familiarizing them with the territory—so when they get there, they know what to expect and there's no surprises.

That being said, I always warn my clients to expect the unexpected. Things can change on a dime when you're in prison. You don't have the control that you had when you're living in freedom. The Department of Corrections, or the Bureau of Prisons for the federal, they control your whole life. They absolutely do. You may be expecting to go to one prison, and then that’s not happening and you're going somewhere else. It can turn everyone's life upside-down. I try to prepare them for those events. It's about coping and support.

Lam: In prison, a person is removed from everyone he or she knows. What do you advise your clients to do, in terms of not being able to see or talk to friends and family?

Snyder: There is visitation, and most inmates are allowed to have e-mail privileges with their family, so there is communication. They, of course, have phone conversations too. I also talk about the chance of being manipulated inside by other inmates. I caution them about whom they start to build relationships with inside the prison. It's a challenging walk for them. The isolation—being away from family—is really difficult for the family as well as the offender.

I essentially tell them, "This too will pass." Most inmates [I work with] are going to get out soon enough—"Cope with it. Deal with it the best you can. Get involved." Most of my clients are college-educated; they have a lot of skills. I encourage them to tutor and teach inmates that haven't had the opportunities that my clients have had.

Lam: It sounds like this is very sensitive for everybody involved. How does your work change based on how emotional—stressed, angry, anxious, worried, depressed—your clients are?

Snyder: Sometimes, it can be very emotionally charged when you're meeting with families. What I oftentimes notice happening is there's the blame game, where people are pointing fingers. What I try to do is shift their focus from blaming: "How are we going to deal with this most constructively?" It's separating the anger—for example, "How could you do this? Look what you've done to the family"—and switching that to, "How are we going to succeed as a family now? What do we need to do to get it right?" It's difficult, I'll tell you.

Lam: I know it's not the same for every client, but what are some of the general tips for how to keep the family together and how to not fall apart in these situations?

Snyder: For family and friends: Faith, hope, and building support. For the single parent, the one who's the remaining caregiver, they're carrying a heavy load. They're taking care of these children all by themselves. I always encourage therapy. Find a good therapist that you can talk to, because that helps. Otherwise, it's a pressure cooker. The children will also experience a lot of challenges: Their friends will find out, and classmates will find out about mom or dad being at prison. They're bullied, teased, and they will internalize that. They're my biggest concern, truly. That's where I really stress the support for the kids and the caregiver.

Lam: How many clients do you work with?

Snyder: I meet with families twice a month on average. I have a therapy practice here in Hawaii, and I do the Prison Advisory Services as well. Some families come here to Hawaii; it's a great place to come vacation before you go to prison. Those who are out on bail or bond usually have privileges to travel. They'll spend a week here. I also travel all over the country to see clients where they live. Then I also do the executive coaching.

A lot of this is preventable, [the white-collar criminals] I work with that are going to prison, if they would've just sought help years earlier. It's tragic.

Lam: So your executive coaching is aimed at helping executives not become white-collar criminals?

Snyder: Not necessarily “not become white-collar criminals.” It's about succeeding in life and career. My coaching is about burnout, stress, and fatigue. That's when people make bad choices. Also, not everyone is getting indicted in a federal judicial system—some get fired. What I've found with working with the offenders is it could've been prevented if they would've had help to discuss some of these things and make wiser choices.

Lam: What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Snyder: The rewarding part is when they succeed, when the families work together. There's cohesiveness, they built support, and they get through it. Some people are stubborn and won't try to do things differently, and they have the most challenges. Dealing with the prisoner experience, there can be divorces and children move away. They're estranged from families. It can, and does, tear families apart. Some do very well, and some don't do so well. The ones that are most rewarding are when they do succeed and flourish. They rebuild their family, and understand that their priorities were once not straight. That's powerful, and that's what it's all about for me.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a prison guard, a pretrial-service officer, and a children’s services social worker.