What life inside a Northern California prison is like for Gina Champion-Cain
Sentenced to 15 years for her role in orchestrating a nearly $400 million Ponzi scheme, the former restaurateur is incarcerated at the same prison camp where Felicity Huffman spent time for her involvement in the college admissions scandal
Former San Diego restaurateur Gina Champion-Cain, who was sentenced two months ago to 15 years in prison for her role in orchestrating a nearly $400 million Ponzi scheme, is now serving her time at a minimum security prison camp in Northern California.
Champion-Cain is incarcerated at the satellite prison camp adjacent to the Dublin Federal Correction Institution located in an East Bay suburb southeast of Oakland. She had specifically requested at her sentencing that she be sent to the Dublin facility, which U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns said he would recommend.
Lori Weisberg discusses this story on San Diego News Fix:
With a current population of nearly 800 inmates, 97 of whom are in the camp, Dublin has been the temporary home to other high-profile female inmates, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin, who served much shorter sentences for their participation in the nationwide college admissions scandal.
At her March 31 sentencing, Champion-Cain received the maximum penalty for the criminal charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice, although federal prosecutors had recommended a lesser sentence of nearly 11 years, in part because of her cooperation in the ongoing criminal fraud investigation. Burns disagreed, saying that Champion-Cain deserved the maximum, calling her crimes a “tremendous fraud” and a “betrayal.”
The former owner of the now defunct chain of Patio restaurants pleaded guilty to the criminal charges last year and had cooperated with federal authorities since the fall of 2019 when she was first charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission in a parallel civil case with securities fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Over a period of at least seven years, Champion-Cain ran a bogus liquor license lending program that enticed investors who thought they were making high-interest loans to license applicants who supposedly could not afford to put up a required sum of money while their applications were pending before the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
What the investors were not aware of was that Champion-Cain was funneling the bulk of the funds to companies she controlled — American National Investments and its subsidiary ANI Development — and using money from new investors to pay back individuals who had invested earlier.
Characterized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as the largest Ponzi scheme in San Diego County history, it ultimately drew in $390 million from 435 investors, according to a court-appointed receiver who spent nearly two years combing through dozens of accounts and numerous real estate holdings connected to Champion-Cain’s companies. Receiver Krista Freitag estimates that 325 investors suffered a net loss of $184 million.
While Champion-Cain was transferred to Dublin in mid-May, according to the Bureau of Prisons, she was required to spend 14 days in quarantine due to COVID-19 before joining the other inmates at the federal camp.
The decision to send Champion-Cain to the lower-security federal prison camp relies on a number of factors, including the level of security and staff administration an inmate needs, as well as any special medical needs, according to the Bureau of Prisons website. Other factors, though, include the severity of the criminal offense and whether there is any history of previous crimes, violent acts or incarceration, said Larry Levine, founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants.
He said he was surprised to learn Champion-Cain was being housed in the camp, given that those with sentences of more than 10 years are not typically sent to one of the federal minimum-security camps.
“At the prison camps, they don’t lock the doors at night, and she’ll never mix with people behind the fence (in the larger prison facility),” said Levine, who has spent time in several federal correctional institutions. “But they do use camp inmates to provide support services for the main facility, like food service, doing maintenance, janitorial work, gardening.”
The Bureau of Prisons describes federal prison camps as having dormitory-style housing, a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing, compared to a low-security prison that has double-fenced perimeters. Both are work- and program-oriented.
The Dublin facility’s admissions and orientation handbook offers some clues to daily life, noting that there is a sun deck on premises, although sun bathing is prohibited in all areas. Inmates are allowed one “in-unit hobby craft” project at a time. Approved hobbies include cross-stitching, drawing, card-making, crotchet, origami, scrapbooking, and watercolor. Leisure libraries, as they’re called, include periodicals, newspapers, fiction, non-fiction, and reference books.
While a camp environment sounds less intimidating, it’s still incarceration, Levine said.
“It’s like Groundhog Day. It’s boring, the same stuff day in and day out,” he said. “It’s going to be a screwed-up existence for her since she’s used to calling the shots. She’s away from her family, she misses people. It’s culture shock, that’s what it comes down to.”
There remains the possibility that Champion-Cain’s sentence could be reduced. If federal prosecutors determine that Champion-Cain has helped with their investigation even while in prison, they can file a motion in court asking for a sentencing reduction and spell out the reasons why. It is based on a defendant giving what is referred to as “substantial assistance.” It is up to a judge to ultimately grant or deny the request.
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