NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Forget Thursday's presidential debate or the Major League Baseball standings. The hot water cooler topic this week is where Martha Stewart will be spending the winter.
Could it be storm-ravaged but balmy Florida? Or chilly yet proximate Connecticut? How about neither?
Stewart, 63, will soon begin serving a five-month prison sentence following her conviction on charges she obstructed justice during a government probe of her personal stock sales. She has until Oct. 8 to turn herself into federal authorities.
The ultimate decision on where she does her penance is up to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees more than 180,000 inmates located in 106 facilities around the country. Stewart, citing a desire to be close to her 90 year-old mother, has requested a low-security camp in Danbury, Conn. or, alternatively, a similar facility in Coleman, Fla.
The Bureau of Prisons, an arm of the Justice Department, weighs many factors when assigning convicts to prisons, among them space availability, proximity to home, and security issues. So far all the agency has given Stewart is an inmate number.
David Novak, a convicted felon who's written a book about life behind bars and is a consultant to prisoners and their families, doesn't think Stewart will end up at either of her top choices.
"My guess is they'll put her in a metropolitan correctional center in either Manhattan or Philadelphia," said Novak. That would not be good news for Stewart: city prisons have much tighter security and more violent offenders.
In ruling out Florida as an option, Novak pointed to the rash of hurricanes that has forced prison officials to relocate inmates located in prisons throughout the state, many of them to Coleman itself.
"The southeast division of the Bureau of Prisons is in total disarray," said Novak. "I could eat my words but I'd be shocked if they did (assign Stewart to Coleman)."
A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed that a large number of Florida prisoners have been evacuated to Coleman. Keeping with the bureau's policy against discussing specific inmates, she declined to comment on Stewart's case.
Danbury might not the ideal spot, either. The minimum-security prison "camp" for women is also crowded and shares with Coleman another big drawback: neither is enclosed in barbed-wire fences or other form of perimeter security. The challenge there isn't to keep Stewart from bolting. It's to keep brazen outsiders -- namely journalists -- from sneaking in.
"The press is going to go whacko over this," continued Novak, who spent 10-plus months in prison for staging an airplane crash and filing a false insurance claim. He is the author of DownTime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration. "If the wardens of either institution were asked if they would want her, they would say 'no' for security purposes."
Prison life is no 'Club Fed'
Novak's prediction that Stewart will wind up in federal prisons located either in New York City or Philadelphia is not far-fetched. Look what happened to Lea Fastow.
The former Enron Corp. treasurer and wife of ex-Enron CFO Andrew Fastow pleaded guilty this spring to a misdemeanor tax charge and was sentenced to one year in prison. Experts and Lea Fastow's own lawyers expected her to be assigned to either a minimum security camp in Bryan or one in Carswell, Tex.
For reasons prison officials have not publicly discussed, Fastow was shipped instead to a severe federal lockup in Houston.
Another option for Stewart would be Alderson, W.V., a federal prison camp also known as "camp cupcake."
Whether it's Danbury, Philly or someplace else, this much is certain: five months may not seem all that long. But to Stewart -- who faces a total loss of freedom, hours of mind-numbing routine, scant amenities and the risk of being attacked -- it's bound to feel like an eternity.
"The myth historically has been that these are country club prisons where inmates go out to swimming pools and get their nails done," says Herbert Hoelter of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group for convicts. "Nothing could be further from the truth."