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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 20 August, 2014

Column: You know what? Doing time does help you move on in life.

There is little to recommend a spell in prison, says former trader Nick Leeson, but his jail time gave him time to tackle his mistakes – and make a better go at life when he emerged.

Nick Leeson

A LITTLE OVER 13 years ago, I would have been sitting in a cell in Tanah Merah Prison, seriously contemplating my future.

I’d only given it passing thought for the previous four and a half years as I had very little to look forward to but with each passing hour, the day of my release was getting closer and closer.

This last, possibly hardest, chapter was closing and a new one was getting ready to open. My future was uncertain but it had to be an improvement on the last four and a half years; locked up twenty three hours a day, constantly looking over your shoulder and doing everything that you could to survive.

“Chewing on toilet paper to convince my stomach that I wasn’t hungry”

Some of it was abysmal; chewing on toilet paper to convince my mouth and my stomach that I wasn’t hungry, washing in the toilet bowl as there was no other water available, handcuffed to a bed while I was suffering from cancer and the constant threat of violence. This had been my life for the last few years and the future could only be a step up.

Even so, it was still very difficult to paint a picture of what it would be like and where it would take me. I wasn’t institutionalised as some people become after a similar period in prison. But I did struggle with the lack of routine and – to a far greater extent – with rationalising decisions that needed to be made.

Whilst I hated every single minute of my time in prison and it was certainly harder than anything that I could have anticipated, I’m glad that I had to travel that particular route. To a large extent, it makes me who I am today and the fact that I have had to honestly and candidly face myself and the problems that I have created has meant that I have been far more able to deal with those issues and move on. Denial really is a river in Egypt!

I had many romantic notions of what my future may look like, some of them overly realistic. Over time those pictures became far more grounded and achievable. It was very difficult to think in large periods of time: it was days at first, then weeks and finally months.

“Prison gave me time to deconstruct the decision-making of my life in Singapore”

Prison framed a lot of the ways that I think about matters these days. Having had time to deconstruct much of the decision-making during that period of my life in Singapore was both therapeutic and illuminating. I have been very lucky over the last 13 or so years, far luckier than most who have to serve time in prison as I have been able to rebuild both my life and career fairly easily.

I don’t think that I would have been able to do either though without being punished, without serving some time in prison and most importantly accepting my guilt and that the punishment was totally justified. I honestly believe that I am only where I am today having made peace in this manner.

What happens to other people embroiled in scandal? They all face very different futures and I think a lot will be determined by how they accept their part in the scandal. At the moment 34 traders have been caught up in the Libor rate fixing scandal, and that number will likely increase. They all have difficult times ahead.

Many have simply moved on, hoping that the part they played would be ignored. One has been working with the third biggest hedge fund in Europe with $30bn under their management; another has most recently been trading with a Swiss fund manager; the remainder work at other large banks around the globe. Yet none are now escaping the glare of the media. All will have to come to terms with their actions and that process will shape how they recover in the future. Prison played an important part in my recovery and if it is deemed appropriate in some of their cases, I believe it will also play an integral part in theirs.

“The people who face the music will survive better in the long run”

Avoidance works for a while but it doesn’t work for ever. The people who face the music will survive better in the long run.

Those with the most to lose in Ireland, Messrs Quinn, Fitzpatrick and Drumm, for example, are all taking very different approaches. Seán Quinn – who made a colossal bet that he simply couldn’t pay – is saving what he can by fair means and foul. David Drumm – who owes more than $10m to creditors – is lying low in America, refusing to meet the gardai and hoping that it will all go away. Seán Fitzpatrick has serious questions to answer but at least seems prepared to face the music.

Who will recover best? My money is on the latter, the only one approaching the matter in the appropriate manner. None will reach the heady heights of Michael Milken, the so-called ‘junk bond king’ and former bad boy of banking who, after a two-year period in jail has enjoyed unrivalled success. He is still described as an American business magnate and most recently listed by Forbes magazine as the 488th richest person in the world.

Me, I’ve made some inroads. I was recently introduced on radio as ‘our favourite rogue trader’ – not sure if that is a compliment or not…

Read other columns by Nick Leeson>

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