In 2010, I paid a visit to an old friend who runs his own trading shop. I've known him for years and we try and do a face-to-face a few times a year just to catch up. After I made my way past reception, I weaved in and out of the trading desks to his wide open, brilliantly lit corner office. He flashed a smile as I entered and took a seat on the white leather couch. Once he eventually got off the phone, he told me to close the door. It was a strange request, considering he always keeps his door open; he always wants to hear what's happening on the trading floor.
"Have you talked to Jerry lately?" my friend asked.
"No," I said. "Not in years."
"Well don't," he said. "And if you have to … Be very careful what you say."
"What do you mean?"
"He's wired up," he said.
It's not the first time I'd been warned about talking to a certain individual, but this caught me off guard. I was no longer working in the business and it seemed punitive. This guy, Jerry, had already been assumed guilty by his peers. The word on the street was to avoid him at all costs. The guy didn't stand a chance. I never really trusted Jerry, but now it seemed like no one did. Jerry eventually left the business. He told his friends it was to spend more time with his family, but everyone knew the truth.
It seems like when someone decides to cooperate and become an informant, they are still serving a sentence: a life sentence. It's a personal prison. So while you might be able to avoid the horrors of being locked up inside, you can't escape the guilt and shame of being a snitch. And the days are long. If you aren't banned, maybe you're trading your own money, but no one will talk to you. You worry about how your kids are treated at school. A quick trip to the deli is accompanied by several glances over your shoulder. And at the dinner table you're never sure what your family is thinking.
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I decided to call my friend I met in the East Village restaurant. I had to ask.
"Would you do it again? Would you cooperate?" I said.
"I don't know," he said. "But I'm moving. There's nothing left here for me in New York."
(Names in this article have been changed to protect the informants' identities.)
Commentary by Turney Duff, a former trader at the hedge fund Galleon Group. Duff chronicled the spectacular rise and fall of his career on Wall Street in the book, "The Buy Side," and is currently working on his second book, a Wall Street novel. He is also featured on the CNBC show, "The Filthy Rich Guide." Follow him on Twitter @turneyduff.
Want to know more about what life is like on the inside? Tune in to CNBC tonight at 10pm ET/PT for the documentary "White Collar Convicts: Life on the Inside," featuring interviews with former Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski, former NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik, former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio and former hedge-fund trader Mike Kimelman.
Here's a clip with tips for white-collar convicts facing prison. Rule No. 1: Drop the attitude or you're not going to make it. Seriously.