Martha's Dilemma

Martha Stewart, prison cell
Martha Stewart is due to get out of prison in a few days, but there are probably some people who think she won't want to leave. The judge didn't realize that when she sentenced her, she was saying, "For your crime, I sentence your stock to double and you to get a new television show on NBC." But that's what happened.

Before she was found guilty, many people in and out of the press derided her. They said she was "too rich," "too cold," and "too perfect." But something happened when she announced that she wanted to serve her sentence "as soon as possible."

The public liked that she wasn't appealing the case and she wasn't complaining. People hate complainers even more than they hate criminals. Suddenly she went from somebody who "obviously did something wrong," to "whatever she did, it wasn't that big of a deal."

Things only got better for the Martha Image once she started serving time. She took on prison reform and the humane treatment of inmates as a personal cause. And what has really worked for her is that she seems sincere about it. Nobody will be shocked if she continues to work to improve prison conditions after she's released.

That's quite a change from the image of the selfish, cold Miss Perfect. You don't hear a lot of put-downs and jokes about her now. Nobody's talking about her going from making decorative plates to license plates anymore. It's as if she's become a revered, untouchable female icon like Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, or even Princess Di.

So, you might think that being imprisoned was a good move for her. I don't know about that. I would never presume to minimize what it must be like to be in jail. Regardless of how relatively comfortable the facilities are, you're locked up. Cynics may call certain places "country club prisons" or "sleep-away camps," but they are still jails. You can't come and go as you please. I feel the walls of the dining room closing in on me after about 20 minutes of listening to my relatives argue about the family tree. How long could I survive in prison?

But there will probably be some "bottom line" types who only see the bottom line: "She went to jail, and while she was there, her stock went through the roof." So, some of them may conclude that it's an easy way to get even richer. "All these years, I've been stabbing my colleagues in the back and exploiting my employees, when I could have just been doing time." The search will be on for incompetent lawyers who can't keep their clients out of prison. And these executives won't all have to run out and commit some crime so they can get caught and incarcerated. CEOs with this mentality will only have to confess to crimes they've been committing for years.

But they're bound to be disappointed. It's possible there were other reasons for the rise of her stock. I don't know enough about the world of finance to explain why it did so well. I don't even understand something as simple as President Bush taking a surplus, turning it into the biggest deficit in history and somehow that being good for the economy. Maybe her stock increase was part of an odd stock market cycle — one of those "buy stocks whose CEOs are women in years that the American League team wins the World Series and there's no hockey season" kind of thing. Regardless, no one can say that the reason the stock soared was definitely because the boss was in jail.

So despite what some may think, I'm sure she'll be happy to leave prison and start her new life. However, if her stock starts to tank or her TV ratings slip, nobody will blame her if she's tempted to jaywalk in front of a police car, hoping to get caught.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver