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Bernie Madoff, Free at Last

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A sketch of Madoff by former fellow inmate (and bank robber) K.C. White.
Illustration by K.C. White  

Prisoners crowded Madoff seeking investment advice—missing the fact that Madoff, being a con man, hadn’t invested for years. Other convicts saw in him a fellow entrepreneur, ignoring the obvious fact that his scheme wasn’t a business at all, just smoke and mirrors. But Madoff had amassed the symbols of success, and for criminals, that counts. They are an ambitious, if not always perceptive, lot—you can’t sleep all day and night and still be a drug lord. “They all have dreams of going home, starting businesses, and buying new cars and homes,” one inmate wrote me. One day, a guy known as Barkley trotted after Madoff, unusual in and of itself because prisoners aren’t allowed to run. Evans, nicknamed Solo (“because that’s how I roll,” he told me), watched the scene unfold. He remembers that another inmate yelled out as a joke, “Put that knife away.” When Barkley caught up to Madoff, he reacted as if he were being mugged and held out his commissary bag, ready to surrender it. But Barkley just wanted advice. “The guy was into real estate when he was out, and he wanted to ask the man some financial questions,” Solo told me by phone from Mississippi, and laughed.

But if Madoff was a respected financial adviser, he was also a mark. “People are not going to befriend you unless there is something in it for them,” one former inmate told me. With Madoff, some had an angle. “People were trying to get up under him,” says one ex-con. After all, everyone believes that an operator as cunning as Madoff must have a stash somewhere, and they also believe that, prisoner to prisoner, he might confide its whereabouts. “Where did you hide it?” White asked him one day while walking the track together. “It’s H20,” Madoff told White, making a gesture of water slipping through his hand.

Not all prisoners are part of the Bernie Madoff fan club. “You an inmate, not a convict,” Bowler needled him, pointing out, “You got less than a year in the bucket,” meaning he’d only just arrived in prison. That he isn’t a rat—he’s tried to take all the blame for his Ponzi scheme—and isn’t a child molester counts in his favor. But Madoff isn’t seasoned or tough. “He didn’t know how to take a shower,” says Bowler, now confined in a Lexington, Kentucky, facility. (At Butner, you don’t get undressed until in the shower itself.) He has a reputation for messiness, which isn’t respectful to a cellmate. “He wasn’t prison material,” says one ex-con dismissively. Madoff seemed helpless to some. This former inmate had given himself tattoos with a device he built from a beard trimmer, a toothbrush, and a Bic pen—“A real con can jerry-rig anything,” Bowler told me.

“F--- my victims,” he said, loud enough for other inmates to hear. “I carried them for twenty years, and now I’m doing 150 years.”

Fortunately for Madoff, he’d landed at Butner Medium I, “Camp Fluffy,” as those who’d experienced other prisons call it. Medium I, population 758, is filled with “soft” prisoners, those who might not survive other institutions, including pedophiles and cooperators (“rats”). The facility had been planned during a brief period of penal optimism and was designed to humanize the prison experience. The physical space resembles a campus, with landscaped yards and hedges shaped by inmates into giant globes. “There’s flowers and trees; you can lay out on the grass and tan,” an ex-inmate told me with a laugh. “There’s no bars. There are windows.” There’s a gym, a library, pool tables, a chapel, a volleyball court, and an Indian sweat lodge.

But however soft, prison is a hardship. And on his way to Butner, Madoff opened up to Herb Hoelter, the prison consultant known for helping ease celebrity prisoners onto their new paths—he’d previously worked with Martha Stewart.

“What do I do with my life now?” Madoff asked Hoelter.

That’s the existential challenge of prison, especially for someone with a life sentence. And there aren’t obvious answers. There’s little meaningful to do—nothing “aspirational,” as a tax evader who’d served time in Butner complained. Free will is limited. “You sleep and eat and shit and shower when they tell you to,” a recent Butner releasee told me. Freedom, such as it is, is in the mind. “It’s your ability to think that’s not circumscribed,” explains Art Beeler, the warden until last year. But Madoff has never been an intellectual—he has the mentality of “an auto mechanic,” one hedge-fund manager told me. He keeps it simple, and it works. And so in prison, “Bernie adjusted better than I did,” says Hay, who slept a few doors down from Madoff. “He didn’t seem like he had any worry or stressed too much or had nerve or panic attacks, like I did. Going from an $8 million house”—his penthouse on East 64th Street—“to an eight-by-ten cell, I would feel smothered. Bernie never complained that I heard.”


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