At Butner, Madoff got busy lining up a new set of creature comforts, such as they were. He hired an inmate to do his laundry for $8 a month, Bowler says. “That was my hustle,” which is what prisoners call their side job, Bowler tells me. “I was charging $10, which is the going rate, but Bernie’s too cheap.” Once a week, Madoff takes his place on the commissary line, turning in his checklist of goodies to buy—“All sales are final,” it says on the sheet. An inmate can spend only $290 a month, but prices are reasonable. A radio goes for as little as $17.95, earplugs for 40 cents, sweatpants $18.85, and food is cheap: Macaroni and cheese, one of Madoff’s favorite meals, costs 60 cents, and a can of Madoff’s preferred drink, Diet Coke, is a bargain at 45 cents.
“Bernie never wanted for anything,” says Hay. Madoff’s lifestyle may have been turned on its head, but he adapted, a con man’s skill. He has, it turns out, a knack for thrift, a throwback perhaps to his less regal days in Queens. “You couldn’t get an ice-cream cone off him,” says Bowler. Another ex-inmate calls him “stingy.” He bought the necessities, a radio and headphones, jogging shorts, and that Timex watch. And he laid in provisions, snacks and food, storing them in the locker in his cell (you can buy a combination lock at the commissary for $6.25).
He receives a couple of newspaper subscriptions via the mail. Sometimes he relaxes atop a picnic bench bolted to a concrete terrace outside his unit, his arm folded over his eyes, or else he reads. Madoff likes crime mysteries by Dean Koontz and John Grisham, which he also receives in the mail, reads avidly, and then passes along. For a break, there is gambling, with the odds coming out of Vegas. Madoff has been seen with betting slips.
And Madoff threw himself into the prison-work world, applying for jobs as energetically as a new college grad. Madoff told Fineman that because of his age, he wasn’t obligated to work, but how else to fill the time? He’d always been industrious—keeping the con going was a continual hustle—and initially he’d hoped for a spot on the prison-landscaping crew. He proposed that he serve as the clerk in charge of budget. He had qualifications—he’d been chairman of NASDAQ. “Hell, no,” said the supervisor to Evans, laughing. “I do my own budget. I know what he did on the outside.” In an August 13 call-out sheet, which lists prisoners’ daily assignments, Madoff’s is maintenance. He gave out paint. Later, he was assigned to the cafeteria, where he walked around with a dustpan and broom, sweeping up dropped food for 14 cents an hour, the wage earned by new arrivals.
Prison is a tribal society, and people stick with their own. Some are loyal to their state of origin—there’s a Florida “car,” as any grouping of inmates is called, and a New York car. Or they segregate by race. “Even here in the low-security prison,” which is even less rugged than Medium I—“blacks hate whites and whites hate blacks; that’s just the way it is,” a convicted murderer wrote to me. Italians like Persico have their own car. Often Persico could be seen with Rosso, the founder of convictinc.com, and John Conza, a counterfeiter from New York, and, when he was there, Joseph Testa, the Brooklyn-based Gambino family member who was one of the mob’s most prolific murderers.
Some inmates organize themselves by “bid,” their sentence, and Madoff associated with a group that half-jokingly referred to itself as “the lifers gang.” Pollard the spy is a ringleader—though he has a release date, he’d been an inmate most of his adult life and so apparently qualified. “He kept everybody rolling,” says Hay, who sat with the group despite his shorter sentence. Pollard, now 55 years old, heavier and balder than when he was sentenced in 1987, wears a yarmulke everywhere—sold in the commissary for $2.60. Pollard is a hero to the Israeli right wing, which had pressed Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to pardon him. But at the chow table, Pollard is the group’s griot, a folklorist of prison life who entertains with ghoulish tales of past inmates, shocking even longtime cons. “He remembered one guy was mental and took a nurse hostage at Butner,” says Hay. “Outside, he’d abducted a bus full of children.” The kids were found dead. As a kind of punch line, Pollard added “retarded children.” Gary Karr, 62 and with a life sentence, is another participant in the lifers gang, and was Pollard’s cellmate at one point. He was believed to have been involved in carving up a couple of people in Texas, though inmates don’t usually hold a man’s crime against him. “Gary was right down good-hearted. I never knowed him to have a problem with anybody,” says Hay. Lee Summers, whose sentence runs through 2020, hangs around with them, too, as does Stephan Bullis, another lifer, who sent a bomb to his wife’s office, blowing off most of her left hand.