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Bernie Madoff, Free at Last

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At the cafeteria, Madoff sometimes ate with a guy nicknamed Muscles, an obsessive-compulsive fellow who takes half an hour to make his bed—Madoff must have empathized, since he’s famously compulsive himself. Pollard, a cutup, kidded Madoff about how much time they got. Pollard was loose and comical—“always happy,” one con tells me—and liked to work blue. Hay recalls, “They brought a young boy in for evaluation. He was small. I said to him, ‘Hey, boy, you got to be 18 to drink coffee.’ ” Pollard chimed in, “ ‘Yeah, but you’re old enough to suck all the dick you want.’ Pollard is a good-hearted guy.”

Gay inmates form another tribe. There are perhaps a couple dozen openly gay inmates in Clemson—straight prisoners continually conduct a census—and then secret ones who are gossiped about on inmate.com, as some call the grapevine. Gay inmates stick together, too; the lifers gang follows their goings-on with outward disgust and rapt attention. How much is it for a blow job? Three books of stamps, they were told, which raised a howl. (Inmates aren’t permitted to touch money, so stamps are prison currency; a book worth $8.80 at the commissary goes for $6 in the yard.) Much of the prison’s sexual drama swirls around the gay population. Inmates told and retold the story of Yolonda Burt, a preoperative transsexual in Medium I who had been stabbed in what was described as a lovers’ spat. Yolonda wrote me her view: “On November 7, 2009, around 8 a.m., an inmate attempted to rape me, and when I refused him, he cut me with a box cutter. On 12-28-09, he killed himself in the hole.” By hanging, as Hay tells the story.

Madoff enjoys the soap opera as much as anyone. But he seems to float above the prison’s hierarchies, as befits a celebrity. Early in his stay, Madoff sat on the boccie-ball court with Persico—they’re not as close now. He’s comfortable with black inmates, too, talking, mingling, occasionally even joking with some of them: “Why are you always picking on the white man?” His cellmate at one point was a black drug dealer, and they got along. And Madoff posed for White, the prison artist, who’s black. Madoff even signed the sketch, breaking his rule, says White, who secretly wrote on Madoff’s collar: FUCK MY VICTIMS.

Madoff proposed that he help with a prison budget. “Hell, no,” said the supervisor. “I do my own budget. I know what he did on the outside.”

Gay prisoners don’t offend Madoff, who is, after all, a sophisticated New Yorker. One evening on his way through the day room Madoff griped to the lifers gang, “All you guys talk about is ‘Queer this, queer that.’ Don’t you have anything better to talk about?” Madoff had been kind enough to advise Yolonda on how to raise money for her sex-change operation. He was even friendly toward a detested child molester—a cho-mo, as they’re called. Marvin Hersh, serving 105 years, was known by some in prison as the “Florida Monster.” He’s a former professor who took a Central American teenager into his home, cared for him like a father, and molested him several times a week. Madoff played Scrabble with Hersh in the TV room. Madoff’s social promiscuity, so unlike a veteran con, confused and irked some. “I started the rumor Bernie was a switch-hitter,” says Bowler, who thought it good fun.

Mealtime is a much-anticipated break in the prison day, one of a few pauses in a tightly enforced schedule. “Food is a very big thing in prison,” says Conza. “You could sit down with your friends.” At mealtime, tribes seek their own. In the chow hall, Carmine Persico almost always sat at the same table with Conza (now out) and Rosso and a fourth, sending one guy ahead to reserve it. “No one ever sat at Carmine’s table,” says one ex-con. “Out of respect.”

Persico also liked to use a microwave to cook for himself and his friends. “Carmine made the best spaghetti and white clam sauce I ever had,” says Conza, who was Persico’s cellmate for about a year. “He was an unbelievable microwave chef.” Inmates buy the basics from the commissary, then add vegetables stolen from the kitchen—an onion costs five stamps.

The lifers gang had its own eating club, and Madoff sometimes joined in. For Hay’s going-away party, Pollard microwaved a pizza—a pizza kit costs $3.20 at the commissary. Madoff was there, and Pollard kidded him about putting on weight.

Life at Butner was pleasant, at least by prison standards, and yet in prison, danger is like static electricity, always in the air. Inmates aren’t known for their anger-management skills, one reason they are often exaggeratedly polite. “You’ve got to be careful not to insult anyone,” says one former Butner inmate, who has a law degree, “and everyone is waiting to be insulted.” As another former Butner inmate told me by phone, “Everybody is trying to do somebody in.”


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