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Bernie Madoff, Free at Last

Madoff had reportedly gotten into a scrape in December, according to the Wall Street Journal, and was taken to the prison hospital with fractured ribs and a broken nose. Madoff’s doings are big news on, and every inmate seems to have his own version of the event. One held that the attack on Madoff was a reprimand. “He was arrogant,” one inmate reported. But Madoff insisted to his friends that he’d merely received the wrong medication. It made him light-headed, and he’d fallen. Those closest to Madoff believe him. “If Bernie had gotten beat up, I would have done something about it,” says one well-built New York con, who considered Madoff a member of his car. (The prison administration denies that Madoff was assaulted, as does his attorney.) Certainly inmates have reason to keep a fight quiet. Madoff knew that anyone involved in a fight, even a victim, can end up in “the shu,” as inmates call the hole—locked down for 23 hours a day, which makes regular prison life seem airy and fun.

Whatever happened, Madoff continues in his routines, seeking what small pleasures he can, and not revealing much. Over time, as his celebrity wore off, even inmates who lived close to him noticed that Madoff could be opaque and hard to read. He speaks when spoken to and sometimes stares off in the distance. At night, he paces the halls. Maybe it’s shyness; Madoff had long been socially remote, even at the Palm Beach Country Club, where he met a swath of his victims. “Maybe he’s the type to cry under his blanket,” one inmate who lived near Madoff told me. But there is at least one thing that troubles Madoff, and inmates tuned into this. Prisoners are shut off from loved ones—one seasoned ex-con lamented to me that he’d missed his nephew’s funeral and his son’s graduation. Madoff had been his family’s patriarch. His two sons, his brother, and his brother’s daughter had once earned a very nice living from Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, Madoff’s legitimate and very successful market-making business. Even in prison Madoff continues to think of himself as a family man. One day Hay told Madoff that if positions had been reversed, he would have fled: “If I had your money, I’d have been out of the country with a face change and everything else.”

Madoff waved him off. “I’ve got family,” he responded. He didn’t elaborate with Hay, but with lawyers he was more open. After all, no one knew Madoff better or, in a sense, cared more about him than the attorneys who sued him—they were part of his car. To them, Madoff dropped hints of the pangs he felt. Fineman recalls that while she focused on his Ponzi scheme, Madoff talked at length about his wife, Ruth. It was the only time in their four and a half hours together that Fineman felt any sympathy for him. Ruth and Bernie had been teenage sweethearts, and Madoff told Fineman the story of their meeting in high school, an innocent time when he was on the swim team and she was a popular, outgoing, fifties-style preppy. Fineman says, “He talked about how he’d gone off to college. He just missed her. So he moved back to New York. His voice had a different tone when he talked about her. It was the one time he was emotional.” Madoff’s sons are no longer a presence in his life—they’re still in legal jeopardy and have been counseled to cease communication with their father.

Ruth, though, sticks by him. “She was distraught and upset,” Hoelter was told. And though she’s no longer being pursued criminally, she’s ruined, too—at one point, she had to report every expenditure over $100 to a bankruptcy trustee.

Ruth visited Madoff at Butner. Returning to his cell after one visit, he reported wistfully, “She’s off to play golf,” something they’d loved to do together. Inmates sensed his attachment and “aggravated” him about it, as one told me. They’d seen pictures of Ruth in the media. She’s still a pert, smiling blonde who they assume is considerably younger than Madoff—another one of his trophies. (Madoff didn’t disabuse them of the notion, though she’s only three years his junior.) “I’m getting out, and I’ll keep her company,” they’d kid Madoff. Pollard, Madoff’s friend, rode him, too; Madoff better eat right and stay in shape. “You’ve got that young wife,” Hay added. Madoff laughs at the jokes. But he’s a realist. Despite the illusionary world he’d created, he always had been. “I got 150 years and I’m 71,” he responded. “I’m not worried about getting out of shape.”

Additional research by Sam Dangremond.