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In prison he doesn’t have to hide his lack of conscience. In fact, he’s a hero for it.
ast August, shortly after his arrival at the federal correctional complex in Butner, North Carolina, Bernard L. Madoff was waiting on the evening pill line for his blood-pressure medication when he heard another inmate call his name. Madoff, then 71, author of the most devastating Ponzi scheme in history, was dressed like every other prisoner, in one of his three pairs of standard-issue khakis, his name and inmate number glued over the shirt pocket. Rec time, the best part of a prisoner’s day, was drawing to a close, and Madoff, who liked to walk the gravel track, sometimes with Carmine Persico, the former mob boss, or Jonathan Pollard, the spy, had hurried to the infirmary, passing the solitary housing unit—the hole—ducking through the gym and the twelve-foot-high fence and turning in the direction of Maryland, the unit where child molesters are confined after they’ve served their sentences. As usual, the med line was long and moved slowly. There were a hundred prisoners, some standing outside in the heat, waiting for one nurse.
Madoff was accustomed to hearing other inmates call his name. From July 14, the day he arrived, he’d been an object of fascination. Prisoners had assiduously followed his criminal career on the prison TVs. “Hey, Bernie,” an inmate would yell to him admiringly while he was at his job sweeping up the cafeteria, “I seen you on TV.” In return, Madoff nodded and waved, smiling that sphinxlike half-smile. “What did he say?” Madoff sometimes asked.
But that evening an inmate badgered Madoff about the victims of his $65 billion scheme, and kept at it. According to K. C. White, a bank robber and prison artist who escorted a sick friend that evening, Madoff stopped smiling and got angry. “Fuck my victims,” he said, loud enough for other inmates to hear. “I carried them for twenty years, and now I’m doing 150 years.”
For Bernie Madoff, living a lie had once been a full-time job, which carried with it a constant, nagging anxiety. “It was a nightmare for me,” he told investigators, using the word over and over, as if he were the real victim. “I wish they caught me six years ago, eight years ago,” he said in a little-noticed interview with them.
And so prison offered Madoff a measure of relief. Even his first stop, the hellhole of Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), where he was locked down 23 hours a day, was a kind of asylum. He no longer had to fear the knock on the door that would signal “the jig was up,” as he put it. And he no longer had to express what he didn’t feel. Bernie could be himself. Pollard’s former cellmate John Bowler recalls a conversation between Pollard and Madoff: “Bernie was telling a story about an old lady. She was bugging him for her money, so he said to her, ‘Here’s your money,’ and gave her a check. When she saw the amount she says, ‘That’s unbelievable,’ and she says, ‘Take it back.’ And urged her friends [to invest].”
Pollard thought that taking advantage of old ladies was “kind of fucked up.”
“Well, that’s what I did,” Madoff said matter-of-factly.
“You are going to pay with God,” Pollard warned.
Madoff was unmoved. He was past apologizing. In prison, he crafted his own version of events. From MCC, Madoff explained the trap he was in. “People just kept throwing money at me,” Madoff related to a prison consultant who advised him on how to endure prison life. “Some guy wanted to invest, and if I said no, the guy said, ‘What, I’m not good enough?’ ” One day, Shannon Hay, a drug dealer who lived in the same unit in Butner as Madoff, asked about his crimes. “He told me his side. He took money off of people who were rich and greedy and wanted more,” says Hay, who was released in December. People, in other words, who deserved it.
There is, as it happens, honor among thieves, a fact that worked mostly to Madoff’s benefit. In the context of prison, he isn’t a cancer on society; he’s a success, admired for his vast accomplishments. “A hero,” wrote Robert Rosso, a lifer, on a website he managed to found called convictinc .com. “He’s arguably the greatest con of all time.”
From the day Bernard Lawrence Madoff, prisoner No. 61727-054, arrived at the softer of Butner’s two medium-security facilities in handcuffs and shackles, his over-the-collar hair shorn close, his rich man’s paunch diminished, he was a celebrity, even if his admirers were now murderers and sex offenders. The Butner correctional complex, which includes four prisons and a medical center, already has its share of crime kings. Pollard, the Israel cause célèbre who spied for the Jewish homeland, lived in Madoff’s housing unit, Clemson (the dorms are named after Atlantic Coast Conference colleges). Persico, the former Colombo-family godfather, lives in nearby Georgia Tech. Omar Ahmad-Rahman, the blind sheikh who helped engineer the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is in Butner. The Rigases from Pennsylvania, the father and son who bankrupted Adelphia Communications Corporation, are there—they wear crisp, pressed uniforms, which inmates assume they pay others to maintain.
Yet even in this crowd, Madoff stands out. Every inmate remembers the day he arrived. “It was like the president was visiting,” a visitor to Butner that day told me. News helicopters buzzed overhead, and the administration locked down part of the prison, confining some inmates to their units, while an aging con man with high blood pressure shuffled through processing, where other inmates fitted him for a uniform and offered a brief orientation: “Man, chill out and go with the flow, ” was the advice of one former drug dealer.
Quickly, the flow came to Madoff. From the moment he alighted, he had “groupies,” according to several inmates. Prisoners trailed him as he took his exercise around the track. (Persico had also attracted a throng when he arrived, but was disgusted and quickly put an end to it.) “They buttered him up,” one former inmate told me. “Everybody was trying to kiss his ass,” says Shawn Evans, who spent 28 months in Butner. They even clamored for his autograph.
And Madoff was usually more than happy to respond. “He enjoyed being a celebrity,” says Nancy Fineman, an attorney to whom Madoff granted an interview shortly after his arrival at Butner. (Fineman represents victims who are suing some of Madoff’s “aiders and abettors,” as she calls them.) Madoff seemed surprised and tickled by the lavish treatment, though he steadfastly refused to sign anything. Even in prison, he wasn’t going to dilute the brand. “He was sure they would sell it on eBay,” Fineman told me. “He still did have a big ego.”
Remarkably, that ego appears to have survived intact. H. David Kotz, the Security and Exchange Commission’s inspector general, investigated his agency’s failure to uncover Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and Madoff volunteered to speak to him—he is, no doubt, the world’s expert on the subject. He quickly reminded Kotz of his stature—“I wrote a good portion of the rules when it comes to trading,” Madoff said. He insisted that he’d been “a good trader” with a solid strategy, explaining that he’d stumbled into trouble because of his success. Hedge funds—“just marketers,” he said with evident disgust—pushed cash on him. He overcommitted, got behind, and generated a few imaginary trades, figuring he’d make it up—and never did. Whatever his own missteps, Madoff saved his scorn for the SEC. He did impressions of its agents, leaning back with his hands behind his head just as one self-serious agent did—“a guy who comes on like he’s Columbo,” but who was “an idiot,” Madoff said, as recorded in the extraordinary exhibit 104, a twelve-page account of the interview that is part of Kotz’s report. Madoff is no ironist. His disdain for the SEC is professional, even if the agency’s incompetence saved his skin for years—all Columbo had to do was make one phone call. “[It’s] accounting 101,” Madoff told Kotz, still amazed.
Madoff’s ego was on display in prison, too. “Bernie walked around prison confident,” says ex-con Keith Mack, adding, with a trace of resentment, “he acted like he beat the world.” And to most inmates he had. Many—and I communicated with more than two dozen current and recent Butner inmates (though not Madoff)—can recount stories of his conquests, a good number of them related by Madoff himself. “He said something to me one day,” recalls an ex–drug trafficker, released in February. “He could spin the globe and stop it anywhere with his finger, and chances are he had a house there or he’d been there. I was pretty blown away.” One evening, Bowler, a drug trafficker (“I’m not a con man, I’m a businessman,” he wrote to me), sat next to Madoff watching a 60 Minutes segment about him. Prison authorities keep the volume off, and inmates wear headphones and tune in to the radio signal that broadcasts the sound. Bowler removed one earpiece. “ ‘Bernie, you got ’em for millions,’ I said to him. ‘No, billions,’ he told me.” Another evening, one former inmate was watching a TV news report on the auction of Madoff’s much-chronicled watch collection—he owned more than 40, from Rolexes to a Piaget. The watch featured that evening fetched just $900, and Madoff, whose only watch now is a Timex Ironman that he bought at the commissary for $41.65 and is likely engraved with his inmate number, called out, “They told me that watch was worth $200,000.” The inmates laughed along with him. They didn’t see any reason for Madoff to regret his past. “If I’d lived that well for 70 years, I wouldn’t care that I ended up in prison,” Evans says.
Inmates were impressed by the sheer scale of Madoff’s operation and turned to him for guidance in getting their own ambitions on track. Madoff had always enjoyed being counselor to the wealthy and powerful. That had been part of the scheme’s seduction: Bernie, the scrappy kid from Queens, depended on by rich businessmen. “He wants to be remembered as a titan of Wall Street,” says Fineman, and one who subsidized the private schools and fancy vacations of his wealthy friends, even if it was with the funds of other investors. And to inmates he still was a titan.
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