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01.07.09

Bernie Will Be Prison Royalty

Federal rules require that Madoff live out his sentence in a maximum-security prison—but he'll have a lot working in his favor: he's financial, he's elderly, and he's a father figure.

Federal rules require that Madoff live out his 150-year sentence in a maximum-security prison—but he'll have a lot working in his favor: he's elderly, he's a criminal father figure, and he stole from the rich. Here’s what he can expect when they throw away the key.

Bernie Madoff is going to jail for the rest of his life. But when he was first turned in by his sons in December, a number of my acquaintances who work in the criminal justice arena noted that, despite the enormity of the charges, he was not paraded in front of TV cameras with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Circumventing the humiliation of the perp walk was probably negotiated with the Feds well in advance of his surrender, and his ability to do this highlights the easier ride that virtually all white-collar criminals enjoy in the justice system. But Madoff will have additional advantages working for him even if he doesn't go to "Club Fed." American prisons are home to a counterintuitive subculture, one where certain traits that would normally be a strike against you can actually work in your favor.

At the top of prison hierarchy are professional bank robbers. Next on the food chain are the Madoffs.

A few weeks before being released from federal prison on my last number, I was standing around bullshitting with three or four other prisoners and a staffer, the unit manager, Ernie Barker. Barker, who was a Bureau of Prisons company man down to the tip of his cheap shoes, said, “If I was old, and didn’t have no family to go home to, I’d much rather stay here in prison than go to a nursing home.”

We all paused for a moment and then nodded in unison—Barker was right. To a large degree, the elderly are venerated in prison. The stories you hear about elder abuse in nursing homes are simply not part of American prison culture. The 70-year-old Madoff will have age on his side.

The nature of Madoff’s alleged crimes will help him as well. Even in a place as mean as Rikers Island, young toughs—black, white, and Hispanic—would treat Bernie like visiting royalty. The more opprobrium heaped on him on the outside, the more venerated he’ll be on the inside. Why? Because he screwed the type of people whom his future prisonmates feel they’ve been screwed by all their lives. He’ll be regarded as a felonious Robin Hood.

As in all cultures, hierarchy also plays a major role in how a prisoner is treated by his fellow convicts. And keep in mind that prisoners run prisons -- the guards are just there to assure no one leaves before their sentence is up. The cultural norms are set by the inhabitants of the institutions, and they vary little from locale to locale. (A side note on culture: Prisoners consider the term “inmate” a connotation of subservient compliance. On my first number, I found out the hard way not to use it. The real hardcore prisoners only answer to “convict.”)

At the top of this hierarchy are the professional bank robbers, and I’m not talking about some desperate dope fiend who shoves a note in a teller’s face and receives a packet that explodes red dye all over his simple ass before he’s two blocks away. I’m talking about second- (and in some cases, third-) generation bank robbers who knock off banks with calm, calculated precision.

Next on the food chain are the Madoffs and, yes, the counterfeiters like I used to be. Real convicts feel there is only one reason to end up in prison: the pursuit of money. Everything else is bullshit or a character weakness. The lick Madoff laid down is going to get him major props no matter what joint he goes to. Hell, it might even grant him the supreme honorific of “O.G.” That’s “original gangster,” dog.

Drug dealers are next in the pecking order, followed by sex offenders, who, in many states, are housed separately in prisons only with like kind. Following one’s pecker into prison is frowned upon by real convicts.

But perhaps most importantly for Madoff, in an environment such as prison, a dignified bearing is cherished by young men who’ve never encountered anyone who possessed one. All Madoff has to do is project the caring image of a father figure, like Charlie Manson did with his followers. We have young people in America who are so starved for any kind of attention that they’ll literally lay down their lives for a manipulator who offers them a few kind words.

And what about the facility itself? The federal system has a supermax prison in Colorado whose denizens spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells. Still, federal prisons are almost always preferable to the madhouses that overcrowded state-run facilities have become.

See, the trick to doing time is to come out with as much of your health and sanity intact as possible, and federal prisons are exceptionally clean, professionally run facilities that provide adequate healthcare and decent food. Occasionally steak is served, though your molars had better be in good shape, since you’ll be chewing on prison steak for a long, long time.

If a federal prisoner has a serious health issue, they can be shipped off to the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic has beds set aside for them. In fact, here’s a little secret: If you have a serious health issue and no insurance, throw a brick through a post office window – you could get three years in a federal joint and come out with a new kidney or a heart transplant.

To think that any prison, no matter how well run, is akin to a vacation spot is mistaken. The mere fact of having every door locked, with someone telling you when to come, go, eat and shit, is traumatizing. But even stripped of Rolex watches and $6,000 Brioni suits, a prisoner like Madoff can thrive as much as circumstances will allow. Money, in the end, always wins, no matter how supposedly level the playing field of an institution like prison.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. A published author, he served as a contributing editor of the Cleveland Tab Newsmagazine, the editor of the Cleveland Call & Post, and managing editor of CityNews, and urban-focused weekly, before changing over to Internet journalism. His regular column can currently be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.