Reporter's Notebook: Bernie Madoff's Life Behind Bars

By Scott Cohn
|  Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010  |  Updated 12:37 PM PDT
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Inside Bernie's Penthouse

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He once was the king of Wall Street.

Sophisticated investors and federal regulators were putty in his hands.

But when Bernie Madoff was led into the ceremonial courtroom of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse in New York for his sentencing on June 29, 2009 — the proceeding moved to the larger courtroom to accommodate the crowd — the most successful con man in history looked frail and unsteady, a shell of his former self.

I had managed to secure a seat in the jury box, just a few feet to Madoff's right, and I did what reporters do in courtrooms without cameras: I stared at him, intensely, not daring to take my eyes off him in hopes that somehow I might gain some insight — however slight — into what made Madoff tick.

I watched him as victim after victim stood and told their stories. Some were angry, many in tears, one shouted out "a monster" at him, but all showed him unbridled contempt.

Because of the layout of the courtroom, Madoff sat facing the judge, with his back to the victims. I thought I saw him cringe at some of the more pointed comments, but I couldn't be sure.

When it was then Madoff's turn to stand up and speak, I watched at the end as he turned to the victims, saying dramatically, "I am sorry, and I know that doesn't help you." I tried to tell if he really meant it. I can't say I had any great success getting into Madoff's head, even from my close vantage point. But I know I was not alone in the desire to do so.

Madoff would be seen in public once more after that. Two weeks after his sentencing, we caught a fleeting glimpse of him getting off a prison bus and walking into the Federal Correctional Institution Butner, N.C.

Barring some miracle — like Madoff living to the age of 226 or deciding to break his long silence — it was the last almost anyone will ever see him again. But the public's need to penetrate Bernie's brain only seems to grow.

Some news outlets have turned to his fellow inmates—and former inmates—to try and learn about Madoff's life in Butner. But as I told the producers of "American Greed: Madoff Behind Bars," those inmates' accounts should be taken with a hunk of salt.

After all, these inmates are convicted criminals. There is even talk that some are demanding payments for themselves or their families for Madoff-related tips.

Here is what we do know about Madoff's life in prison, based on interviews with confidential sources and a general knowledge of how the federal prison system works:

Life in prison is no country club, even in a low- or medium-security facility of the type where Madoff is housed. Every moment there is dictated by the prison authorities, so an inmate's life is not his own.

For instance, all inmates must be up at 6 a.m. and are penalized for oversleeping. And the guards can wake up the entire prison population at any time, say 3 a.m., for an official inmate count.

Madoff is somewhat of a celebrity at Butner. How could he not be? But celebrity only gets you so far, and for Madoff — a private man even in happier times — it is a double-edged sword.

While maddening to his victims and to authorities, the fact that his cooperation has been limited to some help locating assets — he hasn't ratted anyone out — can't hurt him behind bars. One thing that inmates hate is a snitch. And Madoff clearly is not one. In the unwritten inmates' code, that gains him a higher place in the prison pecking order.

Madoff receives regular visits from his wife, Ruth, who was also his high school sweetheart, according to a source. But these are hardly romantic encounters. The inmates and their visitors are all brought into a single, lounge-like room, where they can sit and talk, under the watchful eyes — and ears — of prison guards. While there are no walls or partitions separating the inmates from their visitors, physical contact is tightly restricted.

Visiting hours in a federal prison are limited to a couple of days a week with the time further regulated by a point system allotted monthly, even for an inmate's spouse. If Ruth uses up her allotment, Bernie will have to wait till the next month to see her again.

And in between, according to people who have spent time behind bars, there are vast stretches — of nothing. That gives Madoff plenty of time to think about what he did, which, of course, is one of the points of a life sentence.

He is said to be seething about some of his clients, according to a well-placed source; they include managers of feeder funds who are resisting efforts by court-appointed bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard and others to recover or "claw back" their proceeds from Madoff's scheme.

While the source did not suggest the fund managers knew about Madoff's fraud, Madoff apparently believes that the managers should own up to the fact — as he did — that the investment gains were fictitious.

But does Madoff feel anything for his many "rank-and-file" victims, including individuals and charities that lost everything?

In his court appearances, Madoff has claimed to feel remorse. But those statements came only after he got caught. Looking into his tired eyes in the courtroom that day, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't tell for sure what he was really feeling.

That, unfortunately, is a secret that Madoff has taken with him, behind bars.

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