Anyone who thinks convicted swindler Bernard Madoff will serve easy time in a "Club Fed" minimum-security prison should think again. He is unlikely to land in a cushy cellblock, and he will need to watch his back, consultants and former inmates say.
Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years in prison for masterminding the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, will likely do no better than medium security and could even be assigned to a maximum-security facility if his safety is deemed to be at risk — and it may well be, experts say.
"I don't believe Bernie Madoff is going to give anybody any trouble in prison," says Ed Bales, managing director for Federal Prison Consultants LLC. "But the fact is: What are those other inmates going to do? Is he going to get killed? That's probably the No. 1 question."
Wherever he goes will be based partly on a point system that will give him positive marks for his age (he's 71), his college education and the fact that he has no history of violence. But the sheer magnitude of his sentence would likely offset most or all of the items in the plus column, experts say.
Another consideration is geography. Inmates are generally placed within 500 miles of home, which leaves some unpleasant options for Madoff, a New Yorker. The Lewisburg facility in Pennsylvania, for example, is an aging high-security prison known for its gang violence.
Madoff's notoriety and the nature of his crime will also work against him. At twice the age of most other federal inmates — most of whom were convicted of drug-related crimes and will serve a fraction of his time — the disgraced financier will find it difficult to make friends.
Marvin Ragland, a former inmate who served nine years for drug possession and trafficking, says white-collar criminals such as Madoff are "the low man on the totem pole."
"Everybody hates those kind of guys," he says. Ragland says the pecking order comes down to an unwritten prison code.
"The greater the crime against society, the worse you are treated," he says.
"This guy ... told Grandma that he had a great [place] for her to put her money and that it would be safe and she wouldn't have to worry about it," he says. "Grandma's money is gone [and] now she's got to figure out who's going to take care of her. It burdens her whole family, right down to the grandkids."
But other inmates aren't Madoff's only threat, says Pat Nolan, who was the minority leader of the California state assembly until he pled guilty to racketeering for campaign fraud in the 1990s. He served two years in federal prison.
"I was in with several millionaires, and boy, the [corrections] officers really resented them," he says.
Nolan says Madoff will have to fight off the constant negative drumbeat from fellow inmates: "You are nothing, you come from nothing, you will be nothing, you lost everything."
Ragland says he has seen a lot of white-collar inmates cry in prison. They can't handle having to wait up to three weeks for extra paper to write on, asking permission to have a glass of water, or having to barter with other inmates for an ink pen. And they can't handle the violence or the loneliness.
Ragland, who is now sober and about to graduate from trucking school, says he only survived prison because he knew he'd eventually get out.
For Madoff, who will almost certainly die in prison, "it's going to be hell," Ragland says.
To make it in prison, Ragland says, you have to have something that Madoff doesn't. "You have to have something to dream of and hope for," he says.