Inside Bernie Madoff’s Life Behind Bars: From Billions to 24 Cents an Hour

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Reuven Blau, THE CITY

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The Department of Justice released a mugshot of Bernie Madoff in 2009.
The Department of Justice released this mugshot of Bernie Madoff in 2009. | U.S. Department of Justice

Bernie Madoff, who got rich running a New York-based Ponzi scheme that lost $64.8 billion, ended his days earning only 24 cents an hour for orderly work in federal prison, documents obtained by THE CITY reveal.

The mastermind behind the country’s biggest investment scam struggled like other people locked up — and refused dialysis that likely could have significantly extended his life, according to his Federal Bureau of Prisons file, secured via a Freedom of Information Law request.

He died from kidney failure in a prison hospital in Butner, N.C., on April 14 after serving nine years of a 150-year sentence. The Queens-reared scam artist ripped off more than 37,000 people from 25 countries during years of subterfuge, according to authorities.

Among Madoff’s clients were his hometown Mets, whose owners in 2012 struck a deal to pay $162 million to the Ponzi scheme’s victims. In 2016, the amount was reduced to $61 million. It’s unclear how much money made it to any of those cheated.

Madoff’s 1,425-page prison file was heavily redacted with all the names of his visitors, and the name of another federal prisoner he sought to contact, blotted out.

Department of Justice
A page from Bernie Madoff’s prison records

He was constantly asked to sit for deposition interviews by lawyers who were desperately trying to figure out a way to recoup money for their clients. At one point, federal officials had a list of more than 80 attorneys seeking time with the man who left a trail of financial ruin.

Prison officials blocked almost all in-person visits, including scores of media interview requests from outlets as far away as France and the U.K. Wardens repeatedly cited security concerns as the reason for the limited access and typically only allowed in people who had a prior relationship with Madoff before he was imprisoned.

The documents offer glimpses of a humbling life behind bars for the one-time high-roller: He bought long johns from the commissary to stay warm, while a quilt sent to him in the mail was rejected because it hadn’t been cleared by prison officials.

As for his prison jobs, Madoff didn’t like his first assignment as an orderly in “education” and asked to be moved to the chapel area, the records reveal.

Before he became too sick to work, he had tallied nearly 3,000 hours for a measly $710, according to the prison files. Federal inmates earn from 12 to 40 cents an hour.

He mainly got solid reviews for his work, but at one point got dinged for a “fair” effort over most categories. “Needs closer supervision than most,” one bullet point of the review said. “Not very dependable.”

He also once got a “poor” work review, records show.

Prison Labor Eyed

Prison advocates say Madoff’s case, despite the seriousness of his crime, is just one more example of what they describe as “slave labor” behind bars.

“I don’t know if Bernie Madoff is the most sympathetic person given what he took from people, but the reality is that what he underwent is what other incarcerated people are going through,” Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises, an organization dedicated to ending prison profiteering.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865, notably abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Criminal justice reformers want to erase the “punishment” clause from the amendment and launched an #EndTheException campaign on Juneteenth.

A resolution called the Abolition Amendment was introduced by Democrats in both houses in December 2020.

“As we take on the long and difficult challenge of rooting out systemic racism in our nation, ending the slavery loophole in the 13th Amendment is [a] critical step in that challenge,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), who is leading the push for the legislation.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
New York Rep. Jerrod Nadler is backing prison labor reform.

The legislation was reintroduced this year and supporters say it is gaining momentum. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) backed the measure this week, joining supporters that include Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey).

Madoff was disciplined once in 2013 for being in an unauthorized area without a pass at 1:36 p.m., prison records show.

He told a prison officer investigating the incident that he had to go to the bathroom.

“I have kidney problems and couldn’t hold it,” he wrote.

Any potential punishment appears to have been pushed off “pending clean conduct” for six months.

Toothpaste, Ketchup and a Calculator

Cynthia Arenson, 81, who lost $700,000 with Madoff, said she’s happy he never got released from prison, but didn’t want him to suffer.

The Park Slope resident has a relative who was financially wiped out after losing more than $1 million — and now makes $15 an hour doing retail work.

“She hoped he suffered a lot,” said Arenson, who added that two of her own children also lost money with Madoff. “A lot of people feel that way.”

In 2019, Madoff tried to get out of prison via a compassionate release petition. His lawyers argued he had less than 18 months to live due to kidney failure.

A prison warden rejected that argument, saying Madoff “could theoretically live a normal life span” if he decided to undergo dialysis treatment as doctors suggested.

“This would make Mr. Madoff outside the definition / criteria for a terminal illness,” the warden said.

Federal judge Denny Chin denied the request, saying Madoff “committed “one of the most egregious financial crimes of all time,” and noted many of his victims are still suffering.

A list of some of Bernie Madoff’s final possessions

Before he was jailed Madoff owned multi-million dollar properties throughout the world.

But in the end, he died with little to his tarnished name, records show.

A personal property list showed he had Crest toothpaste, a Casio calculator, Heinz ketchup, four “religious” books and other small items.

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