Judge Denny Chin said the sentence was a symbolic one for a crime that showed "extraordinary evil" and "took a staggering human toll."
Madoff, addressing the court in a dark suit, white shirt and black tie for about six minutes, said that when he started the scam, he thought he'd be able to "work my way out." He said he lives in a tormented state and expressed regret of leaving a "legacy of shame" to his family and grandchildren."
He maintained that he acted alone, saying, "How do you excuse lying to brother and sons? How do you excuse lying and deceiving a wife who stood by you for 50 years and still stands by you? There is no excuse for that and I don't ask for forgiveness."
He then faced his victims in court and said, "I'm sorry."
When the sentence was read, the courtroom broke out in applause.
Ruth Madoff Releases Statement
Through her attorney, Ruth Madoff released a written statement after the sentencing expressing her shock and feeling of betrayal of her husband's crime, saying, "The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years."
She said that since the fraud was revealed in December, she has thought "first, that so many people who trusted [Madoff] would be ruined financially and emotionally, and second, that my life with the man I have known for over 50 years was over."
Outside the U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan, there was a steady flow of Madoff victims as they arrived at the courthouse, and many stopped to speak to the media to describe their losses before hearing the fate of the man who swindled them.
Madoff's attorney Ira Sorkin arrived and immediately entered the courthouse without making any statements.
Madoff Victims Speak: 'He 'Shattered My Dreams'
At today's hearing, nine victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme addressed the courtroom, describing how they had been wiped out both financially and emotionally. They represented the range of Madoff's thousands of victims: working class, middle class, affluent, young and old.
Dominic Ambrosino said the fraud cost him his freedom, forcing him to move from his house to a mobile home and survive on nothing more than a pension. Madoff spending his days in jail, Ambrosino said, are comparable to the imprisonment in his own life.
As to where Madoff serves out his years, victim Carla Henderson said Madoff does not deserve to spend his days in "a federal country club."
Another victim, Sharon Lisshour, was very emotional as she addressed the court, describing the fraud as a nightmare that she keeps thinking she'll wake up from, but never does. "He killed my spirit and shattered my dreams," Lisshour said of Madoff, adding that she thinks he should spend the rest of his life in prison.
"This jail should become his coffin," said 33-year-old victim Michael Schwart, who had been investing with Madoff since he was a teen. Breaking down on the stand, Schwartz said the money he had invested with Madoff was supposed to support his disabled brother. Now, after losing his job, Schwartz said he has nothing.
Madoff Speaks at Sentencing
Madoff entered the courtroom minutes before the hearing began with his head held low. As his victims spoke, he looked down at his hands the entire time, never once meeting their stares.
Madoff said his wife Ruth cries herself to sleep every night "thinking of the pain I caused."
Before reading his sentencing, Judge Chinn said that none of Madoff's friends or family sent letters attesting to his character.
The judge said Madoff should be designated to an "appropriate facility" in the northeast region. He told Madoff he had the right to appeal but must do so within 10 days. The court would appoint him a lawyer, the judge said, if he could not afford one.
Advocacy Groups Promote Causes Outside Madoff Sentencing
Self-described civil rights activist and comedian Randy Credico called for clemency for Madoff outside the courthouse, passing out flyers that read "Clemency for the Ponzi One." Credico said Madoff should not be sent to prison because he is a first time non-violent offender.
Ayana Harris contributed to this report.