July 18, 2009 -- It's looking like a lifetime sentence at one of the nation's cushiest prisons for world-class fraudster Bernard Madoff. The record-setting scammer is now at the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner, N.C. It's no Club Fed--the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' minimum-security camps, which are the easiest places to do federal time, are only for offenders with 10 years or less on their sentences. Bernie's is for 150.
But Madoff shouldn't be too despondent. Neither should Marc Dreier, the swindling super lawyer who was handed a 20-year fraud sentence on July 13. Prison camps have always been white-collar convicts' destination of choice, but even fraudsters with long sentences can find ways to make doing time easier--and to avoid sharing a cell with an ax murderer.
We asked Allan Ellis, a Philadelphia defense attorney who penned the Federal Prison Guidebook, for a shortlist of the prisons considered most desirable by federal inmates. Then we took into account features like availability of e-mail, distance to the nearest major airport and presence of on-site substance abuse treatment, a sentence-reducing initiative that has seen a wave of apparently sober white-collar cons claiming serious addictions.
Of the 115 prisons in the federal system, which one did Bernie want to spend the rest of his life in? That distinction goes to the Federal Correctional Institution at Otisville, N.Y. Though not a camp, FCI Otisville is only for male inmates with a medium- or low-security designation, so he would have avoided mingling with the worst of the worst.
Otisville ranks at the bottom of our list, but it's still got its upsides, especially for observant Jewish inmates; the prison boasts kosher food and regular access to a rabbi. But Madoff, whose fraudulent investment scheme left numerous Jewish philanthropies on the brink of collapse and bankrupted hundreds of individuals, has a personal, rather than a religious, reason for wanting to end up in Otisville.
"We requested he be housed in Otisville because he wants to be as close as possible to his wife, his kids and his grandkids," says Ira Lee Sorkin, Madoff's lawyer. "This was about his family."
As Sorkin noted in an interview last week, it is the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that decides where Madoff serves his time and what his security status will be.
Mark Whitacre, a former executive of agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, says regular visits by his family and friends made doing his 8.5 years far more bearable. Whitacre split his sentence between two prison camps, and both times his wife pulled up stakes to be near him.
"She moved to each location," says Whitacre.
Whitacre is one of the nation's highest profile white-collar fraudsters. After embezzling millions of dollars from his employer while working as an undercover FBI informant, Whitacre was the subject of a best-selling book, The Informant. He will be portrayed by Matt Damon in an upcoming film by the same name chronicling his bizarre tale.
Whitacre, who got out in 2007, spent the second half of his sentence at the Federal Prison Camp at Pensacola, Fla. (No. 2 on our list). Prisoners there could visit with their families on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in a tree-filled park, according to Whitacre.
"More like the privacy of a backyard," he says. "Fridays through Sundays I had visits, every week. And Mondays through Fridays I was just looking forward to my next visit."
The Pensacola camp also has a relatively rare feature that is desirable among federal inmates: proximity to a military base. Ellis, the Federal Prison Guidebook author, says that inmates at federal lockups near or adjacent to bases are more likely to enjoy better jobs and recreational activities outside their institution's immediate confines.
For Whitacre, that meant a clerking job in an air-conditioned military office and frequent trips to a servicemen's cinema during his time at FPC Pensacola, which is next to the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
Another thing federal cons and their defense attorneys seek out: happy guards. Ellis says anecdotal evidence suggests guards are more friendly when the local community from which they're drawn has a liberal bent. That would include the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, Calif. (No. 7 on our list), which is just outside San Francisco, and the Federal Correctional Institution at Sheridan, Ore. (No. 5), about an hour and a half from Portland.
Ellis also believes guards that deal exclusively with lower-security inmates are more likely to be relaxed than their counterparts at high-security prisons (which usually bear the acronym USP, for United States Penitentiary). For that reason, Ellis will often request that authorities put his client in a facility that only houses lower-security inmates, like Pensacola, as opposed to one like the Federal Correctional Complex at Allenwood, Pa., whose inmates run the gamut.
In contrast, the Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary in Florence, Colo., the federal system's most secure lockup, is adjacent to a minimum-security camp. For prisoners at the camp, that may mean answering to guards who have recently gotten off duty guarding the likes of terrorists or the Unabomber.