'He Was A Rock Star': What Bernie Madoff's Life In Prison Is Like

Bernie Madoff had appealed to be released from prison early, due to his health issues.

Probably the most famous con artist in the world, Bernie Madoff left behind a long trail of destruction, ruining the financial fortunes — and lives — of many, many people. Madoff was sentenced to spend 150 years in prison in March 2009 for running the largest Ponzi scheme ever in the United States, but now, just a mere 11 years later, he's attempting all possible methods to get out of prison for good.

Lawyers for Madoff, the focus of the latest episode of "American Greed: Biggest Cons" airing Monday, August 3 at 10/9c on CNBC, appealed for compassionate release in 2019, citing need for palliative care.

"Bernie Madoff is an old man. He seemed like he was resigned to the fact he was going to die in prison — at some point, something changed. He has kidney disease, he has a heart condition, he is not doing well. In 2019, his lawyers claim that he was diagnosed with terminal kidney disease and has roughly 18 months to live," CNBC special correspondent Scott Cohn told "American Greed."

Bernie Madoff G

Madoff, now age 82, defrauded thousands of people out of billions of dollars with his investment scam. Surprisingly, some of his victims wrote letters to the judge in support of his early release in March 2020. 

"We believe he has had enough opportunity to regret his actions," one letter read, according to "American Greed."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a much larger number of Madoff victims, about 500, wrote letters opposing his release.

"Our lives, not just financially, but also emotionally and mentally and physically, were destroyed," a letter stated.

But despite Madoff's attempts to leave prison behind, he has had a rather comfortable experience behind bars, all things considering, sources told "American Greed."

Madoff was the talk of Butner prison, Shawn Evans, a man who was serving 23 months for illegal possession of a firearm at Butner when Madoff arrived, explained to "American Greed" in an exclusive interview. The inmates treated him like a celebrity, and so did the guards, according to Evans.

“It's Mr. Madoff that, Mr. Madoff this, not 'Inmate' or your number ... They see him on the TV all the time. I wasn’t expecting for them to be all starstruck like that," he said.

Inmates sucked up to the notorious ex-financier, even asking him for stock tips. Some also asked him for autographs but he always refused, as he was worried his signature would end up on eBay and water down his brand, a source said, according to "American Greed."

At one point, Evans, too, decided to talk to Madoff — and came away the impression he was like a "nice old man."

After Evans asked Madoff about his adjustment to prison, Evans said, "He’s like, 'It’s life, I’m dealing with it.' He had the same concerns as everybody else, wondering how his family is doing and stuff like that. He was taking it all in stride, you know, like it was no big deal."

Madoff even got a job at Butner to keep himself busy and make money, working in the prison cafeteria where he cleaned and handed out inmates' lunches. Apparently, he loathed this line of work, as he had to lift heavy cases of soda, which isn't particularly easy for a frail old man.

In general, though, Madoff seemed to be fairly respected at Butner, according to Evans. And Butner itself isn't a bad prison overall, according to Steve Fishman, a New York magazine reporter

"Butner looks like a college campus, it's got lawns and trimmed hedges ... Butner is a great place to end up," Fishman told "American Greed."

And Fishman repeated Evans' sentiments about Madoff's entrance at Butner: "He was a rock star."

But despite the respect afforded to him and the fairly comfortable (for a prison) environment, Madoff is seemingly determined to get out. In summer 2020, Judge Denny Chin denied Madoff's appeal for compassionate release, writing, "When I sentenced Mr. Madoff in 2009, it was fully my intent that he live out the rest of his life in prison. Nothing has happened in the 11 years since to change my thinking."

Madoff has since appealed to President Trump for clemency, in what "American Greed" described as a "long shot" bid.

For more on the Madoff case, including exclusive interviews with his victims, more details about his time in prison, and a look into the recovery process of the billions Madoff stole, watch "American Greed: Biggest Cons" on CNBC on Monday, August 3 at 10/9c.

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