I cannot remember the name of the chaplain who called from the Butner correctional facility, perhaps the nation’s premier federal prison for sick white-collar prisoners. But he was a pro. He talked slowly, in gentle circles about how my father had been very ill and how they did their best. This verbal shuffling was all so I could figure out before the chaplain said the actual word that my father, Albert Ernest Fisher III, was dead. He was 78.
So it hit me with unexpected emotion, complicated now as a financial journalist, when I read that Bernie Madoff, 81, my father’s Butner prisonmate, is asking for compassionate release. He says he is dying. I use “he says” as journalistic distancing and to signal that it may not be wise to believe everything that the engineer of the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme tells you.
Some $65 billion was missing from Madoff’s client accounts after years of deception. My father turned to crime apparently in his retirement. He was teaching college courses on math and computers when he was charged, with his wife, with stealing more than $2 million from the business they ran providing food and upkeep for students in Lehigh University’s Greek system.
When he was sentenced in 2017, he was already dying, mostly of congestive heart failure. He could not walk across the room without oxygen. He kept saying: “If I go to prison, I will die.” He was correct. He lasted only a few weeks.
After Madoff’s request, I’ve learned that the penal system is trending toward compassion – as well as a more hard-headed desire to unclog prisons and work toward fairness in drug sentencing. The 2018 First Step Act, passed too late for my father, allows judges more flexibility to release federal prisoners.
So when Bernard Ebbers, sent to prison for 25 years for $11 billion in accounting fraud, asked for compassionate release last year, it hardly raised a stir. He was let out in December and died at home in Mississippi on Feb. 2, just around the time Madoff made his own request.
Still, when your own family life collides with larger forces embodied in First Step, the feelings are less abstract.
My dad was not in Madoff’s league, but there are parallels. Both ran Ponzi schemes. The crimes of each caused real damage, from life savings vaporized to student funds for room and board squandered in Bermuda and Neiman Marcus. Neither was a violent threat to society, but the actions of each incurred a debt to it. Those actions cost, in explicit ways.
Madoff’s son Marc hung himself in December 2010 exactly two years after his father’s arrest. In 2017, my father’s wife, Betty, slipped a Mylar balloon over her head, then inserted a tube from a helium canister my father had helpfully fetched at a local party store. She allegedly said she was going to throw some event. But it was also on the day the two of them, charged together, were due to begin deciding whether to negotiate a plea bargain or take their chances at trial. Federal prosecutors made clear there would be jail time with a plea. For her, death was preferable. I didn’t know helium was an option.
My immediate reaction to Madoff’s request was a personal one: Why should he get out to die, when the judges imprisoned my father with just weeks to live? Madoff’s lawyers say he has maybe 18 months left in him. He’s been in prison nearly 11 years.
I don’t wish to be cruel. I wince seeing the terminally ill suffer in jail, my dad, Madoff or anyone else. First Step seems like a reasonable attempt at reducing mass incarceration in the United States – case by case, on their merits, under specific guidelines.
But Madoff’s request has unexpectedly forced me to face something basic about being a citizen: Can you live with what you think is abstractly good even if is not good for you personally? In my case, can I say it’s fine that Madoff may get to die freely when my father could not – even if I believe that people like him should be shown compassion?
Honestly, it’s not going down very well. To me, Madoff is not a matter of public policy, brushing prison shoulders with my father: a better criminal, richer and more famous, who could glide free simply because times have changed.
For the historical record, another Butner prisoner during my father’s stay was Carmine “The Snake” Persico, boss of the Colombo mafia family. He died at a nearby hospital in March 2019, though he had been in Butner since 2004. He liked bocce and pinochle and apparently the occasional social visit with Madoff. I imagined my draining father in a card game with them, all three no doubt cheating.
The Snake asked for compassionate release too when he was dying. He didn’t get it. The journalist in me resists having an opinion. But the son in me, tied accidentally to another man’s fate, is less restrained. I suppose I’m glad Madoff has an opportunity The Snake and my father did not. But should that be granted to the one of the most infamous criminals of our time? I’ve learned some unsettling things about the sins of the fathers. In Madoff’s case, I’d say they should be paid in full.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners. Ian Fisher is an editor for Bloomberg News.
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