Madoff's new digs not as bad as he deserves

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As Bernie Madoff begins his new life in jail, newspapers are eagerly sopping up every miserable detail of prison life and breathlessly passing them on to readers. The New York Post, for example, offered the headline, "Inside Look at Rat's New Cage: Beware Cellmates, Bernie," while the Daily Newspresented a measured, thoughtful peek at life inside: "Bernie Madoff's hellhole: Ponzi schemer is caged 23 hours a day, gets bad food and few visitors." One almost expects to see the headline "Bernie Madoff in eternal perdition, forced to sleep on 200-thread count sheets, use one-ply toilet paper. Cupcakes only on Thursdays."

For better or worse, this isn't Turkey. Life at the 10 South section of Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center, while undoubtedly a step down from a Motel 6, is hardly the Shawshank Redemption horror that the papers want to present. To begin with, Madoff's cell (a typical cell at the Metropolitan Corrections Center is shown here), which the papers have gleefully pointed out is 8 feet by 8 feet, is only a little smaller than the room I shared with two guys during my sophomore year in college. While it's undoubtedly a come down for a guy used to living in a palatial apartment on Park Avenue, it's hardly a tiger cage. (For that matter, it's worth noting that some tourists are paying $30 a night to sleep in similar circumstances at a hostel on the Bowery, not far from where Bernie is booked into his gray bar penthouse.)

What of the food? Well, the Daily News stated that "what passes for food is slipped through a narrow slit in a stainless steel door," while the Post offered a tart "don't ask what the food is like." A little further research reveals, however, that Bernie isn't doing too badly on the food front. According to CNBC, the eats at the Metropolitan Correctional Center are a lot like the average institutional menu. The basic breakfast is a banana, oatmeal, bread with margarine, milk, and coffee. Lunch is baked chicken, sweet potatoes, collards, bread with margarine, fruit, and a drink; and dinner is spaghetti with meat sauce, spinach, bread with margarine, and a drink. While the menu seems a little heavy on bread with margarine, it doesn't really have the "plate full of gruel" flair that the truly vengeful among us might have wanted.

And what of the decor? For those of us weaned on Brubaker, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other jailhouse masterpieces, it's easy to imagine Madoff's cell as a grimy, dark hole, equipped with filthy gray stone, endlessly dripping water, and feral rats. In truth, however, it looks more like a hospital room or a military barracks, with clean, freshly-painted white walls and minimalist furniture. In fact, rather than rotting away in eternal darkness, Bernie has to deal with the exact opposite: a room where the lights never go out and his every move is caught on video.

And the roommates? Well, although the papers are making a big deal out of the bloodthirsty fiends who have spent time in 10 South, most of them seem to fit squarely in the kingpin mold. This, after all, is where Junior Gotti cooled his heels, as did "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo. "Vinnie Gorgeous" Basciano also stayed there, as did a few terrorists. In fact, the area seems to be reserved for the kind of high-profile, highly vulnerable prisoners that would be voted "most likely to be shanked" if the prison had a yearbook. Chances are pretty good that Bernie's greatest misery will be loneliness, not bullying.

As we gorge on the details of Bernie's incarceration, it seems vital to remember that he is being imprisoned in one of the most litiginous cities in the world. In New York, lawsuits are practically the official passtime, and there are thousands of lawyers who would gladly represent a high-profile client who is being mistreated in jail. While we might want to imagine Madoff sitting on the bottom of a very deep, dark hole, the truth is that he's probably doing a lot better than many of his victims.
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