In his heyday, Bernard Madoff was famous for his love of travel. In addition to his homes in Manhattan and Montauk, Palm Beach and France, Madoff and his wife owned a collection of yachts; every summer, the pair would decamp for six weeks to Cap d'Antibes. In 2008, they set a personal record for time abroad, spending almost their entire summer in the French retreat.
Given Madoff's apparent wanderlust, it seems only appropriate that the last trip of his life should include a brief visit to one of most famous prisons in the United States. En route to his new home -- the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina -- Madoff spent the night at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta: home to some of the 20th century's most illustrious villains.
USP Atlanta's most famous inmate is, appropriately, Charles Ponzi: the man who gave his name to the money-redistribution scheme that Madoff used so successfully (until it caught up with him, as it always seems to). After he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1920, Ponzi was sent to Atlanta, where he served three and a half years. Upon his release, he was brought up on charges in Massachusetts and initiated a land scam in Florida -- and ultimately served time in both places before securing a position in Benito Mussolini's government. After stealing from the fascists, he escaped to Brazil, where he ran a branch of the Italian state airline until his 1949 death.
While Ponzi's story has some lovely parallels to Madoff's, several of the prison's other tenants were also famous white-collar criminals, including Nathaniel Hawthorne's son Julian, convicted of mail fraud, and Ken Hovind, a noted creationist and tax evader. Lou Pearlman, the impresario who founded the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, spent some time there after masterminding a Ponzi scheme. So did Catch Me If You Can forger Frank Abagnale.
The prison has also hosted its share of politicians and firebrands. Perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs served in 1920 and received write-in votes while behind bars. Marcus Garvey slept here, as did Pedro Albizu Campos, a Puerto Rican independence activist. On the more mundane side of the political field are former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and Baltimore police commissioner Ed Norris.
USP Atlanta has hosted baseball heroes, too: Willie Aikens (crack cocaine) and Denny McLain (drug trafficking and embezzlement). They signed the guestbook along with Al Capone, John Gotti, bootlegger/politician William Colbeck, and Vincent Papa, who masterminded the famed French Connection heroin robbery.
Nowadays, the penitentiary serves as a way-station for felons en route from one prison to another. Visitors stay for up to eight weeks in one of its 56 square foot cells, enjoying the company of as many as four roommates. Having spent only one night there, it seems unlikely that Madoff really got to know the ambiance. No word on whether he was assigned to sleep in Ponzi's cell.
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