There is no mistaking the medium-security unit of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, in Butner, N.C., for anything other than a prison. But Bernard Madoff could have done much worse. The grounds are carefully maintained, and some parts of the facility feel more like a college than a correctional institution.
The campus-like prison is where, on a crisp January morning this year, I spent two hours with Butner's most infamous inmate.
Madoff and I had been corresponding for several months by email, and in late November 2012, he had agreed to allow me to visit. He insisted that our conversation be off the record, with the understanding that he would consider allowing me to report it at a later date.
A request to reveal the substance of our discussion now, on the fifth anniversary of his arrest, has gone unanswered. But I can say that the atmosphere of our meeting—at the corner of a large table in the warden's conference room—was unforgettable.
Three-and-a-half years into his 150-year sentence, the Bernie Madoff I met with that day looked more like an average 74-year-old man from Queens, N.Y., than a onetime Wall Street luminary.