Listening to Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard's fervent supporters talk, you'd think he was in a medieval dungeon, complete with anti-Semitic sadists as guards and a squalid physical environment as bad as anything during the Spanish Inquisition.
So it was interesting to read New York magazine's long account of Ponzi king Bernie Madoff's first months at the federal correctional complex at Butner, NC, where Pollard is marking his 25th year in jail. (Warning: there's some pretty graphic language in the New York story)
Here's how writer Steve Fishman describes the prison, which some inmates call “Camp Fluffy”:
“Medium I, population 758, is filled with 'soft' prisoners, those who might not survive other institutions, including pedophiles and cooperators ('rats'). The facility had been planned during a brief period of penal optimism and was designed to humanize the prison experience. The physical space resembles a campus, with landscaped yards and hedges shaped by inmates into giant globes. 'There’s flowers and trees; you can lay out on the grass and tan,' an ex-inmate told me with a laugh. 'There’s no bars. There are windows.' There’s a gym, a library, pool tables, a chapel, a volleyball court, and an Indian sweat lodge.”
I'm a little confused, since the photos with the story show bars and an environment that looks pretty prison-like, but Fishman makes a strong case that as prisons go, Butner is a pretty easy place.
And Pollard, the story implies, is just one of the guys, not tormented by the Israel haters and anti-Semites.
I'm not suggesting being in prison is a piece of cake for Pollard, and the company he is forced to keep – including Madoff – doesn't exactly sound scintillating. Imagine being locked up with the unrepentent – according to the New York story – scammer who victimized Jewish do-gooders and even Elie Wiesel.
But the portrait of prison life painted by Fishman does seem to contradict the view advanced by Pollard supporters that he is suffering grievously at the hands of federal authorities.
Lest anybody say I'm unsympathetic, let me repeat what I've written many times in the past. I believe Pollard has served more than enough time, that there are no national security grounds for keeping him in the slammer and that he was treated shamefully by an Israeli government that stupidly used a young, inexperienced kid to do their dirty work in Washington, then largely abandoned him.
But I also believe the biggest reason Pollard remains in jail is his own inconsistent record on the issue of remorse for his crimes and his continuing status as a hero to some Jews here and a lot more in Israel who believe his spying was fully justified.
Without consistent, genuine contrition, it's going to be hard for Pollard to get out. And with supporters who apparently prefer a jailed, suffering Pollard to a free one, convincing any president that he should be released will be the hardest of sells.
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