Second Life

Sentenced to life for drug smuggling, George Martorano spent decades in prison with no hope for release. Then John Flahive answered his call.

click to enlarge GREETINGS FROM PRISON: John Flahive and George Martorano pose for a holiday photo in front of a faux domestic backdrop at Coleman prison. - Courtesy John Flahive
Courtesy John Flahive
GREETINGS FROM PRISON: John Flahive and George Martorano pose for a holiday photo in front of a faux domestic backdrop at Coleman prison.

Every holiday season, there's a tradition at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Central Florida, 20 miles south of Ocala. During the month of December, prison officials set up a large holiday backdrop painted with a Christmas tree, wreath and brick fireplace, partially concealing the grey cinderblock wall in a corner of the visiting room. Families and couples line up to have portraits taken with their incarcerated dads and husbands and sons. Smiles are plentiful, if a little hollow.

On a cloudless afternoon in December 2006, two men — one in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, the other in prison-issued olive drab — walk up for their turn. John Flahive, 50, glares at the camera, fierce and determined; the inmate, 57-year-old George Martorano, shorter and slightly stooped from a hernia, looks ahead with the weariness of a man who has spent the last 23 years of his life in prison. The two clasp hands.

For the other inmates and their families, the photos are an attempt to relive, if for just a few moments, past holidays spent together on the outside. But all Flahive and Martorano have ever known are the bonds forged in this sterile room, eating cheap food from the vending machines and sitting too long on uncomfortable chairs.

They're not family, exactly. Flahive, a former alcoholic and drug addict from St. Petersburg, met Martorano, a convicted drug smuggler from Philadelphia, through a chance 15-minute phone call. But the random encounter led to a six-year friendship and a joint effort to change the federal rules that keep an estimated 116,500 non-violent offenders behind bars for disproportionately long sentences.

That includes Martorano, who holds the unlucky title of longest-serving first-time non-violent offender in federal custody. And unless a legal brief convinces a Philadelphia judge his sentence was illegal or President Bush signs off on the clemency request now on his desk, Martorano will keep that title, spending the rest of his life in prison.

But this is more than a story about a prisoner and an activist. The connection they've made has rekindled a nationwide sentencing reform movement. And even more important for Flahive and Martorano, the friendship has profoundly changed both of their lives.

While the rest of the families in the visiting room talk about relatives and school reports, Martorano asks about Flahive's mother, sister and his sick dog. Flahive, energized by the Starbucks Frappuccinos he drank on the 70-mile trip from St. Petersburg to Coleman, talks loud and fast, gesturing spiritedly. Martorano, meanwhile, is quiet and contemplative, smiling only slightly when Flahive cracks a joke.

It's hard to reconcile Martorano's reserved demeanor with the life he lived in the early '80s. Then, Martorano was known to South Philly as George "Cowboy" Martorano, a bombastic hustler with a propensity for women and weed.

The Martorano name was well known in Philly for another reason: Martorano's father was reputed mobster Raymond "Long John" Martorano, who the FBI long suspected of affiliations with Philly's two top crime bosses. And although Martorano says his father never inducted him into the world of organized crime, after years of making little money in legitimate businesses, the younger Martorano struck out on his own criminal enterprise.

He started out small, peddling marijuana to friends until he joined a larger group of smugglers flying in high-grade pot from Jamaica. Within months, Martorano and 14 others had established a $75-million-a-year drug smuggling ring, adding cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and Quaaludes to their product line. Unfortunately for Martorano, a slew of informants and two FBI agents were also part of the enterprise.

On Sept. 19, 1982 — minutes after conversing with an undercover agent poolside at a Miami Holiday Inn — Martorano was arrested by the FBI on 19 counts of drug possession and conspiracy charges stemming from a 15-month undercover operation. Because of Martorano's family history and incriminating statements on hundreds of hours of taped phone conversations and meetings, authorities pegged him as the drug ring's kingpin.

The Martorano family hired attorney Robert "Bobby" Simone, who convinced Martorano, then 33, to plead guilty. After all, Martorano had no prior convictions, not even a traffic ticket, and none of his charges were for violent crimes. He'd get 10 years, at most. Even a federal sentencing board recommended that Martorano get only 40-52 months in prison.

click to enlarge WEEKLY VISITOR: Flahive has visited Coleman once or twice a week since meeting Martorano six years ago. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
WEEKLY VISITOR: Flahive has visited Coleman once or twice a week since meeting Martorano six years ago.

But Martorano's family history trumped everything. Between his trial and sentencing, rival mob bosses loosed a bloodbath on Philly's streets. As the body count mounted, U.S. Judge John Hannum and Louis Pichini, a prosecutor with the U.S. Organized Crime Task Force, pressured Martorano to spill whatever secrets he knew about the Philly mafia. Federal agents suspected Martorano's father was involved with one of the more murderous crime families, run by Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo. But Martorano, then and now, denies having any information the feds didn't already know. In a phrase he's repeated for two decades, Martorano says, "The daily newspapers knew more about my father than I did."

Hannum didn't buy it, and in 1988, he sentenced Martorano to life in prison without parole.

"I was punished for not having info on the mob," Martorano maintains.

For the next several years, the Bureau of Prisons bounced Martorano from one supermax facility to the next, where he shared cellblocks with some of the most infamous criminals of the latter part of the century. (In one story Martorano likes to share, he once smuggled a sandwich to cellmate John Gotti while behind bars in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center.)

Martorano's first few years in prison were spent in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in FCI Marion, the country's most secure penitentiary, meant for only the most violent criminals. "I was the youngest person ever designated to Marion directly from the court," he says.

Martorano, convinced the feds were trying to break him, refused either to talk or to fall into the pitfalls of prison life. He stayed clear of racial gangs. He traded food and cigarettes generously to make friends. And he always kept his head up and his eyes open.

"You don't have to be the strongest guy in prison," Martorano says. "You just have to be a man."

Martorano quickly earned the respect of fellow inmates and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Though he had no hope of parole, he studied and received his GED, stayed clear of violence and consistently received good performance reports. But courts continued to deny Martorano's appeals. He started to accept that he might die behind bars.

While Martorano struggled to survive in prison, John Flahive was fighting his own battles with drugs and alcohol. A self-described "bad boy" from the working-class town of Waterbury, Conn., Flahive was well into binge-drinking and drug use by the time he left the Army in the late '70s. Despite marriage, a son and the success of a video store chain he co-owned, Flahive couldn't quit partying. He divorced, his wife took the child, and the video stores floundered. Then in 1999, Flahive, at 43, left for Florida. For the next year and a half, he drifted around Tampa and St. Petersburg, drinking, drugging and avoiding the law.

By the end of the year, Flahive had hit bottom. On New Year's Eve, he invited a buddy over for a weekend of boozing. The friend took one look at Flahive's drink-ravaged face and urged him to seek help. Flahive agreed to admit himself to Bay Pines Veterans Hospital in St. Petersburg but not before a 32-pack of beer and a trip to the bar.

"When the nurse took my blood she said I should've been comatose," he says. "I told her, 'If I walk out that door, I'm a dead man.'"

For the next several months, Flahive faithfully attended rehab programs, stayed sober and made amends with his family. He found a job at a local bingo hall and began dating the general manager.

"One night when I was at her house, the phone rang with a message," Flahive says. "It was a call from a federal prison." He hung up, but the phone rang again. Flahive answered.

"She came home, and I told her we needed to talk because her brother, who I didn't even know existed, just called from the federal penitentiary," he says.

George Martorano had been in the pen for 18 years.

"My first question was, 'How many people did your brother kill?'"

For Martorano, prison had become increasingly unbearable. Then he discovered an unexpected refuge: He began to write.

click to enlarge THE GREY SEA: Martorano has spent nearly half his life in prison. "When I came in, they called me 'the kid,'" he says. "Now they call me 'pops.'" He celebrated his 45th birthday in FCI Marianna (top) and his 50th birthday in a Louisana penitentiary (below). - Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
THE GREY SEA: Martorano has spent nearly half his life in prison. "When I came in, they called me 'the kid,'" he says. "Now they call me 'pops.'" He celebrated his 45th birthday in FCI Marianna (top) and his 50th birthday in a Louisana penitentiary (below).

In 1992, while en route from FCI Marion to Florida's supermax prison in Marianna, a violent storm forced BOP officials to hold Martorano in an East St. Louis jail basement. For two weeks, they kept Martorano in a solitary "boxcar" cell without light, heat or a bed.

"I was starting to lose it," Martorano recalls. "I found this pencil and I just started writing on the walls. ... By the time they let me out, I had written all over the cell."

It was the birth of George Martorano, the author.

"Everything came after the writing," he says. "It made me look at [prison life] differently."

After finally arriving at FCI Marianna, Martorano pressured fellow prisoner Dennis Lehman, a former college professor and convicted bank robber, to teach him screenwriting. The prison yard became Martorano's classroom; he paid his teacher in fruit salad.

Martorano finished his first screenplay, the 246-page Pie, later that year. Over the next decade and a half, trading cookies for paper and cigarettes for pens, he wrote eight more screenplays, 23 books and more poems and short stories than he can count. Much of Martorano's work centers around the only things he's ever known: hardscrabble life in South Philly and prison.

"The one good thing, and bad thing, about prisons is they are rivers of stories," he says.

click to enlarge Second Life - Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
Second Life

Convinced a creative outlet could benefit all prisoners, Martorano petitioned for writing classes inside the prison. Then he became BOP-certified to teach them. After hearing inmates' tragic and familiar stories, Martorano began mentoring first-time offenders entering the penitentiary and, later, volunteering for the prison's suicide watch.

In 1997, a small publishing house in Canada accepted one of Martorano's novels, Pain Grows a Platinum Rose, a loosely autobiographical portrait of a South Philly teen. Four years later, that book would end up in Flahive's hands.

Martorano's sister proceeded to tell Flahive about her brother's case — his life sentence and his transformation into a writer. (She has asked Creative Loafing not to reveal her name.) After hearing the history, Flahive began trading letters and phone calls with Martorano. He read Pain Grows a Platinum Rose four times. In 2001, BOP officials transferred Martorano from a Louisiana prison to Coleman's supermax facility. Flahive decided to meet him.

The first time he made the 70-mile drive to Coleman, BOP officials denied him entry — he wasn't on Martorano's approved visitors list. He had to wait outside in the 90-degree heat. Frustrated, and with a determination that he would consistently show to Martorano, he petitioned the BOP and came back the following week.

"I was nervous," Flahive remembers. "I had been in lockups here and there, but no penitentiary."

The routine, which he would come to know well, was enough to make any visitor feel like a prisoner: waiting in a crowded room for hours until a guard calls you up; sticking your index finger in a machine that detects narcotics residue; removing your shoes, belt and jacket before proceeding through a metal detector; another guard leading you to the "Trap," a claustrophobic enclosure where each visitor's hand is stamped with black-light-sensitive ink (the guards explain the stamp ensures visitors are allowed to leave the prison complex); then the escorted walk across the prison yard.

When Flahive finally entered the visitor area that first time in the summer of 2001, he waited anxiously for Martorano to be released from his cell. Security cameras scanned the room as he took a seat on one of the hard plastic blue chairs arranged in rows facing each other. The air was frigid and thick with the smell of sweat and microwaved food. Around him, men dressed in drab olive sat with their families, speaking in hushed tones and eating chips and chocolate bars bought from the vending machines that lined the room. A stone-faced guard stalked the aisles.

After 10 minutes, a grey-haired inmate ambled out of a blue door toward Flahive. Despite the months of correspondence, Flahive still had no idea what to expect from an alleged kingpin drug dealer serving life in prison. But Martorano immediately embraced Flahive in a brotherly hug. And for the next three hours, they sat on those hard blue seats in the visiting room and spilled their life stories.

"The connection was pretty instant," Flahive says. "It was like an instant friendship after five minutes of talking."

At the end of their visit, the guards literally pushed Flahive out, but not before he promised to work for Martorano's release.

"When I walked out of there, I welled up," Flahive says. "I was so sad I had to leave this man behind."

Convinced that Martorano's sentence had to be a mistake and could be easily corrected, Flahive delved into his case. But the more he researched, the more he began to question the entire criminal justice system. Martorano was only one of thousands of first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes who were serving disproportionately long sentences. Mandatory minimums, intractable drug laws, racial disparities in sentencing — Flahive saw patterns of a broken system. Taxpayers were spending millions every year on housing nonviolent criminals, while the government was neglecting to fund employment opportunities and drug abuse programs. America was not rehabilitating prisoners but punishing them and creating hardened criminals.

"I'm not a bleeding heart," Flahive contends. "I don't think we should let all these criminals out of jail. But let's let the guys like Georgie — who are ready, who have served 20 years in some of the hardest facilities across the country — let them have a second chance. If they screw up, what, is there no return policy?"

On Flahive's next visit to Coleman, he proposed setting up an organization advocating for prisoner rights. Martorano was hesitant.

"I never got involved in prison reform because I thought I would taint it," he admits. "John made me realize I was an asset. He convinced me, 'You're not the George Martorano of yesterday.'"

click to enlarge UNLIKELY ACTIVIST: The We Believe Group propelled Flahive from a scruffy biker to a clean-cut lobbyist in a three-piece suit, shaking hands with United States senators and congressmen like Florida's Bill Nelson. - Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
UNLIKELY ACTIVIST: The We Believe Group propelled Flahive from a scruffy biker to a clean-cut lobbyist in a three-piece suit, shaking hands with United States senators and congressmen like Florida's Bill Nelson.

Within two weeks, Flahive had a website up (webelievegroup.com), officially founding the We Believe Group, a "political lobbying activist organization" advocating for nonviolent inmates.

But Flahive knew nothing about activism. He didn't even vote. Starting out small, Flahive spent his nights writing letters to members of Congress and making contacts with other prison reform groups like FedCure. He took days off to attend rallies in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

"When I started all this, I figured I was going to get on a soapbox and wear my T-shirt and get my bullhorn, and I'd gather enough people and we'd go raise some hell in D.C.," he says. "But that don't work anymore."

Frustrated by politicians who wouldn't return his calls and grassroots activists failing to show up for rallies, Flahive changed course. He cut his hair, bought a suit and made appointments with members of Congress.

"Now I go up there, and people stop me and shake my hand," he says. "I get somewhere. People call me into these briefings. I get into offices no problem."

While Flahive fought for his friend in the free world, an inspired Martorano worked inside FCI Coleman. He petitioned the BOP to allow prison reform speakers inside the penitentiary. He wrote newsletters calling on inmates to avoid violence and educate themselves. He joined Coleman's NAACP chapter, and soon after, became the first white member elected to its executive board.

But there was another, less tangible transformation occurring in the two men, a change that their families could see.

One night, while driving over the Howard Frankland bridge after a visit to Coleman, Martorano's sister turned to Flahive with tears in her eyes: "She said, 'I don't know how to thank you enough for bringing my brother back, John. He was giving up.'"

Flahive's family, interested in this inmate who had such an effect on their tough-talking relative, also came to visit Martorano. During one visit, Flahive's sister Kathleen came along.

She had a few words for Martorano: "I just want to thank you for bringing my brother back."

On a cool December day in 2003, after an extensive letter-writing campaign to the U.S. Justice Department, Martorano received a reply from the United States Office of the Pardon Attorney: They were reviewing Martorano's case for executive clemency.

"I was surprised," remembers Flahive when he first received the news from Martorano by phone. "I thought, 'This is our shot.'"

But Flahive continued to work the system for legislative changes. He spoke alongside U.S. representatives Danny Davis and John Conyers at prison reform hearings. The We Believe Group, which had swelled to 600 members, prompted the congressmen to sponsor the "Second Chance Act," a bill that would bring back federal parole and re-sentence the estimated 116,500 nonviolent offenders held in federal custody.

Though the bill has stalled for years in Congress, co-sponsors have slowly jumped on board. The latest version — H.R. 1593 — has gained 111 more co-sponsors. The bill is up for vote in the U.S. House this session. (A similar bill stalled in the Senate.)

"Prison issues affect us all because we're paying taxes to keep these guys that don't need to be in there," Flahive says. "The federal system is way over capacity. The state, local and county jails are filling up. We could be putting this money toward veterans, education, the war."

In July 2004, the unlikely pair of activists received another boost of hope: The U.S. Pardon Attorney sent a recommendation to President Bush concerning Martorano's case. There is no confirmation that the pardon attorney recommended clemency, but Flahive remains hopeful.

"We wouldn't get to Bush unless the pardon attorney thought it would have some weight," he surmises. Now it's left to President Bush to decide if he'll sign off on it.

"I send an e-mail to the president every other day," Flahive says. "I don't know if one day he'll see one, or maybe he sees them all. I'm hoping he sees it and says, 'Let's get this guy out so this Flahive guy will stop bothering me.'"

The holiday mood in the visitors' room is muted, even amid the homey decorations. But as Martorano sips his coffee, his expression is wistful as he looks at the other inmates and their families. He catches the eye of a friend and waves to his little girl.

click to enlarge THE PEN: Martorano's only published novel, a loosely autobiographical portrait of life as a South Philly teen. - Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
Courtesy Of The We Believe Group
THE PEN: Martorano's only published novel, a loosely autobiographical portrait of life as a South Philly teen.

Martorano's daughter was 4 years old when he went to prison; his son, 8. He has missed more than holidays while incarcerated. His wife succumbed to breast cancer in 2000. His son died in a motorcycle accident a year later. And his father was killed in a gangland murder in 2002.

"I think about the loss and hurt I caused in my children," Martorano says. "I don't want any child of an incarcerated inmate to go through that."

Flahive takes out a plastic bag filled with $1 bills — visitors are allowed no more than $30 in small bills — and heads to the vending machines. Five dollars later, he brings back a small meal: a tuna salad sandwich, string cheese and a Snickers bar.

As Martorano digs into the tuna salad sandwich, Flahive gives him the latest updates on the We Believe Group's activities: a new webmaster, from Serbia no less, has set up a blog for Martorano (www.freegeorge.us); an indie filmmaker wants to bring the felon's story to the silver screen; and an attorney is prepared to submit Martorano's new brief petitioning the Third Circuit Court of Philadelphia to reexamine his case.

This latest appeal by Martorano, thought up by some jailhouse lawyers, goes into four aspects of his conviction in an attempt to convince the court he received an illegal sentence.

According to the brief, Martorano's two conspiracy charges contradict each other — one calls for the chance of parole, the other doesn't. Martorano also argues that since the two charges are for the same crime, his sentence violates the double-jeopardy clause. In addition, the appeal contends that the court violated U.S. Code 4205 (part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1987), which gave new sentencing guidelines to certain federal crimes committed before 1987. Though sentencing rules under the 1987 legislation are more stringent, Flahive contends that under those guidelines, Martorano would serve only 18 years and seven months "accountable to every drop, every ounce, every speck of drugs."

Although the points are based on legal technicalities, Flahive thinks anything that gets Martorano's case reviewed is a positive step toward freedom.

"If they agree to hear this, there's relief," he says.

When asked what he'll do if released, Martorano's response is simple: He just wants to visit his mother and lay flowers at his son's grave. He's considering settling down in the Tampa Bay area and working with Flahive on creating programs to steer at-risk youth away from a life of crime.

Flahive is patiently waiting for Martorano's release so he can marry his sister. "I want Georgie to give her away," he says. "I want him at that wedding."

Flahive admits Martorano may have a hard time adjusting to life in the free world. But that doesn't change his feeling that Martorano deserves a second chance.

"If for a minute I was sitting across from that man and felt he would go back to Philly and avenge his father's debts or start back up with the drug trade, I would jump out," Flahive says. "I would still visit him and I would still be his friend, but I would not be the advocate."

At 2 p.m., prison officials shut down the visitor area and herd the inmates back to their cells. It's the toughest part of the visit for Flahive.

"I can't stomach watching these toddlers and babies ripped from their father's arms when it's time to go," he says, grimacing. "It breaks my heart to see that."

Flahive lines up with the other families, and they walk single-file back across the prison yard. After a guard checks his hand for the stamp, he heads for his truck, lighting a Marlboro on the way. He remains silent as he drives through the complex and out onto U.S. 301.

"I dream about it," he says about Martorano's release. "I've had at least 40 different versions of how Georgie is gonna come home: I'm breaking him out; I'm picking him up peacefully; they're releasing him; what we're going to do on the way home."

Flahive says he has Martorano's release day all planned out.

"I think we're gonna stop at a McDonald's and get a fry and a hamburger and a milkshake," he says, a grin spreading across his face.

Flahive stays silent most of the way home. He pulls into his driveway, unlocks the door to the modest home he shares with Martorano's sister and heads straight for his computer desk, cluttered with court files and letters. He takes out the holiday picture taken at Coleman and places it on a shelf above the monitor. For inspiration, he says.

"People have asked me, my family has asked me, 'Why are you doing this?'" he says. "And the bottom line is, once I met the man and saw who he really was, I knew I had to. ... I don't know who Georgie was 23 years ago. I cannot judge him on who he was then. I can only judge him on who he is today."

CODA

Martorano's newest lawyer sent his brief to the Third Circuit Court of Philadelphia in May. If the brief is denied, Martorano's last hope lies in the presidential pardon.

In the meantime, Martorano continues his two-decade-old routine: Wake up at 6 a.m.; shower; practice yoga; drink a cup of coffee; perform his duties of cleaning phones and water fountains; jog around the prison yard; eat a salad for lunch; prepare curriculum for his creative writing class and then write for the rest of the night in a closet he has converted into an office.

On Tuesdays, he teaches his creative writing class; on Thursdays, he works on reuniting estranged fathers with their children through writing letters and assisted visits.

"These guys [in prison] can't understand why I keep trying, why I haven't quit," Martorano says. "The only thing I can tell them is 'Use me as an example.'"

Flahive and the We Believe Group continue to assist inmates and their families with transfers, medical visits and legislative updates, as well as helping other prison reform groups with letter-writing and phone campaigns. Flahive will visit Washington, D.C., in August to push for the Second Chance Act.

"I'm not going to change the world; I know that," he says. "But I'm going to let as many people along the way know that it's wrong."

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