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.

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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.

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