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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"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.'"

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