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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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."

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