Is it Time to Free George Martorano?

The country's longest-incarcerated non-violent offender is still in prison.

George Martorano has been in federal prison for a very long time. The son of late Philadelphia mobster Raymond Martorano was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after his 1982 arrest. His crime? George Martorano was a drug dealer.

Martorano’s supporters like to say that he’s been in federal prison for decades all because of a pot bust. But that’s not really true. Martorano was no small-time, street corner peddler.

No, according to federal prosecutors, George “Cowboy” Martorano controlled a $75 million-per-year organized crime drug empire before he was caught with a literal truckload of marijuana. Martorano also pleaded guilty to a bevy of other drug charges, including possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine.

But there were no charges of violence against Martorano, which makes him the longest-incarcerated non-violent offender in the federal prison system. Murderers, rapists and child molesters have spent less time in prison. In many cases, much less time.

So how is it that the justice system gave Martorano such a drastic sentence?

Well, Martorano’s original attorney, the infamous Robert Simone, told him that if he pleaded guilty to all of the charges, he would probably get 10 years, while sentencing guidelines at the time suggested a prison term of just 40 to 52 months.

But when it came time for Judge John Hannum to sentence Martorano, he gave him life without the possibility of parole. And after an appeal gave him a shot at freedom, Martorano was, again, sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by a completely different judge. Keep in mind that both of Martorano’s trials occurred during the height of Ronald Reagan’s ill-conceived War on Drugs.

“Hannum was particularly mean spirited,” remembers attorney Gerald Shargel, who has worked on the case. “I had never seen anything like it. And then the new judge — well, to think of George’s sentence really pains me. It would seem to me that this kind of sentence is for the worst kind of offender, and George is not that.”

Martorano’s situation is not unique. According to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, of the approximately 160,000 lifers in the United States, 50,000 are serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), and 10,000 were convicted of non-violent offenses. And LWOP sentences are on the rise, with a 22-percent increase in that prison population since 2008.

Pennsylvania itself now has 5,000 people serving life, making ours the most popular state in the nation for life sentences, says Ann Schwartzman, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. (The PSP works only with the state judicial system, not the federal one that sentenced Martorano.)

Schwartzman also explains that in Pennsylvania, life means life; by the state’s legal definition of a life sentence, a lifer will never see the light of day. “And we have the distinct honor of having the highest number of juvenile lifers, at about 500,” Schwartzman adds. “That’s more than any other jurisdiction in the world.”

As for Martorano, he spends his days at Florida’s Coleman Prison, where he is a model inmate and teaches courses like Astanga yoga, creative writing, and Release Preparation: Starting a Business for Under $1,000. He also blogs and publishes poetry via and, two sites run by his brother-in-law, John Flahive. (Martorano is not allowed Internet access, so he mails his writings to Flahive, who posts them.)

The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to hear Martorano’s case, but Flahive says that all hope is not lost. Martorano is currently representing himself in a legal motion asking the court to reduce his sentence, with support from a prison psychiatrist, who told the court that “Martorano’s behavior is outstanding” and that he “has been a positive role model and positive influence…”

And if that doesn’t work, Martorano can apply for the Compassionate Release program next year, when he turns 65. But with his luck in the judicial system, he’s probably not holding his breath.

“Who benefits one iota by keeping this man locked up one more minute?” asks Flahive. “If someone can answer that, I’ll back off. Did he need to go to jail? Yes, for his greed and stupidity. But he did not need to be thrown away.”