Last Thursday morning, Bernard Kerik’s lawyer, Andrew Schapiro, called Kerik’s wife, Hala, to give her the bad news before it became public. Kerik’s federal appeal of the four-year sentence he was given last February, for tax fraud and lying to the White House, had been denied.
The decision came swiftly and took Kerik, his family and his legal team by surprise. Federal appeals decisions often drag on for four to eight months. It had been just a week and a half, however, since oral arguments in the appeal of the United States of America v. Bernard Kerik were presented at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse near City Hall.
A thin crowd of around 20 people were scattered around the dark wood gallery that morning. Ms. Kerik; Kerik’s son from a previous marriage, Joe; and John Picciano, Kerik’s longtime friend and corrections, police and security consulting colleague, sat in the back row.
Kerik and his lawyers appealed his sentence on the grounds that the judge had inappropriately, and with bias, stuck him with 48 months when the guilty plea agreement called for 27 to 33.
Judges Guido Calabresi, Reena Raggi and Joseph M. McLaughlin agreed with the government’s lawyer, who in a soft monotone stated that Kerik was sentenced appropriately for “crimes over a decade” and “criminal conduct that continued into the course of the case itself”-a reference to Kerik’s defiance of a gag order.
The latter violation led in 2009 to the revocation of his bail and his initial imprisonment in the Westchester County Jail, the beginning of the end of the long legal pursuit of one of New York City’s most contentious public figures.
Two days before his appeal was heard, on a Saturday morning in late March, Kerik sat before The Observer on a maroon plastic chair with his back to the wall in the visiting room of Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution in western Maryland, a low structure of salmon-colored stone blocks topped by a teal roof, six hours from New York by car. The prison could almost pass for an elementary school, and hanging that day on the wall behind Kerik were colorful quilts sown by his fellow inmates.
Kerik, now 55, seemed restless in his green uniform. His head was shaved, and his mustache was gone. Having slimmed down before self-surrendering last May, he said he has lost 70 to 80 pounds in the past year. His face was a bit worn. On a door behind him was a small sign: “Stressed is desserts spelled backwards. … Take it one bite at a time.”
Not yet a year into his sentence, Kerik is still struggling to accept his new reality. One way or another, though, he has been dealing with prison for much of his life-as a guard, emergency enforcer and young warden at New Jersey’s Passaic County Jail in the 1980s; in the New York City Department of Correction in the 1990s, when he brought a volatile Rikers Island under control using a management system he helped create; designing prisons for the king of Jordan. And now the jailer is the inmate.
During The Observer‘s several visits with Kerik during his appeal, he declined to talk about the case or his prosecution. He did agree to speak about other matters via email.
Since May 2010, he’s been in Cumberland’s federal minimum-security prison camp, up the hill from the site’s larger and rougher medium-security facility, which houses, among others, Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Green Beret Army doctor who killed his wife and two children. The camp holds anywhere from 250 to 300 inmates at a time. “Two hundred and eighty drug dealers and me,” Kerik, a former narcotics detective, said.
According to a 45-year-old former white-collar inmate at Cumberland who knew Kerik on the inside and spoke on the condition of being identified only by his first name, Darryl, the ratio is 70-30, drugs to white collar. The camp is “chock full of D.C. and Baltimore guys, and they’re fiercely proud of where they’re from,” Darryl said. “They’re high-school dropouts. Their whole lives revolved around drugs.”
The camp is divided into a general section, called G Unit, and the P Unit, for inmates enrolled in the drug-and-alcohol-counseling program. Instead of cells, they live in dormitory-style cubes with bunk beds, four to six men per cube. Kerik is in a cube with four other inmates, all with between one and three years to go on their sentences.
“I was there when he came in,” Darryl said about Cumberland’s latest high-profile guest. “He was a regular guy. Everybody wears green.” When it came to Kerik, the camp’s administration “bent over backwards to make sure he wasn’t given any special treatment,” just as they had with Jack Abramoff, the notorious right-wing lobbyist who served three and a half years in Cumberland and was released from the camp in June 2010, a few weeks after Kerik arrived.