What the Klink Taught Kerik: The Jailhouse Interview

During Kerik’s first few months, they put him on kitchen duty. When he ran Rikers, he was known for being a hard-ass when it came to cleanliness. “They had him mopping floors, you know, to show him who’s boss,” Kerik’s longtime friend and colleague Mr. Picciano said. As a grade-four inmate, Kerik, who amassed a fortune of millions as a security professional, now makes 12 cents an hour.

Short, avuncular and balding, Mr. Picciano was a corrections officer at Rikers before Kerik was appointed to the department by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994. As Kerik rose, eventually to commissioner in 1998, he took Mr. Picciano with him, and eventually over to the Police Department. Mr. Picciano speaks to Kerik regularly by phone and email, and visits him most weekends, driving the 130 miles from Washington, D.C.

Cumberland head counts are at midnight, 3 a.m., 5 a.m., 4 p.m. (a standing count) and 10 p.m. Kerik wakes between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. All the inmates eat their meals at the same time. “In the chow hall, you take an empty seat,” Kerik said. “It makes no difference to me. You’re not there to socialize. It’s eat and get out.”

Because of his background and profile and the fact that inmates are far from on lockdown, it’s natural to wonder about his safety. “Is he in danger on a daily basis?” Mr. Picciano said. “No. Could something happen to him? Absolutely. If someone wanted to make a name for himself.”

In his memoir The Lost Son, Kerik tells a story from the mid-1980s when he was assistant commander of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team-the enforcement muscle-at the Passaic County Jail. One day, Kerik relates, someone was smoking pot in the jail day room, and when guards came to put a stop to it, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound inmate named Anthony refused to come out of the room peacefully until Kerik told him he was bringing in the dogs. They got Anthony on the elevator to go upstairs when the big man turned around swinging. “Within 10 seconds it was over, and Anthony lay on the floor unconscious,” Kerik wrote.

Kerik’s tough-guy persona was never a charade. He’s a black belt in tae kwon do who once taught hand-to-hand combat to Special Forces at the J.F.K. Unconventional Warfare Center. At Rikers, he was known for making surprise visits after midnight. There the department dealt with inmates “slamming” razor blades, scalpels, even knives up their asses, trying to prevent inmates from giving each other “buck fifties”-slashes that require 150 stitches or more.

Cumberla
nd is a vacation by comparison. “There haven’t been any arguments or tense moments,” Kerik said.

But according to Darryl, the former inmate, the prison is not entirely tranquil. “You had your hard heads who wanted to fight at night. Stupid things. Somebody calls somebody out. But they got put behind the wire”-that is, sent to the medium down the hill, where conditions are considerably less favorable.

By all accounts, the camp is a fairly lax environment that functions on the honor system. Inmates share TVs and microwaves, two beat-up treadmills, two hand-me-down pool tables, a regulation basketball court, a good deal of relative physical freedom.

“Most guys don’t want to leave,” Mr. Picciano said. “They’d end up shipped out to a different facility. It’s a privilege to be there. They appreciate it.”

Kerik said he does “400 to 600 push-ups every few days and lots of walking and running” on Cumberland’s fenced-in grass and gravel track. “The entire site when it was purchased was a Pittsburgh Paned Glass factory,” Darryl said. “There were pieces of glass everywhere. It’s in the soil.”

Kerik generally works out with a 33-year-old fellow white-collar convict from D.C., but he doesn’t have many friends inside. “Not too many,” he said. “About 10 guys a day come up to me for advice.” Most he doesn’t entertain, but he said he helped one inmate get his conviction vacated due to one of the lawyer’s overlooked conflict of interest.

“His uniform is clean and always pressed, his shoes are always shined,” Mr. Picciano said. “That has come full circle.”

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