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.
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.
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.”
Darryl said he had “casual conversations” with Kerik on the premises. “Bernie had some very intense stories about 9/11, which I was interested to hear. It was a different point of view from what we heard from all the news agencies. He didn’t talk about why he was [in prison], nor was I interested in hearing it.”
As has been reported, with digital help from his supporters Kerik has tweeted and blogged from prison, though not lately, about various conservative talking points, such as Park 51, the so-called ground zero mosque.
He still has famous friends. His revolving list of visitors is extensive, though only 10 names at a time can be activated. Congressman Peter King has visited him, as has Geraldo Rivera. Mr. Giuliani has not been in touch for years, a matter of quiet pain for Kerik.
“There were rumors that Bernie was going to get the fabulous four together,” Darryl said. “Arnold, Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone were his drinking buddies and were all going to visit on the same day. It was a fun rumor to have go around and watch the staff go absolutely crazy.”
Sydney Schwartzbaum, who in his role as president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens Union in New York City often clashed with Kerik in the past, said that Kerik certainly “took a proactive role” in dealing with problematic inmates, but that in general he was “not condescending, not maniacal, not sadistic toward the inmates. If he was, I’d like to say that, you know, because I didn’t like the guy.”
Though in Mr. Schwartzbaum’s opinion, Kerik “had larceny in his heart,” he thinks he “should have gotten 27 months.” He didn’t explain this take on justice.
The psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1970s and in his book The Lucifer Effect examined the case of Chip Frederick, the former corrections officer-turned-Abu Ghraib abuser, said that for Kerik, it might be “very difficult to see himself as an inmate.” Mr. Zimbardo found Kerik’s case “not unlike Chip Frederick, only more so since Chip was comparatively low-level in that corrections system whereas Bernie was the Man in his system. Essentially, he’s in a very difficult position.”
In interviews, Kerik spoke with a discernible compassion for the other inmates, commenting quietly on their individual stories and struggles as they filed into the visiting room.
In an email, he wrote, “The men around me have been convicted of either a nonviolent drug offense or a white-collar crime. They have children and families. The system seems to demean and demoralize them, drains them financially, destroys their families and deteriorates their bond with their children. I never saw or understood this on the outside. Unless you’re completely heartless, you have to have some compassion for them, if not for their families and children.”
Aside from the boredom of prison life, missing his daughters, Celine, 11, and Angelina, 8, has been the worst of it, Kerik said. “There’s been nothing more painful for me than being taken away from my two little girls. For any man as close to their kids as I am, this is your greatest punishment.”
His wife and daughters visit him “at least once a month, sometimes twice,” he said. “It’s close to six hours each way, so it’s a rough ride for the kids.” They send him handwritten notes. He also speaks to them daily by phone or email. There is no Internet access at Cumberland, only an email system the inmates can use between 6 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., for 5 cents a minute. Like all inmates, Kerik is allowed up to 300 minutes a month on the phone.
No longer on kitchen duty, he’s been teaching what he calls a “life lessons” class for one hour every Tuesday evening, in which he tries to impart to his fellow inmates words of wisdom “based around my life experiences, good and bad, right and wrong, successes and failures.” After a recent class, Kerik said, a convicted drug dealer from Baltimore serving nine years came up to him and said, “If I had someone like you talk to me about this stuff on the outside, I’d never be in here.”
Some inmates wear earplugs to sleep at night. Kerik often reads or writes until midnight or 1 a.m. “I’ve read more since I’ve been here than I have in the past 20 years,” he said. The most memorable books for him have been The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch; Night, by Elie Wiesel; George W. Bush’s Decision Points; and Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father.
As he was when he ran the city’s Department of Correction, and his TEAMs management system pacified Rikers and was a finalist for Harvard’s Innovations in American Government award, Kerik is still preoccupied with fixing the prison system.
“I vacated more than a hundred federal consent decrees, creating one of the most efficient and secure correctional systems in the United States, so naturally I constantly look at this system for ways they could better comply with minimum standards, maximize their efficiencies and reduce costs for the American taxpayer,” he said.
“For the most part, I have very little interaction with the staff,” he said, but asserted that anyone who knew his background could guess that he has a “great amount of respect and admiration for the men and women that work in this field. I know the frustrations and dangers of their job.”
To his own shock, he’s found himself agreeing with the likes of The New York Times, CNN and Justice Anthony Kennedy on matters of crime and punishment. “It’s shocking for me,” Mr. Picciano said, laughing. “I know him for 16 years. I’m thinking, ‘What’s he talking about, he’s losing his mind.’”
Kerik was moved when he recently read a speech Justice Kennedy gave in front of the American Bar Association in 2003, which a friend had emailed to him. Among the lines that struck him most was this: “As a profession, and as a people, we should know what happens when the prisoner is taken away.” The majority of the inmates around him deserve a chance to get out and make something of their lives, Kerik said, instead of wasting away in prison.
Of course, this includes him. With time off for good behavior, Kerik is looking at a release date in the fall of 2013.
“I have learned so much on the inside that I just couldn’t see or realize from the outside,” he wrote
in an email. “We can’t be soft on crime, and people must pay for the mistakes they make, but the overreliance on incarceration for punishment can often destroy a man who could otherwise pay for his mistake and return to society as a more productive and better person. In many cases, our system of criminal justice today is preventing that from happening. For more than two decades, some of the brightest legal minds in this country have called for a revision of the federal sentencing guidelines and a repeal of the mandatory minimums. Now, I think I know why.”