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The Secrets of White Collar Prisons

Bernie Kerik, Jack Abramoff and Dennis Kozlowski—three of the most high-profile men to be on the inside—smash the perception that prison life is anything like “Club Fed”

But a larger-than-life persona is, apparently, a tricky thing in the Big House. And being famous and a former cop is a double whammy. “Till Bernie got there, I was the celebrity of the prison,” says one of Bernie’s best prison buddies, Jack Abramoff, the well-known Washington lobbyist who was infamously sent away on corruption charges in 2006 and whose time in the slammer overlapped with Kerik’s by about six weeks, which was long enough for them to bond. Kevin Spacey played Abramoff in the movie Casino Jack and even came to Cumberland to do some research. “You don’t want to be the celebrity of the prison, by the way,” says Abramoff. Another lesson he shares: “It’s never good to draw attention to yourself in a prison. Nothing good is gonna result from that.” He remembers his fellow inmates gathering around the television to view the Bill Moyers special about his life. “It seemed like the entire prison took time to watch, and those are the kinds of things you don’t want.”

Perhaps it’s not unusual for guys with similar backgrounds to team up with one another. It was Abramoff who showed Kerik the ropes, introduced him around. “He had a disadvantage coming in, given his occupational background,” Abramoff recalls with some understatement. “The guys who I mainly hung out with, you know, the white-collar-slash-whatever folks, they thought he was great. I mean, he was interesting, intellectual, urbane, funny. And the other guys, I think, were just still kind of figuring out, ‘What is he all about? What are we looking at here?’ Subsequently, they all determined he was a good guy.” But there was a learning curve. I asked him if everyone knew who Kerik was when he got there. “They know everything!” Abramoff replies. “They either know or they find out. Plus, they have an e-mail system now. There aren’t too many secrets in a prison.”

However, there are, I have come to find out, plenty of myths.

The first is that white-collar prisons are filled with, well, white-collar prisoners. At Cumberland, the majority of inmates were drug dealers whose sentences were less than 10 years. “At least while I was there,” says Abramoff, “about 90 percent of the drug dealers were inner-city drug dealers, and some of them were violent folks.” Those who were true “white-collar” criminals were few and far between.

The second great myth is that the famous guys get better treatment. In fact, the more “high profile” you are—unlike in the non-prison world—the fewer perks you may receive. No one wants to be accused of favoritism. This encompasses all sorts of things, from which facility you’re sent to—though there were several minimum-security prisons within a hour’s drive of Kerik’s home in New Jersey, he was shipped to western Maryland, where his wife and kids had to travel 10 hours round-trip to see him—to what happens when a loved one dies. Abramoff’s mother passed away while he was incarcerated “and almost everything I asked for the answer was no. You’re supposed to get a deathbed visit, and I asked for that and the answer was no. Then I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral.”

Abramoff says he understood why. “They feared that if I went out—and correctly, by the way—the media would have descended on wherever I was, and then they would have to be answering the question, ‘Why did you guys let him out of prison?’ And they didn’t want to deal with that. So the price was to basically say, ‘Sorry, Charlie.’ ” He does add with some bitterness: “I didn’t see anybody else denied the chance to go to his parent’s funeral. And I was there long enough that I saw a lot of people go to funerals. Including a lot of pretty vicious guys.”

One of the most interesting characteristics about a prison with minimum security is how minimum the security really is. At Cumberland, the doors are locked only at night. As Kerik explains it, you’re basically on an “honor system.” You could pretty much leave at any time, but if you do, you’re looking at another seven years tacked on to your sentence. In other words, says Bernie, “they’re doing easy time now, and the light is at the end of the tunnel. So it doesn’t make sense [to run away].”

During my visit with Bernie, we settle around a table with mauve plastic chairs.

This is kind of nice, I say.

“Compared to what?” says Bernie.

It’s early evening, and dinner has already been served to the inmates, but Bernie doesn’t eat any because it is turkey pot pie. (“Allegedly,” he jokes.) It turns out that a little garden patch I saw on our drive in is a source for some of Bernie’s more edible meals. The inmates who are in charge of the “farm” often bring him corn, squash, zucchini and tomatoes, which he mixes with rice that he cooks in the microwaves in the laundry room and visiting room.

Besides working out, there are other ways to pass the time, and to hear Kerik tell it, these activities are essential. “There’s no golf course or tennis courts. There may be basketball, baseball and a workout area. But you have got to give these guys something to do. If they’re locked up 24 hours a day, without their families, without any contact with outside society, you can’t expect them to do nothing but rot.” Cumberland actually appears spartan compared with other prisons. “Some of them have weight-lifting equipment, athletic equipment, movies, big video libraries, and Cumberland didn’t really have any of that,” says Abramoff. “But the important things—safety, cleanliness, basic needs—were met. I mean, it is prison.”

NEXT: “You are constantly berated, degraded, demoralized.”

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