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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”

When Kerik first got here, he was hoping to get Jack Abramoff’s old job in the prison chaplain’s office. Abramoff had what he calls “the best job there,” working in the nondenominational chapel, handing out prayer books, setting up the room for services and so on. He even brushed up on his piano skills. He had to earn the job by doing dishes in the kitchen for six months, “which was really quite horrible.” And he wanted to give his cushy job to his friend when he left, but the BOP put the kibosh on that. So Kerik mopped floors, which he preferred to dishwashing. Plus, this came with an additional perk: access to the kitchen and to his favored breakfast of three or four eggs, eaten raw.

After that, Kerik moved into a job in the library. He also wrote up a storm. There was a blog and a Facebook account (which he since shut down), showing photos of his shocking weight loss. And a Twitter account, of course. Beyond all of that, he wrote 1,940 pages of his next book, a continuation of his autobiography that starts exactly where his first book ended: September 14, 2001, when President Bush came to Ground Zero with his bullhorn.

If he chooses to write about his prison time, there will be a couple of notable cameos. He’s been visited a few times by Geraldo Rivera, who arrived by private helicopter. And by New York congressman Peter King, who made the six-hour drive to check in with Kerik about how he was doing and for some light discussion about politics.

But what I really want to know about, beyond the food and the bonding and the living in a cramped cubicle where he barely had enough room to get dressed without bumping into someone else, is what surprised him, the man who knew jails better than anyone, about prison time. What was the most shocking thing about being on the other side of the bars?

“The punishment should be the deprivation of freedom and liberty,” he says. “But once you arrive at prison—I was shocked by the psychological punishment.” This is unexpected. “You are constantly berated, degraded, demoralized,” he says. “You’re herded like cattle.”

The isolation from family also takes its toll. “You can’t show your child love and support and guidance in absentia. You damn sure can’t do it in a two-hour visit in a visiting room. You can’t discipline your child while you’re in the system, because the last thing you need is for that last conversation you have with your child to be a negative one,” he says. “You cannot fathom the pain, the heartache, that the system causes parents and their kids. Nobody gets it. Nobody understands it.”

Kerik may be out now, but that doesn’t mean the prison system has left his thoughts. In fact, he has more ideas than ever about reform, specifically changing the policies about giving prisoners “good-time incentives” and the use of solitary confinement. According to Kerik, a prisoner can get solitary for smoking cigarettes. “I know how the system is supposed to work, and I know what the system is supposed to accomplish,” he says. “I know it can work the way it’s supposed to work. But it doesn’t.”

Kerik also points to some of the system’s punishments as too severe. “To stand in a room and talk to a guy that had a first-time offense, one kilo of cocaine, no violence, and then was given 27 years? Are you kidding? I didn’t know that kind of stuff happened. Like, how could that be?”

But there was another revelation, one that’s going to stick around longer than memories of vegetable-patch dinners, longer than his prison friendships, probably even longer than his weight loss.

“I’ve come to realize being sentenced in the U.S. criminal justice system, for anything, is a life sentence,” he says. “It’s not about the time they give you. You receive a punishment of imprisonment and then a lifelong sentence of collateral punishment.”

None of which sounds like an offering at Club Fed.

 

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