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"
by Lisa DePaulo | August 15, 2016 12:00 pm
If there were ever a person who might be able to clue you in on what life in a white-collar—or minimum-security or “country club”—prison was actually like, it was this guy. You know this guy. How many former New York City police commissioners, former overseers of Rikers Island, former consultants for U.S. security in Iraq or former almost-heads of the Department of Homeland Security are there in the world who ended up in the slammer?
I thought so too.
I wanted to find out what life was like for Bernard “Bernie” Kerik—what he ate, where he slept, who came to visit. But when I finally got to his prison in August of 2010, seven months into his sentence, I thought I was in the wrong place. After a convoluted five-hour journey that required trains and automobiles and the kindness of his pal John Picciano—a cop who worked as Bernie’s chief of staff both at Rikers and when he was police commissioner and remained so devoted that he had visited him in prison more than 60 times already—we pulled up to a building in western Maryland that looked like my high school. There wasn’t a single guard out front. No one searched us. There wasn’t even a metal detector.
I’d been to prisons before, almost all of them maximum-security and wretched; certainly none that looked like this. The Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, has both medium- and minimum-security prisoners. Its visiting room is spotless and sprawling, with sparkling windows and walls that are decorated with quilts handmade by inmates.
Enter Bernie Kerik, in moss-green khakis, matching long-sleeved button-down shirt and work boots, the outfit he would wear most every day for three years and 11 days. Kerik was the guy who previously ran one of the worst jails on earth (trust me, there are no quilts on the walls at Rikers) and the guy who was chosen by George W. Bush to be the head of the Department of Homeland Security, until it all hit the fan. First there was the illegal-immigrant-nanny brouhaha. Then the real dominoes fell. By November 2007, the former top cop was facing a 16-count indictment for, among other things, lying to the IRS and to the White House. He was also accused of accepting renovations to his home from contractors who wanted to work in New York. He ended up pleading guilty to eight charges, including tax fraud, in a plea bargain and was sentenced to four years.
The last time I had seen Bernie, we shared an excellent Barolo and a couple of steaks at a fine joint in Midtown Manhattan. Like many journalists, I came to know him as the kind of dude who was forever entertaining, always plugged-in and seemingly invincible. Now he was in prison.
I visited him not even halfway through his incarceration. Already, he looked like a different man, and not in a bad way. He was working out like a maniac, jumping rope, running and walking four miles a day and doing anywhere from 600 to 1,200 push-ups. Bernie Kerik looked like a bull and was 50 pounds leaner. (By the time he was released in May at the age of 57, he was down 80 pounds from his pre-prison weight of 260.)
“So which quilt did you make?” I asked.
He gave me the look I deserved for that question. And then he laughed. I knew his spirit had not been crushed when I gingerly brought up the quilt topic again later and he lasered me with his green eyes (that just happened to match his prison outfit) and growled: “Enough with the fucking quilts.”
OK, so he was still Bernie.
And this was still prison.
But what I really wanted to know—what was life actually like on the inside?
Every time another big one goes away—Bernie Kerik or Bernie Madoff or Dennis Kozlowski (the Tyco guy with the $6,000 shower curtain) or Martha Stewart or Mickey Sherman (the once hotshot defense lawyer) or any of the Wall Street types who got busted in the recession—the inevitable questions arise: Did they go to Club Fed? To what the public perceives as “country club” prisons?
While there used to be a time when you could, in fact, find tennis courts at prison (specifically, the infamous now-closed Federal Prison Camp Eglin, which inspired the name Club Fed), “those stories were always exaggerated,” as CNBC’s John Carney wrote in a story on prison treatment. Plus, sentencing guidelines for “white-collar crimes” have only gotten worse for offenders, the result, as Carney noted, “of politics and public outrage largely tied to stock-market losses.”
NEXT: “That whole Club Fed mentality is complete nonsense.”
As Kerik explains it—and I had to keep reminding myself that he was once a prominent authority figure in the system—”there are four or five classifications for the BOP [Bureau of Prisons]. You have super-maximum security, if there’s a terrorist or a super-violent criminal. You have maximum security, which is the next level down. After max, you have medium.” That’s where Bernie Madoff is, by the way. “Then you have low. Then you have minimum.” To be eligible for a minimum security “camp,” your sentence has to be less than 10 years (or has gotten to under 10 years) and you need to be considered “nonviolent.”
In other words, if you’re going to prison, this is where you want to go.
When details of these camps trickle out, they rarely seem terrifying. Mickey Sherman, who spent part of 2011 in the Otisville, New York, camp for tax evasion, said last year that the most dramatic part of prison took place when inmates watched American Idol and argued over who got kicked off. Sometimes the accommodations can seem downright quaint. Take the five months Martha Stewart served in the Alderson, West Virginia, women’s prison, where she taught a yoga class and created an entire nativity scene out of ceramics. Her minimum-security prison—complete with “cottages” and tree-lined gates—wasn’t nicknamed “Camp Cupcake” for nothing.
After former hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11 years (which was the longest sentence ever imposed for insider trading), one prison insider told the New York Post he was “reigning like a king,” with a “personal manservant” who doted upon him with the hopes of becoming his driver after they’re released. People eat these stories up. But the truth is slightly more complicated: Because of his type 2 diabetes, Rajaratnam is staying at a federally run medical facility and in need of a kidney transplant. No picnic there. But if fellow inmates wanted to treat him favorably, who would stop them?
Not all former CEOs have it the same. There’s the case of Kozlowski, the disgraced head of Tyco who received a sentence of eight and one third to 25 years for multiple crimes, including the illegal receipt of $81 million in bonuses. He’s something of an authority on the differences between prisons, having seen the inside of two very different institutions. During his stay at the maximum-security Downstate Correctional Facility, north of New York City, Kozlowski didn’t go outside for eight and a half months, according to the forthcoming book Taking Down the Lion, which covers his rise and fall. In 2006, he moved to Mid-State, a medium-security prison (where he was housed in the same unit as the rapper Ja Rule), and passed the years “doing laundry, reading hundreds of books, tutoring other inmates,” even teaching himself to paint. While incarcerated, he wrote to the book’s author, Catherine S. Neal, that he most looked forward to “doing what free people do. Close a bathroom door, go to the store, drive a car, open a door, call on a telephone, touch a computer.” He closed his letter by saying, “Simple pleasures and the freedom to enjoy them are more precious than you can imagine.”
That’s why no matter what the public perception is, it’s not a good idea to call this a cakewalk to people on the inside. “That whole Club Fed mentality, that shit that they portray in the press, is complete nonsense,” Kerik says.
Kerik, who got out in May but was still wearing an ankle-bracelet during his home detention when I spoke to him again by phone recently, did his time at Cumberland, one of 81 minimum- and/or medium-security prisons in the U.S. He was, by all accounts, including those of prison officials I spoke with, a model prisoner. (If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have gotten 11 months shaved off his time.) His law-enforcement background and his very conservative political views have always been a large part of who he is—even after he was sent to prison for breaking the law.
NEXT: “Till Bernie got there, I was the celebrity of the prison.”
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.”
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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