Bernie Kerik’s Painful Journey
From the Jailer to the Jailed
By David A. Patten
Inmate No. 84888-054 was slogging through his day at the federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, when word swept through the yard that a new offender had arrived with a pretty bizarre rap sheet.
“It was like the joke of the camp,” former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik tells Newsmax.
“People were walking around saying, ‘Hey, did you hear about the new guy? He sold a whale’s tooth on eBay.’ ”
Serving federal time for selling a whale’s tooth struck Kerik — who once ran a 35,000 member police department with a $3.2 billion budget — as the perfect metaphor for what he sees as a criminal justice system run amok.
As New York’s top cop on 9/11 and, before that, head of the city’s sprawling jails, he literally knows the system inside and out. So Kerik is in a singular position to expose its flaws — and that’s what he does in his new book published March 31, “From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey From Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054” (Threshold).
“I’ve seen the inside of the system as someone that was extremely knowledgeable of how the system was supposed to work,” Kerik says. “I know what it’s supposed to do. I know how it’s supposed to work. I know what it’s supposed to accomplish. I know how to fix it.
“Then to see the system from the inside out was shocking,” he adds.
Beyond his own compelling story, which reads at times like a modern-day Greek tragedy, Kerik’s new book spotlights grievous shortcomings in a penal system that incarcerates more than 2 million inmates and that he warns may be about to implode.
He’s especially critical of the nation’s thicket of arcane statutes. “We’ve evolved into a society that has way too many laws,” he says.
The legal tripwires are so complex that citizens may not even know they’re breaking the law. In a land where you can be arrested for selling a whale’s tooth — it is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to sell ivory from a whale, walrus or polar bear — you can never be too careful.
“Catch too many fish, catch the wrong type of fish, catch too big of a fish,” Kerik says. “They make these people felons.”
Kerik’s raw, insider account blasts what he sees as the systematic abuse of solitary confinement. Once again, he knows from firsthand experience.
Kerik was initially confined to a 12-by-8 foot cell with a bed, a toilet and a sink. He was told he was placed in solitary for his own safety.
“There are other ways of protecting people of my stature without putting them in a scenario where they wind up hallucinating, talking to themselves, freaking out, wanting to commit suicide,” he says. “Solitary confinement is an overwhelming mental torture that nobody understands unless you’ve been through it.”
Ironically, one of the early stops in Kerik’s career was as a warden at the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey. Later, under New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he would be credited with reforming Rikers Island. Today he describes Rikers as one of the “most violent and mismanaged” prisons in the country.
In the 1980s, Kerik was an undercover narcotics agent in Manhattan. He later joined the protective detail for Giuliani, and rose to become New York City’s commissioner of corrections. Giuliani named him New York’s police commissioner in 2000.
After 9/11, it was Kerik’s authoritative, no-nonsense presence at Giuliani’s side during gut-wrenching news conferences at Ground Zero that endeared him to law-and-order conservatives, and elevated his national profile. In 2001, he penned a best-selling memoir, “The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice.”
Kerik very nearly became head of the Department of Homeland Security in 2004. But he withdrew his name after it came to light that he did not pay payroll tax for his children’s nanny.
He would ultimately become ensnared in a series of allegations that his defenders contended were politically motivated. Finally, after fighting a drawn-out, expensive legal battle, he pleaded guilty in 2009 to charges of tax fraud and making false statements.
His abrupt fall from grace and four-year prison sentence were just part of the price Kerik paid. His painful falling out with Giuliani has been well chronicled by the New York media.
At one point the two were quite close. The former New York mayor was godfather to two of Kerik’s children, and once said Kerik was like the brother he never had. Kerik writes that the estrangement is “a sad but real demonstration of the impact of politics on relationships.”
Kerik’s politically incorrect exposé of the U.S. criminal justice system is timely, arriving as it does amid a 2016 presidential cycle in which criminal justice reform is emerging as an important issue, especially in minority communities. Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is leading the push to reform mandatory minimum sentencing.
Like Paul, Kerik warns the criminal justice system is creating a vast underclass of Americans who can neither escape the mistakes of their past nor find gainful employment.
“A convicted felon basically pays a life sentence for any felony, regardless of the crime,” Kerik says. “You are sentenced to a lifetime of collateral consequences.”
He began to appreciate the dimensions of the problem, he says, when he went to prison and met young men — age 18 or 19 — who had been sentenced to serve 10 or 15 years for first time, low-level, non-violent drug offenses.
“Before that kid got arrested with 5 grams of cocaine, which is the weight of two sugar packages at Dunkin’ Donuts, he was in high school or college and had no problems with the law,” says Kerik. “We now put him in prison for 15 years. He’s going to do 12 and a half.
“Now we’re going to teach him how to lie, steal, cheat, manipulate, con, gamble. And more importantly, we’re going to teach him that every verbal disagreement he has, somebody is going to get knocked out or get stabbed.”
Finally, that youth will be released back onto the streets.
“If anybody thinks that’s a benefit to society,” Kerik concludes, “they’re crazy. It’s not.”
Chemical addiction, mental illness or just plain old poverty explain why thousands upon thousands of people languish behind bars, he says — not to mention selling whale’s teeth.
“The one thing I’ve learned across the board about the criminal justice system is you have no constitutional rights in this country if you don’t have the money to pay for them,” Kerik says.
Kerik’s “Jailer to Jailed” is a gripping account of what happens when a law-enforcement figure of national renown — one of the most highly decorated law officers in New York City’s history — suffers a brutal fall from grace.
But like a late-night alarm jangling down an abandoned street, Kerik’s book is a warning to be heeded.
“We’ve evolved into a society that believes the only punishment is prison,” he says. “It’s an economic catastrophe for this country.”
He adds: “It’s unsustainable for this country and over time, the system will implode.”