Ten years ago, Bernie Kerik was on top. The longtime NYPD officer had hitched his career to Rudy Giuliani and rode that wave all the way to NYPD Commissioner, then leveraged those contacts into lucrative security consulting contracts after 9/11 and nearly got appointed to a cabinet-level position in the Bush administration.
Then, as fast as he ascended, Kerik came crashing down. He pled guilty in federal court in 2009 to eight charges of criminal conspiracy, tax fraud and lying under oath, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Now Kerik is once again a free man, more or less, and has reinvented himself as a criminal justice reform advocate. He’s hitting the speaking circuit and doing interviews, talking to anyone who will listen about how his time inside changed his views on the justice system. The latest salvo in his public comeback is his new memoir, From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey From Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #8488-054.
The summary on Amazon describes the book as a “hard-hitting, raw and oftentimes politically incorrect memoir.” Given that Kerik used to have a no-bullshit tough-guy mustache, I dug into the book expecting maybe some good police stories, political ratfuckery and prison exploits.
Instead Kerik has done something quite impressive: He has written a dull jailhouse memoir. Readers familiar with the format will immediately recognize the turgid style of the celebrity autobiography, specifically the “setting the record straight” sub-genre. See also: Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. and Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It is a slog to read—first-person prose filtered through a PR professional and then chopped and rearranged into short, serviceable sentences by an aggressive editor. The end result is sort of like the goop they make chicken nuggets out of.
For example, here’s a passage where Kerik responds to a fellow inmate who doesn’t like paying taxes:
“But the bottom line is you gotta pay taxes,” I told him. If you don’t, you come here.” Ironic, coming from a guy serving time for tax fraud. But I believe it. I believe in paying taxes.
Ladies and gentlemen, Bernie Kerik believes in paying taxes, and he also believes in some loose definition of irony. In fact, he frequently reminds readers that his situation is odd because, you see, he used to be a cop, but then he got thrown in prison.
“How could I do my time in Cumberland without thinking back to when I ran New York City’s Department of Correction in the 1990s?” Kerik ponders. “The parallels were obvious and dripping with irony—for me a cold irony. The jailer now jailed. The commissioner now an inmate.”
The rest of the book is delivered with the same amount of subtlety. As for “hard-hitting” and “politically incorrect,” Kerik throws around the word “fuck” a few times, and he complains about the “bullshitting” in Washington, D.C., so it might be a touch edgy for your church book club.
So the writing is a mess, and no one gets thrown under the bus, but what about the book’s criminal justice reform stance? Nothing Kerik says is wrong or wildly out of line with most other reform advocates, although he does wait until three-quarters of the way through the book to say he doesn’t believe in drug decriminalization. But it is hard to separate the message from the messenger. As Kerik notes: “I understand there is a public perception that I am corrupt. Certainly my convictions feed that perception.”
Certainly. Kerik also served as a police and prison official for 30 years, but it took a stint in a minimum-security prison camp for him to realize that most of the inmates around him were good, honest men—just like him!—who happened to get railroaded by the criminal justice system.
It doesn’t help that Kerik’s Road to Damascus moment was going down for four years on a bunch of white-collar charges. It also doesn’t help that Kerik was housed in the same prison camp as Jack Abramoff, and the two got chummy during their sentences. Incredulous readers will have a hard time stomaching a scene where Kerik is commiserating with Abramoff about the injustice of the justice system—Kerik has just been rejected for a job in the prison chapel and been given kitchen duty instead, not exactly a Cool Hand Luke chain gang—and Abramoff responds like a sage and hardened con: “They do it because they can.”
“Prison doesn’t need to be like this,” Kerik reflects. It is deep stuff. (Coincidentally, Abramoff also had his come-to-Jesus moment and is now a campaign finance reform advocate.)
To his credit, Kerik is self-aware enough to realize that his situation, especially his ability to drop millions of dollars on defense attorneys, is atypical. “The sad thing is if I can’t survive a fight for justice, how can someone less privileged get any sort of justice?” he asks.
The evidence of just how broken our criminal justice system is surrounds Kerik while he is in prison. He comes across inmates like a mentally ill man with a 3rd grade reading level who signed a plea deal he didn’t understand, or a guy doing 10 years for a trumped up drug conspiracy charge and possession of one gram of cocaine. These are the most affecting moments in Kerik’s memoir. In fact, the only memorable line in the whole book is delivered by one of Kerik’s fellow inmates: “Prison is like dying with your eyes open.”
Unfortunately, the other inmates are only given a few paragraphs a piece. Kerik never develops any real narrative of his time in prison. The one moment where Kerik’s experience rises above his writing—a disturbing account of his time in solitary confinement—is an outlier. More than half of the rest of the book is padded out with novella-length descriptions of his résumé. There’s a whole chapter on Kerik’s tenure in charge of Rikers Island and his self-described “historic turnaround” of the facilities. There are long detours describing his consulting work for the king of Jordan and his time in Iraq. And finally, several chapters on his trial, conviction and sentencing, which he paints as an overzealous, politically motivated prosecution. The charges, Kerik assures, were all bunk.
Kerik’s revelations about the criminal justice system—that federal sentencing guidelines are draconian, that they are used by prosecutors to bully defendants into plea deals, that they destroy families and communities, especially communities of color, that the prison system leaves inmates ill-equipped to reenter society and often worse than before they entered the system, that the criminal justice system is used far too often as an alternative to mental health treatment, that the criminal justice system is out of line with our national ideals and founding documents—are nothing new, and he doesn’t add much fresh information or perspective to the debate.
The criminal justice reform movement is currently experiencing an unprecedented moment of bipartisan support, and as a result everyone is wary of taking unnecessary potshots, allies being a rare and precious commodity, but Kerik’s book is full of cheap platitudes, pat conclusions and bad writing. As a criminal justice reform polemic, it is a retread. As a tell-all prison memoir, it is a snooze. And as a public image fluffer, it is a bit embarrassing and heavy-handed.
There is also the sneaking feeling, when seeing Kerik hitting the speech circuit, of unseemliness, of the disgraced ex-public official trying to slither back into public life. The New York Post reported earlier this year that Kerik’s lawyer is petitioning a judge to let Kerik off supervised release, complaining that Kerik has been unable to get several lucrative consulting gigs.
“Specifically, Mr. Kerik has had discussions with local government representatives as well as a national head-hunter for a Fortune 500 company concerning possible consulting opportunities,” his lawyer wrote.
All of this makes it easy to be uncharitable and prejudiced against Kerik, but he does appear sincere and well-read on the subject. (He namedrops Michelle Alexander’s essential The New Jim Crow and several other criminal justice books.) And if one believes that felons deserve a fair shake after their release, rather than the current system that leaves them unemployable and disenfranchised, then that includes Kerik, too. Even shitheels deserve equal justice under the law.
Anyway, our criminal justice system is supposed to be based on the idea that once you serve your time, you have paid your debt to society. Kerik should be able to vote, hold public office, own a gun, and be able to take whatever Fortune 500 consulting gigs he can get. And he should certainly be able to travel freely and talk to current inmates about prison reform. I hope Kerik takes his reform spiel as far and wide as he can. I hope thousands of dudes in Jeter jerseys buy his book at LaGuardia Airport. And I hope he never picks up a pen again.