By Jenna Pierson
Maryland Hillel hosted its seventh annual Global Justice Shabbat Friday night March 29th on the topic of prison reform.
The event consisted of a Shabbat dinner with a speech and Q&A session by former New York City Police Department Commissioner and convicted felon Bernard Kerik. He spoke on the injustices of mass incarceration and how his time in prison changed his outlook on life and inspired his work.
Kerik is the author of the 2015 novel “From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054” and spends his time speaking as an advocate for changes in the criminal justice system.
“Prison is like dying with your eyes open,” Kerik said. “It’s a stagnant place and a place of torment.”
Kerik recounted his lengthy career in the criminal justice and correctional systems, starting from when he was a cop in New Jersey and eventually leading to the role of NYPD commissioner during 9/11 and nominee for director of the Department of Homeland Security. All these accolades could not possibly prepare him for what would come next.
“My nomination had to be withdrawn because I simply had a nanny for my children that I paid cash to, like all of my other colleagues, and that is a criminal offense,” Kerik said. “I was investigated by the government because of my relationship with former New York Mayor and presidential nominee Rudy Giuliani, and I plead guilty to eight false statement and tax charges.”
It was Kerik’s four-year sentence in federal prison and the people he encountered during his time there that opened his eyes to the need for reform.
“You think I’d know the system, right? I worked it, I lived it, and then I was in it,” Kerik said. “We put way too many people in prison for minor charges long-term and we don’t give them the rehabilitation opportunities they need to succeed for when their sentences are over.”
Kerik emphasized that while many legislative efforts have been successful within recent years in Washington DC, it will the college generation that continues to shift the tides and deliver justice to the millions of Americans who are incarcerated for minor offenses and set to live their lives under the status of “felon.”
“It’s like looking at the issue from a completely different light,” said Jeannie Spiegel, a freshman supply chain management and marketing major. “We don’t usually think about Shabbat or even Passover through this lens of using community for social justice, and by looking at freedom from a different perspective definitely made me think about the differences I want to make as a student.”
Many students felt compelled by Kerik’s story and the nature of his time in prison as a former highly-regarded member of law enforcement to become more socially active.
“I thought it was a very powerful speech,” said Ben Tanner, a senior aerospace engineering major. “Hearing about his story and his service and then having such a drastic turn that basically seemed like a fluke made for a really unique story.”
Kerik stated that he believes prison reform is a social justice issue that should be considered in both the legislative and executive branches daily, and several students in attendance strongly shared the same belief.
“Prison reform is one of my main career targets, so I am very passionate about this,” said Zoe Tesser, a sophomore criminology and criminal justice major who was on the organizing committee for the event. “I think our speaker is very accomplished and I would have loved to have talked with him on an individual level for a better idea, but I would have liked if he had talked more about the process of reform itself versus his own history.”
Kerik stated that he remains hopeful the nation will continue to take steps in the right direction to decrease the number of individuals who fall victim to the aggressive mindset of prison for non-threatening charges, and that by making these changes we will also be able to revitalize areas of low socioeconomic status and reduce overall crime rates in major cities.
“A rabbi once told me that God gave a gift to the Jews and that gift was Shabbat,” Kerik said. “When you all come together and talk, this is an opportunity for you to realize the realities our country faces today and to find ways to help be the change.”