The view from inside

Reading about former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik's reflection on his experiences in federal prison — "the system doesn't work" — reminded me of a revealing episode during the Nixon White House years. I had written extensively, in books and articles, about correctional reform, and was proposed by a Justice Department official to be an attendee at a planned White House conference on prison reform. Top White House officials struck my name from the guest list because I was deemed too extreme in my notions of reform.

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Years later, after some of these same White House officials were convicted and imprisoned for Watergate-related offences, I received letters from two of them. Their new reflections about the correctional system were that my ideas were on the mark, and they complimented me. They had seen the light. Alternatives to prison, reconciliation with victims of crime, better use of prisons for the appropriate situations when prison is the best alternative — those options made sense then, and they do now.

Kerik's insightful remark, "living by a clock that doesn't move," captures the wasteful experiences so many prisoners endure at great public expense serving sentences in prisons that accomplish nothing for them, for the public, or for the victims of their crimes. Like the late Chuck Colson, a hard-edged ex-Nixon White House official whose prison experiences led him to a later career advocating for prison reform, Kerik's new insights ought to lead him to a second career as an expert whose credentials are unique.

Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington, D.C., and Miami. Contact him at rlglawlit@gmail.com.