Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

May 6, 2002


Why is Fr. Frank still at CCA Leavenworth?

Iím just over two months into my six-month sentence, and Iím still not sure when and if I will be assigned to a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility. A couple of weeks ago I asked Chuck Hannan, my attorney, to call the U.S. Marshals office in Omaha to ask what the hold up was with my being moved to a Federal prison. The Marshals office told Chuck that my placement was being delayed because there was no pre-sentence investigation done in my case. Reading between the lines, this is a little punishment someone in the Omaha Federal Court House decided to give me. I can only suspect it has to do with the "in your face" uncompromising attitude I took before the court regarding my being innocent of any criminal activity, my call for the real criminals at Offutt to be brought to justice, those who possess and intend to use nuclear weapons, and my decision not to cooperate with the Court once it showed its hand, sided with StratCom, and accepted my no-contest plea as a guilty plea.

As anyone who has experienced the Federal criminal system knows, there are many stages in a criminal prosecution in which decisions and choices are made by government officials that determine and greatly affect the final outcome. In this instance, I know exactly when the decision was made not to seek a pre-sentence investigation and leave me in limbo in this maximum-security detention center. Both the Judge and the Federal District Attorneyís office knew months ahead of time of my intent to change my plea to no-contest and ask to be sentenced at the same time. This is something I have done three or four times in the past. The previous time I was brought to Omaha for violating a ban and bar letter at Offutt, I did exactly the same thing, was sentenced to six months, and spent ten days in the Douglas County Jail before being transferred to the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, SD.

On the morning of my court appearance, after Ed Bloomerís sentencing, I was asked through my attorney, Chuck Hannan, to report to the pre-sentence office. My sister, Diane, and I waited a half hour in the Pre-Sentencing Office in the Federal Court House before a pre-sentence person informed us that they did not need to talk to me at that time. It was right then and there that I knew the fix was in. Somebody in the Judgeís office or the D.A.ís office made the decision that no pre-sentence investigation was needed, guaranteeing a delay in my being placed in a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility. I'm not really complaining, just explaining how the wheels of justice turn. I knew going into this, that Iíve got nothing coming.

Doing time at CCA Leavenworth Word from the Omaha Marshals is that the Federal Government pays the Corrections Corporation of America, Inc. (CCA) between $85 and $119 a day to keep me. The fee varies depending on the number of inmates housed on a given day. The last time I asked there were 550 souls locked up here. CCA, Inc. is the largest private prison system in the country. Located mostly in the South, they are adding new sites all the time. If CCA Leavenworth is any indication, its stock is as good as gold. This facility is a maximum-security detention center, very similar to a large county jail. The facility is on contract with the Federal Government. About two-thirds of the inmates are Federal prisoners, in transit inmates like myself who have been sentenced and are awaiting placement in a BOP joint. The average stay for these inmates is six weeks. The other one-third is Federal inmates awaiting trial or other court appearances. Most of them come from the Kansas City area; however, there are inmates from Des Moines, Omaha, and Lincoln awaiting trail.

As "human dust pans" go (a term Phil Berrigan uses for prisons), I would rate this place as a top-of-the-line county jail. The standard apparel for inmates is a two-piece orange uniform. Each inmate is issued three of everything: tops, bottoms, boxer shorts, and socks along with a blanket, two sheets, pillow and case and one blue sweatshirt. All inmates are housed in pods and stay there all the time except for visits, church programs, library, outdoor recreation and medical visits. I am in "D" Pod. There are two tiers of ten two-man cells. Though people are leaving and coming all the time, there are rarely any vacancies at the end of the day. A plus here at CCA over most county jails Iíve been to is the size of the cells and common room. Each cell is 15 by 7 feet, a good 30% larger than the average two-man cells. Each has steel bunk beds attached to the wall and plenty of legroom. Each has a single unit toilet/sink/drinking fountain, two lockers, and a small steel tabletop and seat attached to the wall. A big plus in each cell is a light switch. We get to turn the lights off at night. Most county jails these days keep the lights on 24 hours in their cells.

The common room is shaped in a triangle measuring 75 feet by 75 feet by 105 feet, twice the space of most county jails Iíve been in. The pod has 10 four-seat steel tables bolted to the floor and two TVs attached to the wall that play 14 hours a day. The program selection is dismal. The lowest cultural selections seem to win out every time. With Jerry Springer being the favorite followed by the World Wrestling Federation and Cops. I avoid the TV scene as much as possible though the audio can be heard everywhere, sometimes better in your cell than in the common room because of the background noise of inmates in the common room. The pod has three phones attached to the wall that only accept collect calls at exorbitant prices (just ask the Des Moines Catholic Workers, my family and friends who are willing to accept my calls). Five shower stalls are along one wall with a chest high room divider. One stall works well, two others are usable, and two donít work at all. It feels strange at first taking a shower in an open common room, but you get used to it. On the same side as the showers is a sink, drinking faucet and microwave. The microwave is a big plus. During the evenings, it runs all the time.

Meals are brought to the pod. Again, by county jail standards, CCA Leavenworth ranks high in the food category. It is very popular these days for local county sheriffs to put their county prisoners on low calorie, low budget, no frills, and bare minimum diets. It wins votes come election time. Here at CCA Leavenworth, most often there is a hot entree of meat or fish with hot cereal or vegetables. Now the meat and fish are of low quality and fresh fruit is rare. Vegetables and fruits are canned, hardly worth eating. They have lots of bread, cakes, beans, rice, potatoes and eggs. Baked chicken is served on Fridays. The closest comparison in the free world would be the typical grade school hot meal program, three times a day.

The diet is greatly supplemented by what is available at the prison store once a week. Compared to usual limited selection at most county jails, CCA Leavenworthís store is a virtual super market. My big-ticket items (after stamps, envelopes and writing materials) are soup, tuna fish, coffee, garlic powder (a container a week), diet Pepsi and cheez wiz.

Programs are limited and pathetic at best. Education is token, the library small and sorely lacking. The religious programs available take place in a small classroom. Catholic communion service is every Saturday afternoon. Catholic Mass is now available once a month with retired priest, Fr. Dick Wimpe. Fr. Dick is a former Kansas City, KS Catholic Worker. It was a real treat to connect with him here. Each inmate is allowed one pastoral visit a week. Very few take advantage of this option. Iím blessed and fortunate to have Fr. Pat Tobin and Deacon Tim McEvoy visit me on a weekly basis to give me Communion. The policy here for any contact visit that is face to face is the inmate is strip-searched coming and going. Not the most pleasant experience but well worth the effort for the Eucharist. We are allowed three regular visits a week for one hour. The visiting room has ten booths. The inmates and visitors are divided by plexiglass and talk to each other over a phone hookup. We are only allowed five adults on our visiting list. The no physical contact and limited visiting schedule really discourages visitations. Most inmates do not get visits.

The medical department is not very good. There has been a lot of employee turnover while Iíve been here. It can take days and numerous written requests to get proper care. It took me two weeks to get my heart meds straightened out and to get them on a regular basis. And when it comes to getting refill orders, itís a hit and miss affair. Iíve got to keep on them to get it right. Another big plus at CCA Leavenworth over typical county jails is that we get outdoor rec two or three times a week for one hour. The yard consists of two basketball courts and a blacktop walking track around the courts. The reason this is a big plus over county jails is because there is no outdoor rec in most county jails these days. It is not unusual for a person to spend months or even a year, maybe longer, without seeing the light of day.

Daily Schedule: My day starts with pill call at 5 am. A guard wakes me up to take my morning meds. All cells are unlocked at 6 am. Breakfast is served between 7 am and 8 am. The first count of the day takes place between 8:30 am and 9:30 am. During counts everyone is locked up in their cells. Counts last between 30 minutes and one hour. After morning count, TVs and phones are turned on. Phones remain off on days inmates are transported till mid-afternoon, usually three days a week. Lunch is served between 11:15 am and 12:30 pm. Afternoon count is between 1 pm and 1:30 pm. Supper is served between 5 pm and 7 pm. Early evening count is between 7:30 pm and 11 pm. Sometimes itís run past the 11 pm count. During weeknights inmates are locked up in their cells for the night at the 11 pm count. On Friday and Saturday inmates are allowed back in the common room after the 11 pm count for a movie that lasts until 2 am which is lockup time on these nights. Iíve never stayed up for the late night movies.

The things I try to accomplish on a daily basis are first, prayer. I pray my morning and evening office, the prayers and readings that priests are supposed to pray daily. In recent years, jail is the only place Iíve prayed the office on a regular basis. It is a prayer that was born in a monastic setting. Doing jail time is the closest I get to a monastic lifestyle. I try to walk two hours a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When we do get outdoors, I walk my hour on the walking track. Most of the time I do my walking in the common room. This is where the generous space is most appreciated. Writing my weekly lectionary reflections takes at least three to four days of writing time. The other days I catch up on my correspondence. Throughout the day between praying, walking, and writing, I read.

Then, of course, there is always the unexpected yet frequent interruptions that come with being locked up with 39 other guys. If it isnít a personal matter where an inmate is in need of someone to talk to, itís the group experiences that come along. Like this morning the pod woke up to discover our microwave was taken out of the pod. Apparently, an inmate after the 11 pm lockdown threw hot water on a female guard. He was immediately taken to the Hole. Losing the microwave was the collective punishment that came with such behavior. All morning long there were discussions about what to do. Iíd compare the day to day life in the pod with doing hospitality at the Des Moines Catholic Worker with two big differences: 1) Itís a 7 day a week, 24 hour a day effort. thereís no escape, 2) Iím a guest. Iím not doing the hospitality nor am I the guard, thank God! Sure, this detention center is one of the better county jail experiences Iíve had. But county jail is still county time. At a Federal prison, an inmate would have a job, access to a better library facility, real education, and vocational programs, much better gym and outdoor rec options, higher quality food, and much more mobility in the facility and outdoors.

Would I rather be in a Federal prison? Sure, who wouldnít? Does it matter a lot? Not really. Like I said at the beginning, Iíve got nothing coming to me. Iíve only got a six-month bit. Every guy in the pod would give his right arm to have my sentence. Most of these guys are looking at hard time. Years of their lives are at stake. Iíve got no right to whine. Besides, the secret to doing time well is to have your world on the outside in good shape. Make sure you have a loving and supportive network of family, friends, and support people backing you up. When the people and world you left behind is going to support you and welcome you back when youíre cut loose, then doing time (especially a six month bit) is a piece of cake. This is my seventh 6-month bit in my peace-making criminal career and only now feels like we (me and all the great folks who are supporting me) are doing it well.