Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

June 5, 2002

Fr. Frank Cordaroís Half-Time Report

Wednesday, June 5, marks my halfway point, three months down and three to go. Iím beginning to think I will do my whole bit here at CCA Leavenworth. The longer I stay in a place, the more I see and understand whatís going on around me. Thereís been a shift in the demographic here in "D" Pod. There are fewer Hispanics and more African-Americans. Just over half of the Pod is made up of African-Americans. Most of these are young men from the Kansas City area; almost all from the Ďhoodí; the poorer neighborhoods in Kansas City. The inmate status ratio has also shifted. Now only about one-third of the inmates in D Pod are waiting transfer to a Federal penitentiary while the other two-thirds are in pre-trial pre-sentencing status. This makes for a much more pressured and anxiety-ridden environment because a lot of these guys are being leaned on by the Feds to snitch on their friends, family and acquaintances in order to get shorter prison sentences. Iím still the oldest guy in the Pod and the one with the shortest amount of time to serve. In fact I think Iím the only misdemeanor in the whole joint.

Coming close now to serving, collectively, four years of prison time in my criminal career, Iím known as "Mr. Misdemeanor" in some resistance circles. With this shift in demographics, D Pod has taken on a definite poor-black-urban milieu. This is demonstrated in a number of ways. For example, TV program selections are affected. After Jerry Springer, World Federation Wrestling and Cops, black sit-coms and sports rule the airwaves. The last couple of weeks, the NBA playoffs have dominated the social agenda, especially the LA-Sacramento series. On the outside, I gave little attention to such things; but in here, itís a right of passage to get involved with the games. The LA-Sacramento series was extraordinary. It went the full seven games and put us in near riot situations several times. Luckily, I picked the right team. Shaq rules! Whenever the local Kansas City TV news is on, there is always a group standing around the wall-mounted TV checking out who of their friends and families were arrested or victimized that day. The noise level in the Pod has gone up to deafening heights. I was not aware that to play dominos, players have to slam the dominos on the table whenever they make a move. And this is the first time the "N" word is used more often than the "F" word. Granted, only Blacks can use this word. God forbid anyone else use the "N" word for there would be hell to pay. Yet even though half the Pod is allowed to say the "N" word, it is by far the most often used word in the Pod.

There are a couple of other strange things having to do with dress and posture that I donít understand. Many of the younger blacks and a few of the older ones have taken to wearing their pants half way down their backside. I donít get it? It would seem to be more difficult to function with you pants half way down your butt. And this same group of guys always has one of their hands covering their genital area, usually with their hand inside their pants. It does not seem to be an issue of masturbation from what I can tell. My speculation is that it has to do with an instinctive need for security. So many of these guys come from cultural and societal backgrounds in which their manhood has figuratively been castrated. Their instinct to cover their genitals is an unconscious gesture to make sure they still have them. You can only imagine how this environment is a breeding ground for racist sentiments within the non-Black population. Many a time I have had to tell my fellow non-Black inmates that I donít appreciate hearing their racial comments. Iíve tried to explain that just because there are some individuals, who happen to be Black, that are also loud, disrespectful, rude and obnoxious bullies, that doesnít mean that all Blacks are that way. And even if every Black person they have ever met in jail was like that, which, of course, they are not, that still doesnít mean all Blacks are. Sometimes itís a hard sell, and Iím not always convincing. Still, ugly things do happen.

A couple of weeks ago, a young white male entered our Pod. While just a kid (somewhere in his early twenties), he had both the look of a seasoned inmate and the look of a sad and vulnerable kid. His sadness was set off by a blue tear tattoo that was placed under his right eye. One day last week, he had a black eye. Word was one of the young black kids hit him, but he refused to fight. For the next couple of days, things seemed to be ok. He was hanging out with the young black crowd. Then two nights ago, right after the 7 PM count, this young man got beat up badly. He let the C.O. (corrections officer) know what happened. The Pod was immediately locked down. They checked each cell asking to see the hands of each inmate. The young man was taken out of the Pod along with two black inmates. Apparently, the two black inmates attempted to rape the young white inmate in their cell. I learned all this after the fact. It was another raw reminder that these are harsh and brutal places in which a multitude of factors contribute combining personal, communal, structural and institutional concerns.

With the bad, there are also good moments that come along, some even magical. One night last week when I was in my cell writing letters, the noise in the common room got louder and louder, and it seemed to be moving towards my cell door. Apparently, two of the loudest young black men, Blackie and Elijah, were going after each other. Blackie is a 22 year old who just got a 22-year sentence. Elijah is a young Muslim who strikes me as new in his faith. Whenever he is with any of the other couple of Muslims in the Pod, studying the Koran or praying, he is very dignified and well mannered. When he is with the rest of the guys from the "hood", he is as loud and rambunctious as all the rest. From where I was, behind my cell door looking out the small window, I thought a fight was going to break out right in front of my cell. Two young black males were yelling at the top of their lungs while ten others gathered around. As it turned out, they were going after each other, but not to fight. Instead, they were challenging each other to a "rap off". The two wanted bragging rights for who is the best rapper in the Pod. Three of the spectators were chosen as judges and for the next fifteen minutes, we were entertained by some of the most powerful, colorful, intense and real ghetto poetry I have ever heard. It was also the most angry, violent, ugly, sexist, racist, and misogynist lyrics I have ever heard, all of it authentic and a true reflection of these guysí reality. It made me feel both sad and awed at the same time. Halfway through their elocution, I opened my door. One of the young men who was judging the performance, who grew up in Baltimore and attended a Catholic grade school started to say, "Father, weíre just..". I quickly interrupted him saying, "No problem, guys. Great stuff! Donít let me bother you". And I went back into my cell to listen to the rest of the rap session.

Halfway done with this six-month bit, most of my days drag on, one day like the next, some days better, some days worse. All of them are tedious and challenging. On the surface, seemingly fruitless. But I know better, for past experience has taught me the fruit of these stale jail day labors are reaped when they let me go back into so-called "freedom". Itís like these airless days of captivity give me a third lung in which to breathe what goes for normalcy in middle America, allowing me to take in the deeper truths behind the everyday matrix of lies that prop up our national illusions. Sure, much of what I learn I wish were not so. Still, Iíd rather know the truth than continue to live the lies. The truth, Scripture says, will set you free but first it will get you into a lot of trouble. Check out the Des Moines Catholic Worker web page at http://www.no-nukes.org/dmcw/.