Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

June 13, 2002

IN TRANSIT - FTC Oklahoma City

A day after I put my "Half Time Report" in the mail, the "powers that be" decided to move me out of CCA Leavenworth. They pulled out 26 inmates handcuffed, shackled and chained and drove us to the Kansas City Airport to a secluded air strip where we joined another 150 Federal inmates already aboard a ConAir passenger jet awaiting our arrival. Once safely aboard and still cuffed, shackled and chained, we flew to the Federal Transit Center (FTC) in Oklahoma City, OK. This is the second time I have been through FTC Oklahoma City. The first time was 3 1/2 years ago on my way to the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton SD from the East Coast. FTC Oklahoma City is unique within the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities. A cross between a bus station and the departure point between heaven and hell. It feels like a modern day, land-based slaving ship. Itís an eight-story building that sits on a deserted edge of the Oklahoma City Airport. It can hold up to 1500 inmates, all but a few, who are assigned to the facility for cooking and maintenance, are Federal prisoners in transit.

The BOP has three large jet passenger planes and a number of smaller planes that make up its ConAir fleet. These planes are used to transport hundreds, if not a thousand or so, inmates daily throughout the six regional BOP districts in the country. At the end of the day, barring any breakdowns, all ConAir planes end up back at FTC Oklahoma City. Technically, once I got on the ConAir flight at the Kansas City Airport, I officially was placed in Federal BOP custody. Prior to that, during my first three months of custody, I was the responsibility of the U.S. Marshallís office in Omaha, NE, contracted out to CCA Leavenworth for safekeeping. The move also represented the end of my county jail level of incarceration and the beginning of my being held captive by the Federal Government directly. Usually, that means a step up in the quality of incarceration. But Iím not sure that holds for every situation, more on this later in this report.

The first thing I noticed was the difference in inmate population. There are people from all over the country and more than a few from other countries at FTC Oklahoma City. The poor and people of color continue to be disproportional. Still, there is a sophistication within the Federal prison population that you donít find in county jails. There are inmates from every level of incarceration from the highest to the lowest security levels, violent and nonviolent together, and no way of telling which is which. Some are like me, just getting into the system heading for their assigned destination. Others are being transferred from a different facility. Some are heading for court, others returning from court. Some are just starting their time, others are close to getting out. Hearing of guys having to do 3 to 5 and 10 to 15 and 20 years was not uncommon. I have yet to meet another misdemeanor offender. The Oklahoma City facility is new, less than ten years old. Itís larger, spacious, air-conditioned and clean living quarters. You come right off the plane into the facility. It has its own gate. They put me in a two-tier 60 two-man cell pod with four TV rooms, four phones (all calls collect), microwave and a small rack of books. The food is halfway decent. There is no commissary, no out door rec. You can get a good walk in the common room though limited with the flimsy blue slippers they give you. There are no programs or church services. Since there is almost a complete turnover in inmate population every three weeks, it makes little sense. The facility also discourages sending and receiving mail. You can only send three letters a week and only on Wednesday. I was never able to send any mail.

I did meet a guy who had done eleven years and had five more to go who spent three months with Fr. Steve Kelly in a holdover place in California in 1996. He introduced me to a guy from Syria. He is halfway through a 26-year sentence. He was a Sufi Muslim. We had some very good discussion and I was looking forward to getting to know him better when five days into my Oklahoma City experience, I was back on a ConAir passenger jet plane. I was told that my final destination was to be the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, MN. I was considering myself lucky to be getting out of Oklahoma City in five days until we made our first stop in Terre Haute, IN. U.S.P. Terre Haute, IN. You can imagine my disappointment in being taken off the plan in Terre Haute. This could only mean a long and round about route to FPC Duluth. By most peopleís reckoning, the most direct and efficient route to Duluth, MN, from Omaha, NE, would not take you through Oklahoma City, OK, and Terre Haute, IN. But in the wonderland of BOP, this is the most efficient means of transporting me to Duluth.

Twenty-three of us departed our ConAir plane at Terre Haute Airport cuffed, shackled and chained and boarded a BOP bus to the local U.S. Penitentiary. USP Terre Haute is a maximum-security facility with a Camp attached to it. We were taken into the main facility and processed from R & D (Receiving and Departing), issued new clothes and taken where holdovers are housed, the former segregation unit. Itís not an easy place to be. Built over sixty years ago, Iím in a section that consists of 20 two-man cells, no common room, just a pathway to the exit. The cells are small consisting of a steel bunk bed, a steel toilet and sink combo, and a small steel shelf attached to the wall, big enough for our meds. It measures six feet by nine feet with steel bars facing the entrance and pathway. The pathway is lined with barred windows, very dirty, you can hardly see through them. We look out into a very small courtyard area next to the prison cafeteria. There is no air-conditioning. Three fans are in the pathway. They help little. We are locked in 23 1/2 hours a day with a 1/2 hour out each day to walk the pathway. The food is back to county jail scale. There are no phone privileges and no TV. So far, no more than twenty books among us all, mostly sci-fi. Luckily, the trustee got me James Michenerís The Caribbean to read. It should hold me for a while. We get to take three showers a week and send out three letters a week. My cellmate is a guy heading for Duluth also. Randy is about 6í2" and weighs close to 350 lbs. He stutters and is mentally challenged. He got three years for a meth charge. They are giving him tons of meds. He is a very simple and good-natured person unless he is provoked. Heís spent his share of time on the streets and in shelters. Heís now given his life to Jesus and wants to do good. Weíve started a good friendship. We remind each other to take our meds. I also serve as translator for Randy when he talks to the guards because he gets very nervous when talking to them and stutters badly. Iím getting this letter into the mail tonight because I hear different stories about our length of stay here. The guards at R & D told us we would be leaving in a couple of days, which would be tomorrow, Friday, June 14. The rest of the guys who are heading in the same direction believe weíll be heading out early next week. The trustee on the block says the average stay is two weeks. Not only do I not know when I will be leaving here, Iím not sure where my nest stop will be. Prevailing wisdom has us heading for Oxfar, WI, by bus and then maybe to Duluth. All of this, of course, is speculation. Iíve put in to see a Catholic Chaplin. It would be nice to receive Communion, get a Catholic bible (King James version is not easy to read) and maybe write my next reflection. The whole effort is a discipline for me in the practice of patience and losing control.