Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro



September 4, 2002

All About Camp: What a difference Camp can be! It took me three and a half months to get here, but once here, I knew I was back in familiar, friendly incarceration space. By comparison to the joints I was dragged through the first half of my sentence, my time at FPC Duluth was a cakewalk. They donít call these Federal Prison Camps "Club Feds" for nothing. Federal Prison Camps are the lowest security facilities in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). All Campers are nonviolent offenders. About half of them have less than five-year sentences. Like the rest of the BOP, most are first-time offenders or probation violators and 60% are drug-related crimes. And even at these low-security joints, there are a disproportionate number of people of color and the poor.

Here in Duluth, there are about 550 inmates on a 110-acre Campus that was formerly a military base. Located next to the Duluth Airport, the property is surrounded by an eight-foot fence on three sides. Camps donít normally have fences surrounding them. The fence must have been in place before the BOP took over the property. It would be easy to walk off the property. Few people do, however, and no one has walked away since Iíve been here. There are five two-story dormitories, a building contacting a cafeteria, library, hobby shop and barbershop, a special phone building and the Control Center building where the medical clinic, the "hole", the mailroom, R&D and administrative offices, including the Wardenís office, are located. There is a gym with a basketball court, weight room area, and rooms set aside for musical instruments. On the outside, there are handball, horseshoe, and bocce ball and tennis courts. There is a softball and soccer field surrounded by a walking and running track. There is an Activity Center building that has pool tables, a large screen TV and viewing room, card playing room and vending machines. There is a Camp Commissary Building that is open three days a week. There is a Visiting Building and a Chapel. The Chapel had a fire 18 months ago. It still is not repaired, a clear indicator of how little weight the Chaplin and religious programs carry at this Camp. The Camp also has a Movie Theater Building where movies are shown nightly, mostly right from a local TV movie channel, complete with commercials. The Camp has a number of work and warehouse buildings that house a heating and electrical shop, plumbing shop, painting shop, carpenter shop, and a clothing and laundry area. There are Camp garages and mechanic shops. There is an area in one of the warehouses where the landscape people hang out. There are sheds where lawn mowers and weed whackers are kept. The Camp has a large vegetable garden and a greenhouse. There is also a four-lane bowling alley left over from the military base but not in use because of adverse public attention, bowling being something prisoners should not be allowed to do.

In the dorms, there are three TV rooms, a microwave room, ice machine and laundry room. Two showers and bathrooms are on each floor. Most of the rooms have three men assigned to them. This is one of the few Camps in the system that is not running at full capacity. A lot of this has to do with the god-awful long winters, no prison industry and no drug or educational programs. The inmate attire is basic military green and brown with steel tip boots. Gray sweat suits, sweat shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes are the preferred wardrobe, allowed only in the gym or on the track and playing fields during weekday work hours. On the weekends and after work hours, the casual sweat suit look is allowed. Iím in a room with two African-American men, James and "Pimp". These two fine gentlemen treat me royally. The first night I was there, James gave up his bottom bunk for me, a rare gesture of generosity. When I first heard Pimpís nickname, I wasnít sure I was hearing it correctly, so I asked him if I was hearing it correctly. "Yes, padre", he said. "Itís a name I had on the street". No further explanation was necessary.

I could not have picked two better months to do my time in Duluth, July and August. Except for about two weeks of uncomfortably hot weather, itís been a pleasant summer with the nights cooling off for good sleeping. Of the four Federal Prison Camps in which I have done time, Duluth is the most laid back, hassle-free. They all have the same rules and regulations. They differ on implementation. Here in Duluth, the guards are less "in your face". They are not all bent out of shape over small infractions of rules. Generally, they donít bother you if you donít bother them. A few examples: food is much easier to liberate from the kitchen, smoking in the dorm bathrooms is more common; movement away from work areas is more easily done; and movement between dorms is allowed. This laid-back spirit also works against the inmates. Iíve already mentioned the lack of progress on the burned Chapel. The inmate photocopy machine has been out of order for six months. And if you need some paper work done or a special request, feet are dragged, things donít get done. Mostly though, the guards are decent folks, easy to get along with, fair and honest.

Personal Encounter with the Warden: The only guy who does seem concerned with rule infractions is the warden. I found this out personally when he caught me in the library typing during work hours. It was one of the few very hot days. I had changed into my shorts and T-shirt. The warden made a surprise visit to the library. As soon as he saw me, he pointed his finger at me and said, "I want to see you in my office immediately"! And then he left. I felt like I was back in the third grade at St. AnthonyÕs School in Des Moines being called into the principalís office. I knew I was caught and in violation of three regulations: 1) in the library during a weekday without permission; 2) not in my work area; and 3) out of uniform. I gathered up my papers and went directly to the Control Center where the wardenís office is. As soon as I got into the lobby, I told the guard on duty what happened. He told me to go back to the dorm and get into proper uniform attire and return as soon as I could. I promptly did as I was told. I returned to the Control Center and waited over an hour before the warden would see me. We met in the office leading into the "hole". There were several other officers in the office. He went right to verbally dressing me down. He began his interrogation with, "Mr. Cordaro, I thought you told me youíve been in four different Fed Camps in the region". I immediately realized I had made a major strategic mistake. A couple of days earlier, one of the Catholic inmates got confirmed by the local Bishop. The warden attended the service and afterwards at the reception, I introduced myself to the warden and shared a bit of my criminal history and places Iíve been in the BOP. Lesson relearned: never bring undue attention to yourself, nor volunteer information to prison higher-ups, especially the warden! The warden went on to berate me saying, "You, of all people, should know what is expected here. Do you think you are special? Do you think you can do whatever you want to do? I want you to know we are watching you". The interrogation went on like this for several minutes. At the proper times, I was dutifully repentant, soliciting and remorseful. It was not until the end that I realized he was not going to throw me in the "hole". The issue for the warden was that I was not in proper uniform attire in the library. It did not matter that I was not supposed to be in the library nor that I was away from my work area. He let me go with just a warning to beware. I left the Control Center feeling bummed. I figured the warden had my number and would be riding my case the whole time I was in Duluth. It wasnít until I returned to my dorm and told the guys what happened to me that they all had a good laugh and told me that the warden did this sort of thing all the time. He is famous for his micro-management style. They told me I had nothing to worry about since the warden is the one guy the whole Camp dislikes; inmates and guards alike.

My Routine: It was not long until I got into a routine. I got a work assignment with Landscape. I use the term "work" very loosely. There is no prison industry here. So people donít really work. The going pay is $.12 an hour. No one is breaking his back for the BOP here. Most of the guys in Landscape play the "look busy, hide, and disappear" shuffle during workdays. I got myself a job as assistant to Detroit Johnny. Our job area is the Control Center. We are to water the flowers and cut the grass. Johnny, being a good Catholic boy, does most of the work and lets me name my hours. I basically work two mornings a week helping Johnny cut the grass. The rest of the workweek I am free to join the rest of the Campers doing the Duluth "look busy, hide, and disappear" shuffle. I use this time to hide in my dorm or hang out at the Landscape Office area to read and write. I also try to get my hour and a half walk in during this time. Most nights and weekends you can find me in the library typing my weekly Reflections and doing correspondence.

Prayer and Ministry: Three nights a week, I attend Catholic programs. On Wednesday night, Sr. Timothy Kirby from St. Scholastica Monastery leads a lectionary-based reflection session. On Thursday night, Fr. Noel Stretton, from one of the local parishes, celebrates Mass. And on Sunday night, I joined an inmate-led Catholic bible study. The last five weeks, I led this group in a study of the Gospel of Mark. On Sunday morning, we have a Catholic communion service lead by Sr. Timothy. Sr. Timothy is a sheer delight. No more than five feet tall and 82 years young, she celebrated her 60th year in the convent while I was in Duluth. A long time member of Pax Christi, she embodies the best of what a Catholic Religious feminist is all about. Her Communion services and homilies were always well done. She gave us an excellent lectionary based message each week. After each service, I just hugged her and thanked her for her good words. I told her more than once that she was prefiguring what women will be able to do in our church someday. As soon as I got to the Camp, the Catholic "mafia" kicked in and got me all the start-up things I needed and a lot of extra stuff, too. Within 24 hours, I had a radio, full sweat suit and tennis shoes. It helped that I ran into Rick Postel. Rick and I knew each other at the Yankton, SD, Federal Prison Camp the last time I was in jail. Rick is a Catholic from Cedar Rapids. He was in Duluth for a bogus probation violation. He worked in the clothing area. His specialty is networking. Rick can get you just about anything you need at Camp. With the quick introduction to the Camp population, it was not long before I started to see a lot of guys one-on-one. It became my major ministry. I heard many a good confession and a lot of sad stories this summer. My prayer time was in the morning and at night, plus the alone times I had on the track walking. My prayers were often colored by the needs of the men around me. If you think that life is good at these Camps, think again.

The Rest of the Story: I got a visit from Judge Robert Pratt a couple of weeks before I left Duluth. Bob and his wife, Rose, are Des Moines folks from Holy Trinity Parish, supporters of the Catholic Peace Ministry and the Catholic Worker. Bob is also a Federal District Judge in the southern district of Iowa. He was in Duluth for a Federal Judges Conference that included a tour of our Camp. I got to visit Judge Robert in the visitorsí building during the tour. He wanted to hear my thoughts about the BOP and the Federal criminal justice system. We agreed on many things. I told Bob the real suffering here and at other Federal Prison Camps is the fact that for most of the guys doing time at Camps, they are living a higher standard of living than the families and loved ones they left behind. Many inmate families have fallen into poverty because of their incarcerations. The divorce rate for Federal prisoners is 80%. Then there is the amount of time people are serving. It is way out of proportion with the crimes they supposedly committed. Not only is the time too long, itís also wasted time. There is very little inmates in Duluth (and in most Federal joints) can do to improve their lives once they do get set free. There is no education or job-skills training in Duluth. Deeper than all of this is the basic injustice and dishonesty upon which the Federal justice system rests. Because of this, few men accept any sense of guilt of wrongdoing. Most just believe they got caught by a much bigger and evil criminal enterprise: the U.S. Federal Justice Department. Itís not that many of these men did not do bad things and did not hurt people. The problem is that the system that put them in prison is so corrupt and unjust that they and their families are as much victims as the people they hurt in their criminal activities. For starters, the whole system is racist and classist. This is a reality that is so pervasive, systemic and long-standing that it should be a given in any meaningful and truthful discussion about the Criminal Justice System in the USA. Add to this, on a more basic level, the Justice System is rotten at its core on its own terms.

Bob lamented the fact that 25 years ago at least 25% of all criminal cases when to trial. Today less than 5% go to trial. This statistic alone calls into question the basic principal upon which our Justice System is supposed to rest: that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The problem is that the balance of power in the system has shifted into the hands of the US Federal Prosecutors Office. They have all the tools, ways and means to lock people up, and it matters little if the person is guilty of the crime he or she is being forced to plea or whether or not the government can actually prove guilt. What goes for acceptable evidence these days is so flimsy and the means to acquire it almost unlimited, that it is corrupting the system from the inside out. One example helps to explain what I mean. One of the most abused means in which the Government secures convictions is the use of Government informants. Often a part of some criminal activity themselves, these informants will tell any lies the Government wants them to, about anyone else, just to get a sentence reduction. And you canít much blame the informants when the choices before them are lying and getting a five-year sentence or keeping their integrity and getting a 25-year sentence. In the Federal Justice system today, integrity and honesty work against you. The liars and the snitches are rewarded. The most difficult thing Bob said he has to do, as a Judge, is sentence people. Most of the time, he feels that he is no more than a rubber stamp. By the time the defendant stands before him, the fix is in, the snitching is done, the plea bargain is made, and the alleged criminal charge is set. The Judges are locked into pre-determined, mandatory minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines. I told Bob he might as well be a vending machine. After my visit with Bob, I was reminded of what blessed Bishop Dingman used to say about the USA. He believed that we were drifting closer and closer toward fascism in this country. Having been in Rome studying theology right before WW II, he saw the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and Spain, and saw many similarities in the USA. Judging from the diminished Justice System we have in this country, if fascism does take over, there will be no need to change any laws. They will already be in place.

Judge Robert Pratt is one of the few Federal judges I know who is willing to admit to what is actually going on in our (unjust) Justice System. He told me he was working with a national group called Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences (FAMM). I promised him that I would do what I could with the group when I got out. FAMM, 1612 K St., N.W., Suite 1400, Washington, D.C.. 20006 Tel: (202) 822-6700 Fax: (202) 822-6704 www.famm.org

The Issue of My Heart: My biggest personal concern before I got locked up was how well I would do physically given my recent heart attack. Overall, I would say I did well. The most important thing was to make sure I got my heart medication. There were some foul-ups and difficulties in getting my meds, nothing out of the ordinary for prison life. I had to be persistent in making my needs known plus a little help from support folks on the outside at the right times made a big difference. Prison life is not an easy life. There are many stresses and pressures a prisoner goes through. My first three months of incarceration were the most difficult. County jails and detention centers are hard places to do time. Once I got to the Camp in Duluth, life became much easier. What I learned is that this heart attack of mine was real. With four stints and a 20% damaged heart, I have some physical limitations. I canít do as much as I used to nor do I have the energy I used to have. As Grace, a PA here at the Camp told me, "You used to be a rabbit and could get a lot of things done in a short time. But now you are a turtle and you canít get as much done in as little time as you used to". I will be dealing with this issue whether I am in or out of prison. I need to figure out a balance in my life, so I can do what I can without hurting my heart. In some ways, being locked up forced me to slow down. I will have no less a challenge to stay healthy when I get set free. In one way, I am grateful that I had my heart attack after I crossed the line at Offutt AFB and tripped the legal wire that brought me back to prison. If I had had my heart attack before I crossed the line, it would have been a whole lot harder to cross the line and risk going back to jail. Now I know I can survive in jail post heart attack and am open to continuing my resistance and outlaw ways in the future.

Thank youís: The secret of doing "good time" is to have good support people on the outside. One of my favorite sayings is "Never go to jail alone. Always bring a crowd with you". The "crowd" I am talking about are the people who will love and support you while you are in jail. This time I did "good time" because I had a multitude of good people supporting me on the outside, many of whom I donít even know. The first and most important level of support came from those who helped me with their prayers. I can never say in words how strongly I felt the support of your prayers. Thank you, thank you, thank you. To those folks who wrote letters, sent cards and emailed me, a big thank you! Responding to personal letters and emails filled many hours for me and gave me a concrete way to stay connected with the outside world. A big "much-o-thanks" to those who donated to my prison fund. This money allowed me to do many things, kept me connected with the outside, helped me to be generous to less fortunate inmates, and made sure I never went for want - at least what goes for "want" given the limits of a prison commissary store list. To those who were able to visit me, thank you! Itís not easy to get into a prison and visit an inmate these days. The system puts many obstacles in the way. Your personal visits were always a great spirit lifter. A special mention goes to the Duluth Catholic Worker folks who visited me often while I was here in Duluth which proves that belonging to the Catholic Worker Movement is belonging to a large extended tribe with family members all over the country. The Duluth Catholic Worker clan made me feel right at home.

Often the difference between doing "easy time" and "hard time" is how the people back home hold up while you are in jail. I can tell you I did "easy time" this time in jail because of my people back home, the Des Moines Catholic Worker community - both the "live in" and the extended community were doing the day-to-day work of hospitality, keeping the spirit and tradition of the movement alive and well in Des Moines. I love you all and canít wait to get back home. Finally, there are four people who deserve special mention. They are my personal support team: Fran Fuller, Fr. Jack McClure, Lois Crilly and Mickey McDaniel. Mickey specialized as my medical support person. At two critical times during my incarceration, Mickeyís "bulldog" phone calls to the prison authorities helped move the prison to pay attention to my medical needs. Great job, Mickey! Lois served as a backup person for Fran and helped me stay in contact with Rev. Bob Cook in El Salvador and Richard Flamer in Chiapas by way of email. Fr. Jack did the monumental task of editing my raw, mostly handwritten text of weekly lectionary reflections. Jackís background in English was sorely tested in this effort. I owe Jack big time for making me sound literate. The lionís share of my support work was done by Fran Fuller. Fran served as my point person, the one who coordinated my support needs, managed my money, paid my bills, maintained my visiting list, sorted out my mail and posted my correspondence. She sent me hard copies of email messages and then typed and edited my responses and sent them through cyberspace. She emailed all the weekly email reflections along with editing and emailing special articles I wrote. She maintained my 500+ email list. Fran was the person I called the most, the person who heard all my complaints and gripes. Having Fran as my lead support person was like having an executive secretary all to myself. She did all this work while maintaining all her other duties at the Des Moines Catholic Worker House and met her family obligations. Fran, you are simply the best! Where Do I Go from Here? I hit the streets at 8 am, Wednesday, September 4th. Friends from the Duluth Catholic Worker will pick me up. I am scheduled to do a Mass at their house that afternoon at 5 pm followed by a potluck supper and a "getting out of jail" party. I will be back in Des Moines in time for the Friday, September 6th, 7:30 pm Mass and blowout party at the Catholic Worker. I canít wait to see my mother and give her a big hug. Six months is a long time to be away from her these days. And, Iím anxious to see the rest of my family and friends. My plans are to re-claim my old room at the Des Moines Catholic Worker, if they did not give it away, and enthusiastically embrace whatever assignment the Diocese gives me when I return. Most guys leaving prison have some probation period they have to fulfill before they are really set free. They call it doing "paper time". Iím often asked if I have any "paper time" to do when Iím set free. I tell the guys, "I donít have any state paper but I do have Church paper time. I promised the Bishop I would not risk going back to jail for two full years". So it goes. We shall see.