From the Bottom Up: A five-decade perspective on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)

FrankThe following text is excerpted and expanded from a workshop led by Frank Cordaro for 30 U.S. federal judges as part of the Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference in Omaha, Nebraska in August of 2014.

I’d like to start of with two words that connect you with me: Scribes and Pharisees.

I was a Catholic priest for nineteen years. I consider the scriptures my point of reference for understanding what’s real and what’s not in the world we live in.

There are a lot of things we can say about Jesus but one of the things people don’t often say is there were some people Jesus really didn’t have a lot of good things to say about – the Scribes and the Pharisees of his day.

Matthew 23, check it out – Jesus denounces the Scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites and blind fools and a whole lot more.

Modern day scribes and Pharisees are today’s priests and attorneys.

Back in the 1980’s, I had a close relationship with some of the guys working in the Polk County Attorneys’ office. Here in Omaha you have Creighton Prep as your all-boys Catholic high school. In Des Moines, back in the day, Dowling High School was an all-boys school and a lot of the county attorneys went to Dowling High School as I did. One of them, John Sarcone, is the County Attorney, though John never got to one of our Masses.

At that time, my Dowling friends in the County Attorney’s Office and I noticed that in our work we saw a lot of the same people. We at the Catholic Worker served them and my friends at the County Attorney’s Office put them in jail.

At the time, I was still a Catholic priest living at the Des Moines Catholic Worker. We started having monthly Masses at the Bishop Dingman Catholic Worker House for what I called the Mass for the “Scribes and Pharisees”. These same attorneys also started a monthly legal clinic at our house.

At these Masses, I reminded my attorney friends that the Gospels are very clear about being in right relationships with all whom we encounter. And that the burden of making relationships right is on those who have the greater advantage. I tried to impress upon them that all Christians are called to bridge the gaps between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the non-powerful. And in their lives, county attorneys are the rich and powerful, compared to the criminal defendants they were sending to jail, who were mostly the poor and non-powerful.

So we had the monthly Masses and legal clinics for a year or so to sensitize my friends at the County Attorney´s Office to the kind of guests we served in common. We ended the experiment because increasingly we Catholic Workers were doing our resistance work locally and were finding ourselves being prosecuted by our County Attorney friends. So our monthly Masses and legal clinics became a conflict of interest.

Still it was a good experiment of bridging the gap between the guests we served at the Catholic Worker and the County Attorneys who sent them to jail.

And let me be clear about our common institutional ties. During my tenure as a Catholic priest I was acutely aware that I was working for and was an official representative of the Catholic Church. It is, in my opinion, an institution that is sorely compromised. And the sexual scandals are just a symptom of a deeper problem, if measured by the example of Jesus, its founder.

There are a lot of things wrong with the USA Catholic Church. And as a priest, I was “muzzled” under the institutional restrictions of my Bishops. And I understood the deal and I remained a priest for 19 years, because I could do a lot of good as a priest in the Church. However, I never lost sight that I was working for a flawed and compromised Church. There are a lot of good priests today, working in the Church, doing good stuff, who also know this to be true.

And that is what we modern day Scribes and Pharisees share in common. If you’re an attorney or a judge in the U.S. today and you don’t understand that our current justice system is a very compromised and flawed system, you aren’t going to understand a thing I have to say.

I want to share one more example. I went to school with a guy named Tommy DeSio, an assistant county attorney who was assigned to jail court in Des Moines’ Polk County Jail. It’s crazy to see the way the law is actually practiced in these jail courts. In Polk Co., if you are a member of the public, your only access to seeing what happens is through closed circuit television (CCTV). Sometimes in some county jails, as a defendant, I did not have to leave my cellblock, because the whole thing was done on CCTV right in the cell block unit. The justice practiced in these courts is like the making of sausage: you know the end product, but you just don’t want to see what goes into making it.

So back to my friend, Tommy. He hates seeing me in his court because he feels so sad about it. But I tell him that it’s just great seeing a friendly face in this wonderland of justice. Tommy says, “Look, I do everything I possibly can to keep these guys out of jail — everything the law and my boss allow me to do.” And I am sure he does. In fact, I look at all of the people in the Jail Court and pretty much everybody’s at least trying to give people a break, even the judges. There are pre-trial programs, veteran representatives, legal aid, work release people, bail bonds people and mental health representatives, all doing the same thing.

However, it’s the system itself that is the problem. Everybody in the courtroom must give deference to a system that is not working. When all is said and done, at the end of the day the people who remain in our jails are the poor and people of color.

I’m here today talking to you because I have seen first-hand how the system is not working. I have a five-decade perspective and experience of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) from the bottom up.

I’m a Catholic Worker. If you’ve never heard of the Catholic Worker movement, it’s a radical lay movement in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church started in 1933 in New York City by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. By lay movement, I mean that the Bishops are not in charge of us. My Bishop isn’t responsible for me and I’m not responsible to him. We’re separate. By radical I mean that we reach back to the roots of our tradition, to apostolic times, to live the way the early Church lived — in community, doing the works of mercy and practicing voluntary poverty. We are also militant pacifists, which means we use direct nonviolent action through protest and civil disobedience to try to change our violent world. Because of our militant pacifism, we go to jail. And it’s my going to jails and prisons over the years that brings me before you today.

I started my criminal career on August 9, 1977 with a blood spilling on the pillars of the Pentagon. I got 30 days for the effort. Since then, I’ve been arrested more times than I can remember and have done close to six years of jail and prison time. A big chunk of my incarceration history came with eight separate trespass charges at Offutt Air Force Base protesting our Nuclear Weapons and Space command. Over the last thirty years, every time I’ve crossed the line at Offutt, I’ve been called to Federal court and the Magistrate here has put me in jail for six months. That’s a total of four years right off the bat.

Another place I’ve committed a federal crime was in southern Maryland in May of 1998, in what we called the “Gods of Metal Plowshares” witness. The Berrigan brothers, Dan and Phil, started these Plowshares actions in 1980 in an effort to put into flesh the prophet Isaiah’s words “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4). These activists used ordinary hammers on nuclear weapons equipment to take personal responsibility for disarming our nation’s nuclear weapons systems.

In Maryland in 1998, I was with two nuns, a grandmother and a fellow priest. We used hammers on a B52 bomber at Andrews Air Force Base during their annual airshow. If given enough time, we would have shaped that plane into some kind of human tool but we only had about two minutes before our hammers were taken away from us and our noses were on the tarmac with our hands cuffed behind our backs.

We were originally charged with several felonies, and looking at lots of years in federal prison, but apparently the Federal District Attorney’s Office in southern Maryland had better things to do with their time than pursue federal felony cases against Plowshares people. The felony charges were dropped and we were charged and convicted of one misdemeanor — destruction of property of less than a $1000. I got six months in prison for my efforts.

The list of Federal prison facilities I’ve done time in or have passed through include Leavenworth FPC, Yankton FPC, Marion FPC, El Reno FCI, Terra Haute FCI, Oxford FPC and Duluth FPC.

I’ve also flown on Con Air through the BOP’s Federal Transfer Center at the Oklahoma City Airport several times. Talk about a stroll through Wonderland! It is one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced, to be shackled to two hundred fellow inmates going into the belly of a passenger plane, where the flight attendants are U.S. Marshalls.

The BOP’s transportation system is a good example of what is wrong with the way things are done in our institutions. The first time I was sentenced to six months, and assigned to Yankton FPC, I was driven the 3-hour trip to Yankton from Omaha by two U.S. Marshalls. The 7th time I was sentenced to six months, and assigned to Yankton FPC, I was driven to Leavenworth to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) facility, a for-profit joint, for a couple weeks’ stay. From there I was flown to the Federal Transfer Center at the Oklahoma City Airport, for another couple of weeks. From Oklahoma City I was back on Con Air to Terra Haute for a two-week stay. From Terra Haute, I was put on a bus to MCC Chicago, then sent to the Oxford FPC for a couple of days. Then I was back on a bus to Yankton FPC, after stops in Rochester and Sandstone, Minnesota. Now here’s the problem: the BOP claims it’s cheaper to keep prisoners on the move, instead of in one place.

It’s the same institutional business plan operating in our school lunch programs. When schools make food for our kids and there are leftovers that could be used to feed hungry people, the government tells schools they have to throw it away. Instinctively, on the ground level, a person knows that doesn’t make sense. Yet in an institutional business model, we are told it’s more efficient and cheaper to throw the food away. The BOP’s transportation system has the same flawed business model.

I have one more travel story. Fellow protester Joyce Glen and I were in the Douglas County Jail here in Omaha, sentenced to six months and awaiting a BOP assignment. We were flown down to Leavenworth and then on down to Oklahoma City in a small private jet, along with what appeared to be a high-end drug dealer inmate. I could not believe it — me and Joyce Glen, two nonviolent six-month bidders, with a high-value prisoner whose name we never knew. The jet stopped in Leavenworth and let off the drug dealer and then flew Joyce and me on down to Oklahoma City. We were told that the jet had been commandeered by the federal government from a drug related case. So, we were flying in a drug plane. This is just one of many crazy situations in which I’ve found myself while in custody of the federal government.

Earlier today the representative from the BOP said it should take no more than five days from the day you are sentenced to the day you are assigned to a BOP facility. I don’t know what federal prison system she’s talking about, because it has been my experience that it usually takes half of my six-month sentence to get to my assigned federal facility, and most of that time is spent in county jails.

Over the last thirty years, the quality of incarceration has really deteriorated, especially in county jails. In the 70’s and 80’s if you were a federal prisoner it meant something. There were standards that had to be met regarding food, medical care, cell space and legal resources. Now you get thrown into a County jail and you’re not treated any differently than the rest of the inmates.

Let me tell you, these County jails are not good places. They are way over crowded, under staffed, diminished health care services, most if not all betterment programs are no longer in existence and the food is dismal. They are just warehousing people, especially the poor and mentally ill. Phil Berrigan called them “human dustbins”.

One example sticks out in my mind. The last time I was arrested for line-crossing at Offutt in 2006 I spent the first couple of weeks in the Pottawatomie County Jail just across the river in Council Bluffs.

Then I was taken with five other guys to the Jackson County Jail in Holton, Kansas, near Leavenworth. I’d never heard of this jail or this county before. A small rural county, the jail was ten years old. It was built as a money maker for the county. They rented the cells to the federal government and larger surrounding county governments to make money.

Jackson County was ten years into this money making venture and from the looks of it, had not put a dime into the place since it opened. They put me into a two-tier cell block that had eight cells, four on the top and four on the bottom. I was assigned to a cell in which the window had been broken and covered with plywood. The light bulb was out, so it was dark all the time. It was meant to be a two man cell but they made it into a three man cell by adding another bunk on top of a two bunk set up. I could not climb onto the 3rd bunk and was unable to sleep in the bottom two because I got claustrophobic. I told the two guys I was locked up with that I couldn’t sleep on any of the bunk beds and asked if it were alright if I slept on the floor. The only place to do that was next to the toilet. My one request was that they not step on me when they got up to pee.

The door of our cell was jammed so it could not be locked or shut. Four of the eight cell doors were jammed on this cell block. Our clothes were so thin and worn you could almost see through them. The towels were more like rags. The place was filthy. They were stingy with toilet paper, which was also used to clean our cells. This put me at a great disadvantage because being the oldest in my cell block, I peed more and needed more toilet paper to clean the top of the toilet. What books there were to read, were used as weights for the other inmates to exercise with. Our meds were given to us by the guards. Medical professionals were on call, rarely on site. Hispanics did not fare well there, as there were few guards (if any) who understood Spanish.

Since most of the inmates were African Americans from inner-city Kansas City, this jail was actually an improvement over their lives lived in violent poverty. Can you imagine that? For them the food was good and plentiful, and they had access to movies on the TV every day. There was a little outdoor space that barely passed for a basketball court, and every day the guys would go out there and bang themselves all over the place. Most of the prisoners were okay with the scene, especially the young and healthy ones. But for the rest of us, the place was a dive.

I spent three weeks in the Jackson County Jail before moving on to the Oklahoma City facility en route to FPC Yankton.

County jails are deteriorating so badly in so many places, it’s a national phenomenon. I’ve got to ask you: how can you send somebody right out of your court directly to a county jail unless you have no other alternative? Unless of course you are sentencing a Catholic Worker who says, “Send me to jail” and then that’s all right. Because folks like us need to be in places like county jails, to shed some light in some very dark places.

Of all the Federal Prison Camps I’ve been in, I am just going to talk about Yankton FPC. I’ve been to Yankton FPC five times in my career — I call it my preferred place of incarceration. My first stay was in the early 1980s and the last time was 2006.

Yankton FPC is located in the town of Yankton, South Dakota, on the former campus of Yankton College, a small liberal arts college in a residential neighborhood, affiliated with the Congregational Christian Churches. Founded in 1881, it was the first institution of higher learning in the Dakota Territory. It closed its doors in 1984 and was sold to the BOP for a Federal Prison Camp.

When I first got there, prisoners were still talking about the early days when 150 of them were cut loose from other federal prisons and sent to Yankton, where they rehabilitated old buildings and made the place usable for a Federal Prison Camp. It hardly felt like a prison. The food was excellent — I called the place Camp Yum-Yum. The camp had good relationships with the people in Yankton and there were numerous programs that allowed prisoners to work in the community.

During my first stay at Yankton in the 1980s, there were a lot of prisoners on Pell grants, getting their college degrees. There were lots of other educational programs, too. Prisoners could get certified in carpentry, electrical and plumbing. There were about three hundred prisoners at the camp when I first arrived, and we all worked. We were not allowed to bring books to work, because there was a lot of work to be done, and they didn’t want us reading on work sites.

The last time I went to Yankton in 2006, they wanted us to take books to work. Why? Because there was no work to be done and, if you wanted to sit in a corner and read all day, it was fine. There weren’t 300 inmates there anymore, there were over 900, with projections of reaching 1,000! All buildings were in use. Prisoners were crammed into dormitory-type living spaces. What was once a four-person room was now an eight-person room. The quality of the food had greatly deteriorated. All part of the effects of the War on Drugs inmate glut which has taken over all of the Federal BOP system.

Yankton FPC used to encourage visiting, with a large, welcoming visiting space that had a family-friendly area with both inside and outside space with playground stuff for kids. Now the visiting area has been relocated into a much smaller indoor space, everyone is crammed around tables, there is no space for children, and inmates can have visits every other weekend.

The woman who spoke from the BOP earlier said that they don’t send people to camps who have more than ten years to serve, but I met a lot of guys who were there doing more than ten year sentences.

Most, if not all, of the past educational programs are gone, and anything that would be considered rehabilitation has disappeared. The only programs at Yankton FPC now are all geared to drug rehabilitation, and prisoners are on waiting lists to get in to these programs, mostly to qualify for the year cut off their sentences than for any rehabilitative benefit.

Now I’m not saying that people can’t have their “come to Jesus” moments in the BOP, get off drugs permanently, find integrity and start a new life in a federal prison. Some people are able to pull themselves together in the BOP. I’ve seen it. I know it happens. I also know that when this happens, it’s not because of the BOP, it’s in spite of the BOP.

Next I’d like to say a couple things about our justice system as a whole. A number of us Catholic Workers went to trial in Des Moines for protesting our state’s health insurance industry. We were found guilty of trespassing — no surprise. At the end of my pre-sentencing statement, I asked the judge if I could do one more thing and he said, “Go ahead.”

So I sang, “Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round. Money makes the world go round, of this we are assured, money, money, money, money.”

The judge said, “I hope you don’t quit your day job, Mr. Cordaro,” and he gave me a forty-eight hour jail sentence.

In our lifetime, everyone in this room has experienced how money has come to influence and define every major human institution. It’s not that money has not unduly influenced everything in the past. The New Testament is clear, “Money is the root of all evil”. Still, in our lifetime, money — big money, corporate money — has changed and defined everything; societal, cultural and institutional from a global scale on down.

I’m one of those Occupy Wall Street people. I buy into their bumper sticker statement, “The 1% vs. the 99%.” I’m convinced that our world governments are directly controlled by the corporate global financial systems. They own and define everything. Words that once meant something mean little or nothing at all. For example, the word “communism” does not mean what it used to mean, when in actuality the communist Chinese are the world’s best capitalists. And what does “capitalism” mean in the U.S. when some banks and companies are too big to fail?

What does any political system — democratic, socialist and communist — mean when all nations on earth must comply with the dictates of global financial systems before any and all national concerns are addressed?

We don’t have a free press in the U.S. We have a corporate press. When Bishops and Christian church leaders have to put their fiduciary responsibilities ahead of their claim of being a follower of Jesus, our Churches are owned and defined by corporations.

I just heard on the radio coming here this morning that two-thirds of personal debt in the U.S. is for health care and education. In Europe, most folks don’t have to pay for healthcare and education — it’s a right of citizenship!

I truly believe that the 1%, under the guise of Corporatism, own and script our federal and state governments. They own and script our two political parties and our elections. And they directly script the actions of our three-branch governing system: Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court.

And they clearly own and script our whole justice system! You’ve heard the joke, “I’ll start believing a corporation is a person when Texas starts to execute them!”

Back in the seventies when I first started going to jail, county governments were solvent. When we went to county jails, the judges gave us a choice – we either paid a fine or did some time. Of course, Catholic Workers do the time, because we don’t pay fines.

That isn’t the way it is in a Des Moines, Iowa/Polk County court today. Polk County is money strapped, like all the counties. Now judges aren’t giving people choices. If we go to jail, there’s a daily jail fee of $65. Paying to be locked up ends up being greater than any fine we would have had to pay. County governments are charging the poorest of the poor for locking them up! And the only ones making money in our criminal justice system are the for-profit prisons and contracted services.

Over the span of my history with the BOP, I have seen federal judges lose more and more power and function in the Federal Justice System. All the mandatory sentencing laws and pre-sentencing law have greatly limited your power from the bench.

The kingpins in our justice system today are the prosecutors.

Our wars on drugs and terrorism and the rise of Corporate Personhood under the law has eroded legal and constitutional protections of regular citizens across the board.

What goes for evidence has greatly been diminished. Back in the 1960’s, the police had to catch a drug dealer with the drugs and the money. In the 1970’s, all they needed was the drugs or the money. In the 1980’s, all they needed is someone to say that someone had the drugs or the money.

My time in U.S. courts, jails and prisons has shown me that the war on drugs has greatly diminished the integrity of the whole justice system. You know, I’ve never met a guilty drug dealer in jail. They’ve all been caught by the largest drug dealer in the world — the U.S. government. When the only way you can catch a drug dealer is through drug dealing informants and set-up drug deals, that ain’t justice. A system that depends on informants over and over again loses its integrity. There is very little integrity left in our Justice System.

In my life time, I have seen the Supreme Court bring back the death penalty and make indefinite solitary confinement legal. You’d have had to be sleep walking for the last 30 years to not see a direct line between the acceptance of the death penalty and indefinite solitary confinement in the U.S., to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Cuba and U.S. backed torture!

Frank Cordaro is a former Catholic priest. He is a co-founder and member of the Des
Moines Catholic Worker Community. He subscribes to civil disobedience as a model and means for effecting social change, and has done close to six years of jail time, mostly in
federal prisons. His for-life Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) # is 13093 047.

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