Jan 12, 2005 – Pointblank Mag. Des Moines Iowa
In prison for peace: Consequences, opportunities and blessings.
By Frank Cordaro
Some have claimed that I get arrested so I can go to jail. I don’t. Jail is hard, and it is intended to be. My jail time is a consequence of being a peacemaker. It is a by-product of speaking my truth about war. Going to jail is no more a goal for me than getting crucified was a goal of Jesus’. It is a consequence that I accept and embrace. It is also a blessing and an opportunity. I am writing not to complain about the consequence of my actions, but to describe my opportunities and share my blessings.
As a result of a court sentence handed down on Dec. 16 2004, I celebrated Christmas and New Years in jail. Seven of us appeared in Polk County District Court to answer charges of misdemeanor trespass, which occurred on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2004 at the STARC Armory in Johnston, Iowa. Six of us pleaded guilty and took our chances with Judge Brandt. For me, it was the fourth arrest at the Armory since the beginning of the war in March 2003.
The Court sentenced the first-time offenders to their time served. Then, one by one, I listened as the others were sentenced to the maximum 30 days in jail and offered a suspended sentence along with 12 months informal probation and 25 hours of community service. I heard them each, begrudgingly, accept the terms in lieu of jail. I was the last to be sentenced.
A sentence, generally, reflects the nature of the crime committed. In this case, the crime was a simple misdemeanor trespass. We were peaceful and non-violent. We were civil and respectful. We harmed no person and no property. In my three prior trespass cases, we offenders had received sentences of time served, a small fine and/or community service. Clearly, those were sentences that reflected the true nature of our crimes committed.
In my mind, this time was different. Judge Brandt’s sentence did not reflect the nature of our crime. Instead, he had transformed the sentence into a political statement on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; he supports them, we resist them.
In the 25 years that I have been protesting wars, I have watched our legal system side repeatedly with the war-makers. A decision is made, sometime after each trespass, as to what, if any, charges will be brought. If charges are brought, and they always have been, then each of us must individually decide how to plead. I had already pleaded guilty to the charge and I had heard the sentencing of my friends. Before my sentencing, I was given an opportunity to speak to the Court.
I told Judge Brandt that I believed he was putting the legal system on the wrong side of human history. I said that I agreed with him on one thing — crimes had been committed. I just didn’t believe that we were the criminals. I suggested that our peace-making heroes of the past have paved a traveled road to peace — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day and Phil Berrigan have lit that path. I said that 90 percent of the world’s people, and authorities including Pope Paul II, believe that the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq are unjust, immoral and illegal.
To date, more than 6,000 Iowans have left their communities, their jobs and their families, federalized by the U.S. government, to fight, to risk their lives and to suffer the burden of killing other human beings. Many have returned wounded; 20 have been killed. Their collective personal sacrifices serve as the base for Iowa’s support of George Bush’s wars.
Our local collective protests constitute a small portion of a much larger national and worldwide campaign to eliminate the scourge of wars in our human family. If we are to achieve peace, I believe the peacemakers must also be willing to make personal sacrifices to serve that peace.
So I told Judge Brandt that I would refuse any community service because I believed what we did at STARC Armory constituted a community service; that I could not pay any fine because I lived as a Des Moines Catholic Worker and received no income; and finally, that I could not in good conscience accept any form of probation, as I could not keep a promise to avoid arrest. When I finished, the Judge gave me the maximum sentence. I will be here until January 13th.
It is no fun to be in jail. I take no delight in the hardship I bring to my family and friends by being here, especially during Christmas and New Years. Ironically, though, I am grateful to Judge Brandt for giving me this opportunity to pay a small price for my efforts at peace. In this season, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I count myself blessed to be locked up on his birthday for those efforts.
In jail there are no soft places, only concrete and iron. One sheet, one blanket, no pillow, no privacy. People here are separated from family, friends and familiar settings. Everyone looks the same stripped of their individuality. All movement, and I do mean all, is monitored. All aspects of jail are designed as social punishment and ostracism.
The air in the Jail is recycled. Each cell has a stainless steel toilet/sink, which backs up into the adjoining cell’s fixture when the inmate next door flushes. Jail is the only place in the world I have ever heard of a “courtesy” flush. Use your imagination.
I miss apples the most. There are no fresh foods, just canned items consisting mainly of carbohydrates — rice, beans, pasta, cookies and pastries. But there is plenty to eat, and my own weight reflects that. If you have any money, and hardly anyone does, you can get extra stuff at the commissary one day a week — coffee (a highly desired commodity), cookies, crackers, and candy. No apples.
And speaking of money, the county jail is a pay-as-you-go operation now. Inmates are charged for their stay. I incur a $48.00 charge per day. If I need a nurse, a doctor or a prescription, I pay extra for it. A call costs $3. If you can’t call collect to someone, you can’t call. If you can’t pay your bill at the time of your release, they garnish your wages. If you have no wages, they take away your driver’s license until the debt is paid. It’s hard to get work without a car, so this is like a sinkhole for the poor.
One measure of a society is how it deals with its prison populations. We have more than two million Americans behind bars for the purpose of punishment, not rehabilitation. Ninety percent of the inmates in our county jails come from the bottom 10 percent of society’s economic class. Poverty is the single greatest factor in recidivism. Adding additional indebtedness to the mix helps to ensure that the cycle of poverty will bring people back to jail.
I am a Catholic Worker. We Catholic Workers built our communities on doing the works of mercy — feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. We take to heart the directives Jesus gave in the parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25: “Whatever you do to the least, you do to me.” Visiting the imprisoned is also a work of mercy. I am not just visiting.
Whether out of concern for my well being, or to make my stay more difficult, my first assigned cell was the medical unit — two weeks on 5 North. There were 16 of us in 12 single cells, four of us doubled up in cells meant for one. Most of the men suffered from some form of mental illness or incapacity. They were there for arson, robbery, burglary, domestic abuse and intoxication. I was there for peace and a whole lot more as it turned out.
The first day, I recognized Larry and he recognized me. Larry is a regular at the Catholic Worker House. He is 67 years old and has lived on the streets for years. Apparently he set fire to the garage he was living in and is doing a year’s time for it. A pleasant man with a ready smile, his incapacity is particularly challenging in jail; he frequently soils himself. I mention this only to punctuate the fact that each and every man in the ward went to great lengths to support Larry. They were the first to alert the guards to the problem each day, and the ones who cleaned out Larry’s cell while he was being cleaned up. Never did I see them ridicule or take advantage of him. I was impressed.
George was the loudest and most disruptive, but he could not help it. When he spoke, he shook and dominated all conversations, even the ones he was not a part of. While he was on crank he had robbed two guys at knifepoint for $20. His mother kept him in commissary money and he kept the entire unit in coffee in exchange for a cinnamon roll. On Christmas day he gifted the entire unit with a cupcake.
Marty was in for burglary. Because he had begun hearing voices in his head, he was now doing the “thorazine shuffle,” medicated into a stupor. A lot of the guys envied him, saying it is a great way to do time.
Ralph was locked up for “domestics.” He remembered nothing of the incident; he was drunk. Larry must have told him I was a former priest, because early on he nearly took up residence in my cell to tell me his stories and conspiracies about all the reasons he’d been locked up before. He loved his woman and wanted to talk about it. Each night before lights out, he would appear at my cell to ask me to pray for him and his lady friend, often with tears in his eyes. On Christmas day he proposed and she accepted. The next thing I knew he was hugging me, kissing me and thanking me for my prayers. I was embarrassed but thrilled for Ralph. I hope it lasts.
My cellmate, Tom, is a 28-year-old kid, back in jail for a probation violation. They nabbed him at the courthouse while he was paying fines. His eyes are blue and sit close together, which gives him an angelic younger look. He has a child-like spirit, a heart of gold and talks incessantly. An accident when he was nine years old left him mentally challenged. The very first day I agreed to one game of “Sorry” each day, no more. In case you don’t know, “Sorry” is not an easy game.
A number of Tom’s family members have preceded him in prison. Many are involved in drugs. He says some members of his family framed him. Though never married, he has two children, one with the woman he lives with. He loves her and both children very much and wants to be married.
One night, early in my stay, I retreated into our cell trying to find some alone time, relief from the needs and concerns of the others. Tom was there, and when I told him what I was trying to do, he looked at me very intently and said, “They come to you because you are a pastor, a man of God. They come to you so you can pray to God for them because we really need God’s help here. And I really feel lucky to have you as my cellmate. I feel closer to God, and the other guys think so, too.”
Tom’s comments struck me to the heart and humbled me in spirit. That night, after lock-up, Tom and I prayed together for each inmate on 5 North, one inmate at a time. Tom especially prayed for his children and girlfriend he was missing so terribly. I silently thanked God for allowing me to be where I was, doing what I was doing.
While I would have been content to finish my sentence in this unit, the jail had different plans for me. On Dec. 29, I was moved to the Interim Jail, 2 East Unit. I am in an open bay area with 18 bunks, a dining area with stainless steel tables and stools, a television mounted on the wall, six phones, six showers, sinks and toilets, and 36 men.
The second night on 2 East I was invited to the nightly prayer circle. Amazing. I thank God for my many blessings. I am also looking for any opportunities to do what Catholic Workers do best — the works of Mercy. And at night, before I go to sleep, I pray for the guys I left behind on 5 North, wondering how they are doing.
Frank Cordaro is a peace activist, a former Catholic priest and founding member of the Des Moines Catholic Worker community. He has spent more than four years in jail for protesting for peace and justice. Another member of Des Moines Catholic Worker community, Elton Davis, is currently in the midst of a 90-day sentence at a federal facility in Leavenworth, Kan., for trespassing at Offutt Air Force Base, the home of the Strategic Nuclear and US Military Commands in Omaha NE. He is expected to be released in mid-February.