1995 Jan – The Inside Word (Prison Writings)
Fr. Frank Cordaro
Editor’s Note: The following writings from Fr. Frank are excerpts taken from his weekly letters, which are printed in the St. Patrick’s parish bulletin.
Greetings from the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, S.D. The city of Yankton is a thriving community of 13,000 people, the seven the largest city in the state. Situated right in the middle of a residential area, the prison camp occupies the former campus of Yankton College, 30 acres of prime real estate with 14 buildings, many of which are on the National Historical Register’s list.
Yankton College, “the oldest institution of Higher Learning in all of the Dakotas” according to their plaque, was founded by Rev. Joseph Ward, a missionary and Congregational minister. He first opened a high school on the site in 1868, and then opened Yankton College in 1881. At the college’s first commencement ceremony, Rev. Ward pro-phesied a 1,000 year growth for the school, “devoted to building character, the highest standards, and a continual striving for ideals high above the horizon.”
The college missed reaching Rev. Ward’s prediction by 897 years by going into bankruptcy and closing its doors in 1984. In 1988 the federal government t convinced the community to sell the campus to the Federal Bureaus of Prisons (BOP).
Since 1988, the BOP has spent over 12 million dollars to renovate the campus, using mostly inmate labor. The campus and its buildings are in better shape than ever. The camp has a year-round horticulture program, which maintains a variety of exotic and beautiful flowers, plants and trees, for both inside and outside use. The place looks like it’s right out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. FPC Yankton has no prison industry; the main focus is their drug rehabilitation program. The drug program is in full swing now with 170 inmates enrolled in the six-month program and a long waiting list for future enrollees. The drug rehab inmates are housed in one building while the rest of the 480 inmates live in two other residential halls. Each hall has its own laundry room, pool tables and recreation room, TV rooms and phone room. There is also the on-campus Nash Gym which is equipped with two weight rooms, a full basketball court, two handball courts, a crafts room, and a sports TV room. In addition, there is a greenhouse, softball, a soccer field, a quarter-mile walking track, three tennis courts and two boccie ball courts.
It needs to be said that FPC Yankton is the exception to the rule. I t is among a very few elite settings of its kind within the Federal BOP. All the inmates here have been convicted of nonviolent crimes; most come from white, middle and upper class back-grounds. Of the million and a half prisoners in this country today, the vast majority are not doing their time in places like Yankton. I can’t help thinking about the contrast between my recent six-day experience at the Douglas County Jail and my time here in Yankton. In the Douglas County Jail there were over 700 inmates with the jail guards and its administration all housed in one big building on a city bock. It is a terribly inhumane and degrading environment where overcrowding is a constant experience. Here at Yankton there are 650 inmates with accompanying guards and administra-tion spread out over 30 acres in 14 different buildings. What a difference a spacious and humane environment makes. Yet, despite the plush surroundings at FPC Yankton, it’s still cheaper to maintain an inmate here than at the Douglas County Jail. It’s all part of the crazy prison subculture in which I find myself.
A Day in the Life of Fr. Frank
My day begins at 6:30 a.m. This is about the time I stumble out of my top bunk bed. After I get dressed, I proceed to the basement. At this time in the morning the basement is relatively quiet and peaceful. I pray my Office plus partake in a private communion service. (Fr. Kayser sets off enough blessed host at Sunday Mass so I can receive communion privately everyday during the week.) After prayers and communion I have enough time for 30 minutes of CNN before I need to return to my dorm room for the 8 a.m. count. The 8 a.m. count takes anywhere between a half-hour to an hour to complete. After the count is cleared, I head for the Dorm Office to get a recreation pass and proceed to the Nash Gym. I go through an hour and 15 minute walking and dumb bell routine. If I keep it up ’til I hit the streets in April, I’ll be ‘buffed’ as they say here and in good shape. After my workout, I return to my dorm, shower and dress for work. I stay in the dorm until we are cleared to go to lunch. We eat lunch from the dorm anytime between 11:30 a.m. and noon. After lunch I return to my dorm room for the 12:30 p.m. count. Once the count is cleared, I head for my work at the Chaplain’s Office. This is when I sweep, mop, and buff the hallway floors. On most days it takes me almost an hour to complete this task. If there is nothing special that Chaplain Bailey wants me to do, I usually spend the rest of the after-noon in the library reading or typing letters. Our workday ends at 3:45 p.m. At this time, the whole camp heads back to their dorms for the 4 p.m. stand-up count. This is the most important count of the day because it is sent to the headquarters of the BOP in Washington, D.C. Before the day is done, someone in Washington, D.C. must get all the 4 p.m. counts from every prison in the federal system. The people in charge take this count very seriously. Everyone must be standing by their bunks and silent while this count is being taken. Any refusal to stand, any noise during the count , can result in an immediate disciplinary action: being sent to the hole or even a transfer to a higher security facility. After supper we are pretty much free to do as we please. I can go to the gym, the library or the chapel if I sign out at the Dorm Office. All inmates must be back in their dorms by 9:30 p.m. and in their dorm rooms for the 10 p.m. count. Then people are supposed to be quiet in the dorms. Socializing is to take place in the basement. My roommates and I usually use this time to read. I pray my night Office and do some late night reading. I’m usually asleep before the midnight count. There are two more counts during the night, one at 3 a.m. and the other at 5 a.m. That is a typical day for me here at Club Fed, Yankton. Every Tuesday night I attend the Gavel Club. My Wednesday nights are split between the Legion of Mary and the Indian Sweats. Friday nights I attend the Introduction to Catholicism class that Fr. Kayser is giving. Just last week I started leading the 7 a.m. communion service in the Chapel every Friday. Ten guys showed up for the service. I’m hoping in time that more will join us. I also get to concelebrate mass on Sunday mornings with Fr. Kayser, only I can’t vest up and I must share in the words of the Eucharistic Prayer from a front row of seats. The whole area of an inmate priest celebrating mass is a touchy issue with the BOP. We are hoping this situation improves in time. Fr. Len Kayser is the contract Catholic priest for the camp. He once served as director of the Nat’l Catholic Rural Life Conf. in Des Moines and was a friend of the Catholic Worker.
Christmas at Yankton
I have good reason to be looking forward to our Christmas celebrations here at Yankton. We will be celebrating a Christmas Eve Mass with 20 nuns from Mt. Marty College, located across town. They are coming to form a special Christmas Choir for the mass. This is some-thing they have been doing every Christmas Eve since the camp came to Yankton.
As a special treat for me, Fr. Kayser is going to let me vest up and concelebrate the mass along side him behind the altar. (Something I have not been able to do up until now.) There will also be an ecumenical Christmas Eve candle light service at 11 p.m. for the rest of the camp. Rev. Bailey will be the main celebrant and he has asked me to do one of the scripture readings, a sign of the ecu-menical spirit of the service. So my Christmas Eve here at Yankton should be joyous and memorable. Still, down deep I’d rather be back in Council Bluffs at St. Patrick’s celebrating Christmas Eve mass in our newly remodeled sanctuary. I’d like to be free to travel to Des Moines on Dec. 26th to celebrate the Cordaro family Christmas at my brother Rick’s home, and to be surrounded by immediate family gathered around a nicely decorated Christmas tree lavished with lots of beautifully wrapped Christmas gifts ready to be opened. And, of course, I would have my fill of favorite Italian dishes. Instead I will be here, in an impersonal institutional setting, celebrating the Lord’s birthday with a bunch of strange men who would prefer not to be here.
The men here are also far away from their families and loved ones being held here against their will. I know my disappointment of not being home this Christmas doesn’t even come close to measuring up to their disappointment and grief. For most of these guys, this will not be the first Christmas they have celebrated in captivity, nor will it be their last. Most of the men in this camp now know that I am a Catholic priest. They also know why I am up here. For many, my mere presence as one of them is a shot in the arm, a spiritual boost. It is as if my being here, as a convicted lawbreaker like themselves helps to ease the pain and stigma of being here. It also confirms what they already have learned from personal experience: that our government’s criminal justice system is not just. They now know that locking up larger and larger numbers of people like themselves for longer and longer sentences is crazy. It hurts the whole society, it ruins families and it wastes human material resources for no apparent social good. They know that I support them in these convic-tions. They see in me somebody from the Church who really care and understands their situation, someone who is willing to stand with them and take their side. I have plenty of opportunities for one-on-one priestly ministry. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a personal story, console a troubled spirit or am asked to pray for a family problem. Some of my best priestly ministry is done in these settings. In some ways this may be one of my best Christmases. Away from the hustle and bustle of Christmas shop-ping, programs, special events and parties, that usually mark Christmas on the outside, here at Club Fed Yankton there is just enough poverty of setting, longing for liberation and searching of troubled spirits to make room for the birth of the Lord. And why not? It was in just such a setting that the first Christ child found space to be born some 1994 years ago.