1994 Nov 20 – 2nd Letter from Yankton (Prison Writings)

1994 Nov 20 – 2nd Letter from Yankton (Prison Writings)

November 19/20, 1994 Feast of Christ the King

Dear Friends,

Yankton and Yankton College – background

Greetings from the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, S. D. Yankton is an Indian word that means End Village. Back when this area was still part of the Dakota territories. Yankton was the last settlement riverboats coming up the Missouri River could reach heading north into the territories. Today Yankton is a thriving community of 13,000 people, the 7th largest city in the state.  Hardly the end of the line in the world of Federal Prison Camps (FPC), the FPC here in Yankton is considered one of the premier camps in the entire Federal Bureau of Prison System (BOP), fully living up to its Club Fed. reputation. Situated right in the middle of a residential area in the north side of Yankton, it 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.

Just outside the Forbes building on a plaque erected in 1962, one learns that Yankton College was “the oldest Institution of Higher Learning in all of the Dakotas.” Rev. Joseph Ward, a missionary and Congregational minister, founded it. He first started a High School on the site in 1868. Then with the backing of the Association of Congregational Churches of the Dakotas he started Yankton College in 1881. At the college’s first commencement in 1887, its founder, Rev. Ward prophesized 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 1,000 year prediction by 897 years. It went into bankruptcy and closed its doors in 1984. In 1988 the Federal Government convinced the community to sell the campus to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as a site for a Federal Prison Camp.

Yankton FPC Background

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 they ever were. The camp has a year round horticulture program which maintains a variety of exotic and beautiful flowers, plants and trees, both for inside and outside use. The place looks like it’s right out of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. It is hard to believe this is a prison camp by the looks of the surroundings.  When I was here last they were renovating the Ward Building; the last of the historical registered sites. It is now complete and the camp has officially moved from the initial renovation stage to the program stage. Most Federal Prison Camps are work camps. The majority of inmates are assigned to work in a prison industry. At the FPC in Leavenworth they made mattresses and at the FPC in Marion they made electrical conduit. Here at Yankton there is 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. There is a long waiting list to enter future 6-month sessions. All of the drug rehab inmates are housed in the Lloyd Building just over the Visiting Center.

The rest of the 480 inmates live in two other residential halls: Kingsbury and Durand. Each residential hall has its own laundry room, pool tables and recreation room, TV rooms and phone room. There is also on campus Nash Gym that is equipped with two weight rooms, a full basketball court, two handball courts, a crafts room, and a sports TV room. There is a greenhouse just east of the gym and a softball and soccer field south of the gym. In the middle of the campus is a quarter-mile walking track with three tennis courts and two bocci ball courts inside the walking track.  The largest building on campus is the Forbes Building. It houses many departments, among them the Chaplain’s office and worship space, the Educational Departments, and the Camp Law and Reading Library. The Camp’s clothing and laundry facilities and the inmates store are also located in Forbes. The Camp has its own Medical Center housed in the Lay Building, the former college library. The camp cafeteria is housed in the Warren Building.

It needs to be said that the FPC here in Yankton is the exception to the rule. It 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 backgrounds. 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 block. 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 administration spread out over 30 acres in 14 different buildings. What a difference a spacious and human environment makes with the overall spirit of a place. Yet, despite the plush surroundings here in Yankton, it’s still cheaper to maintain an inmate here at Yankton FPC than it is in the Douglas County Jail. It’s all part of the crazy prison subculture in which I find myself. More on all of this in future letters.

Room and Job Assignment Nailed Down – Keepin’ Busy

I’ve been moved out of the basement in Durand Hall and into Room 207 on the 2nd floor. These rooms were originally made for two college students. Now they house four inmates. I’m enjoying my new roommates; one is an international financier, the second is a former Postmaster, and the third was a biker. It makes for an interesting mix. I’ve also nailed down a job assignment. I am the basement – east end- orderly for Durand Hall. It is a cleaning and mopping job that is working out well. On most days I am done at 1 p.m. and free to go to the library or work out at the gym.  I’m keeping busy with attending the weekly Legion of Mary gatherings, going to the Indian Sweats, joining Fr. Kayser on Friday nights with the Catholic Introduction Class, and attending the Tuesday night Gavel Club. Next week I am going to tell my  “Ash Spilling at the White House” story to the Gavel Club. It should be fun. Fr. Kayser and I are trying to work out an arrangement where we can have communion on hand here so during the week I can lead a weekly Communion Service starting in Advent.  And there are always the unscheduled opportunities for ministry. Last week I spent the better part of a night talking to an inmate whose fiancée was shot and killed at a. convenience store.  Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Holidays are particularly difficult for people in captivity. The prison camp may be one of the elite prison settings in the country, but the pain of separation is just as real as any other prison. A Gilded Cage is still a cage.

Fr. Frank Cordaro





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