Life’s lessons without a life sentence

“In the last 30 years, the United States justice system has been gutted, and real justice has been muted.” Peace activist Frank Cordaro said the above in an interview about a week after he was released from jail, where he spent the better part of this October. Cordaro would know, too. Since first getting arrested in 1977 for spilling blood on the walls of the Pentagon, the ex-priest and Catholic worker has spent nearly five years of his life in prison for civil disobedience. These encounters have given Cordaro a unique perspective on the prison system in the United States. “In my experience, the conditions have steadily worsened,” Cordaro said. “Now there is extreme overcrowding, a lack of programs, poor food, and people are getting longer sentences.” To illuminate the changes that the American justice system has gone through in the last few decades, Cordaro cites drug enforcement policy. “In the 1970’s, you needed to get caught with the drugs and the money. In the 1980’s, you needed to get caught with either or. In the 1990’s and today, you just need to have somebody say that you have one or the other,” Cordaro said. Other problems infest the policies, too. Many say that the way they are designed targets lower class citizens and minorities. For example, someone with 5 grams of crack cocaine will get a minimum 5-year sentence, while it takes 500 grams for that same sentence with powder cocaine. In most cases, the main difference between crack and powder cocaine is the race of the people who use it. Part of the problem may also be differences in the way prosecution is carried out. “Prosecutors have all the power now,” Cordaro said. “They get paid more for the more people they put away, so it’s no longer a matter of punishing people who have done something wrong. They invent bad guys, such as drug dealers, and create crimes just so they can lock more people up. The latitude for what is accepted as evidence has greatly expanded, and there is more incentive for ratting out other dealers.” The result is trauma for the population that goes to prison. In his 2006 prison journals, Cordaro wrote, “The hardest hit population is the African-American inmates. They are not only a long way from family and friends, but are doing more time than they need to be doing. They also have to deal with the subtle and not so subtle racism that is endemic in the culture here. It is not uncommon for me to hear racial slurs and racial comments among the white inmate population.” He has heard the cries of inmates being beaten and raped, although Cordaro says he has never personally feared for his safety. Indeed, those who go to jail voluntarily are usually respected in prison, and he is often too overcome with pity to be afraid. In the 2006 journals, Cordaro wrote, “As I look around my Mod, I see so many young men who are living their lives in absolute chaos. I’m the oldest person in the Mod. Most are half my age. Their life habits are abysmal. Self esteem and personal disciplines are very low. Self hate is a standard spiritual state of being.” Aside from the satisfaction of knowing he is locked up for the cause of justice, Cordaro says that bonding with such people is the most satisfying part of going to jail. As a former priest, he often hears the passionate confessions of his cellmates. The experience can be overwhelming, but is spiritually gratifying—much like spending time in jail as a whole. “I try to let sympathy guide me,” Cordaro said. “I like to see Christ in the least of people, and this is one of the ways I do it. If you want to understand a society, you must understand its poor, and if you want to understand the poor, go to jail.”