Letter from the Editor

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Stop arresting him, start employing him

"Freeing the captives is also a New Testament directive, a sign of the reign of God. It is also a much harder thing to do than visiting the imprisoned. Mostly because the vast majority of the men I meet in jail are captive and imprisoned souls whether they are locked up in jail or free on the streets."

- Frank Cordaro

I first met Father Frank Cordaro back when he still was one (an Iowa Catholic priest, that is, albeit of a renegade variety). He was an gregarious and energetic Ernest Hemingway-looking fellow, in town to protest some speaker at Buena Vista University. If I remember right, that day he transitioned from fiercely waving a protest sign on the lawn of the college to mildly guest lecturing on social justice in one of its classrooms. He is, to put it mildly, a piece of work.

A good portion of Cordaro's life has been spent in a parade of jail and prison cells all across mid-America, six months at a time, eight separate times, trespass sentences imposed for his perpetual involvement in peaceful anti-nuclear weapons and anti-war protests at U.S. military installations. Agree with him or disagree, it is who he is.

Now aged and gray, and depending on heart medication to keep him alive, he has just been released after serving his latest time for the usual crime.

Tonight, I stumbled across Cordaro's jailhouse journals on-line (they can be found on the Des Moines Register's web site, among other places.)

It is a moving, enlightening read, better than any novel I've seen in a long while. In typical straight-ahead fashion, Cordaro introduces readers to prison conditions that may shock them, to the men he meets in lock-down, and to some of his ideas about the justice system as seen from the inside.

I understand that my old acquaintance is fully dedicated to his cause of peaceful protest, but I think he has missed a (second) calling.

Beleaguering Offutt Air Force Base all these years has, it seems, achieved little, aside from sparse publicity and a premature end to his religious career. It seems to have changed nothing, saved no lives, and Cordaro himself admits that he has little to show for his colorful, rebellious choice of life's work.

On the other hand, over 2 million Americans are sitting in jail cells right now - a significant percentage of the population, and there are lives there that could be touched and saved today.

Cordaro is one of few men living that I suspect might be man enough to make a difference there.

He has the persona, the speaking and literary talent, the knowledge, the compassion - and most importantly, he has lived it - in more jails, prisons and work camps that he perhaps can count. This convict knows what he is speaking about.

Nuclear weapons are a huge threat, but perhaps an even more immediate one is the state of our nation in terms of crime and incarceration. It is nothing short of epidemic.

We know that well in Storm Lake. We are spending millions to build a new jail because the one that served in the past just can't hold or hide our problem any more.

There would be worse ideas that a Buena Vista County Supervisor could have than to ask Fr. Cordaro (he will always he that in my mind) for some thoughts on how to set up a jail that not only confines men and women, but best offers them hope to rebuild a broken life.

From Jackson County Jail, Cordaro wrote, "The small window in our cell is boarded up so no sunlight is allowed in the cell nor is there any sunlight in our dayroom which is half the size of the one I left at Pottawattamie County. The walls are painted purple and the light bulb in our cell is burned out. All we have for light is the dim night light..."

He wrote of a jail where half of the eight cell doors did not work, and of his own cell door, bent so badly that it could not even be closed, in a unit with no guard. Of a prison with no access to a chaplain. Of vicious imported gang activity running a cellblock. Of the terrible impact of meth. Of a 25-year-old cellmate facing the loss of his wife and children, business and education for a bad decision on drugs. This needs to be read, everywhere. Though it is not so intended, it may change young people's direction more effectively than Scared Straight.

The justice system needs to stop arresting Cordaro and start employing him. The system clearly is not working as it is - here is someone who can go in and reach men, and perhaps help us learn what we might do to be both tough on crime and humane, to rehabilitate those for whom the cycle might still be broken.

Inside, they called him "Pops," the rest of the inmates 20 years and more his junior. One asks Cordaro if it all was worth it - his life of protests and hard time. He responded with a story:

" There once was a prophet who came to the city gates of the great city of Ninevah once a week with a powerful message to the people to repent, for their city's many sins. He used to attract large crowds, and his message was fearfully received and spread throughout the populace. Each week he would return to the city gates with the same powerful and truthful message. As the weeks turned into months, fewer and fewer people gathered to hear his message. And as the months turned into years, fewer people still even noticed his comings and goings. Eventually, no one paid any attention to him, except for the children who made fun of him. One day, a young boy approached the old prophet and said, 'Old man, why do you keep coming back to our city with your same tired old message? Can't you see no one is listening to you any more?' The old prophet looked at the young boy and said, 'I used to come in hopes of changing the city. I now come in hopes that the city doesn't change me.'"

Caging Cordaro will never change Cordaro. And maybe we shouldn't try to. Maybe we should turn to him for help instead.