Tales from the Big House

A week after his release from the Krome detention center, Jorge de Cardenas is sitting at home recalling the events of the past two years -- his indictment and conviction on corruption charges, the year he spent at a federal prison in Kentucky, and his three months in the Kafkaesque world of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). De Cardenas, once one of the most politically influential men in Miami, has no one to blame but himself for the mess he has made of his life. He knows that. He neither wants nor deserves sympathy.

He just has a few things he'd like to say. Prison can do that. With so much time and nothing to do, it's no wonder some men become more introspective. In the big house, ruminating on life's lessons comes naturally. Besides, what's the point of going to prison if you don't leave with a few good stories to tell?

De Cardenas was caught in Operation Greenpalm, a kickbacks-for-contracts scandal that also ensnared his lifelong friend, then-Miami City Manager Cesar Odio. After being apprehended, de Cardenas refused to cooperate with federal agents. He pleaded guilty in August 1997 to one count of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to a year of confinement.

In early December 1997, de Cardenas left Miami with his two sons and drove nearly 1000 miles to Lexington, Kentucky, and prison. When he arrived, he hugged his boys goodbye and passed through a gate topped with barbed wire. He was strip-searched, sprayed with disinfectant, and given a khaki-color uniform.

Physically he was in terrible shape. Between his indictment and his sentencing, he gained 100 pounds; he tipped the scales at 415 on his first day in prison. His blood pressure was soaring and his blood sugar was completely out of whack.

De Cardenas remembers feeling alone and depressed on that first day. He shared a cell -- really more a room as there were no iron bars -- with two other prisoners. Adjoining their room was a bathroom with two toilets and two showers, which they shared with three other prisoners.

His first roommates were a 44-year-old crack dealer from Alabama and an Israeli who worked for the Mossad (Israel's intelligence service), who "got into some sort of trouble in the United States spying," de Cardenas recounts. "The guy spoke seven languages perfectly. He spoke Spanish with me like a Spaniard."

But it was the crack dealer who was of most assistance to de Cardenas. "He helped me a lot in the beginning, because he could see how scared I was," de Cardenas says. "He kept telling me, 'Don't worry, Jorge, you'll see in a few days how nice people are here.'" He instructed the newcomer on the ins and outs of prison life: "He told me never ask someone why they are in prison unless they bring it up first. He told me to mind my own business, to shower every day, and never steal or take anything that doesn't belong to you. He told me that if you get caught stealing, there was a different kind of justice at work in here." De Cardenas laughs in retelling the cautions.

Nearly everyone at the Kentucky facility was there for nonviolent, white-collar offenses and because they had some sort of medical problem. This was the same prison where hotel queen Leona Helmsley did her time for tax evasion. In the Fifties actor Robert Mitchum did a stint there after being busted for marijuana possession.

De Cardenas's daily routine was relatively relaxed. Basketball and tennis courts were available for recreation, as was a well-stocked library. And the food was decent. Everyone had work assignments, though they were more like chores than real jobs. De Cardenas was responsible for cleaning up the trash in his building and taking it to the incinerator at the far end of the prison.

Most of the prisoners who operated the incinerator were Cubans like de Cardenas, and each day in the morning and again in the afternoon, they would gather there to sip Cuban coffee they'd made. De Cardenas began referring to that part of the prison as Versailles, after the Miami restaurant. The other Cubans liked the idea so much they hung a sign with the name of the restaurant on it.

Another group of prisoners who fascinated de Cardenas were the Mafiosi. "Super-nice guys," he reports. "There were people there whose names I could read about in some of the books in the library." De Cardenas developed a rapport with several of the men. He would play gin rummy with them, and they taught him how to play bocce ball. "One of my roommates, Richie, was very close to Frank Sinatra," de Cardenas says. "He had a picture and a letter from Sinatra with him in prison."

The Italians weren't like the other prisoners. "They divided themselves according to their rank," he explains. "It was unbelievable to see." Each Sunday, for instance, the lower-level mobsters would come to church early and sit in the first two rows. "They would wait there until the bigger bosses arrived, and then they would give them their seats," he remembers.

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