Tales from the Big House

Another thing separated the Italians from everyone else: their clothes. "They were the most elegant prisoners," de Cardenas describes. "Their uniforms were always pressed. I don't know how they did it." They also received more food through the prison commissary than others: "They lived like kings there."

The highest-ranking mobster was Gus Alex. "He had a heart attack and died," de Cardenas recalls. "That was too bad. He seemed like a nice old man." According to a July obituary in the Chicago Tribune, the 82-year-old Alex had been a leading crime figure in Chicago for nearly 50 years, and was known as the mob's "chief political-fixer" because of his close ties to elected officials and judges. In 1991 he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for heading what federal prosecutors described as a "vicious" extortion ring.

De Cardenas talked to his wife Maria nearly every day while he was away. When he was first indicted, she remembers, she was furious that he could have done something so stupid. "I was angry," she expresses. "I always supported him, but I was really angry at him." Compounding the problem was the fact that in those early days, prosecutors were threatening to indict Maria as well if de Cardenas did not strike a deal with them.

Maria de Cardenas says she remained angry with her husband until the day he left for prison. Then she suddenly felt very alone. She missed him, and began to worry about how he would survive. "When Jorge first left to go to prison, I was in a mourning period," Maria says. "I kept to myself. I didn't want to see anybody."

When they first talked on the phone, she says, she could tell he was depressed, but within a few weeks she began to hear a change in his voice. By the time she made her first visit to Kentucky, a month after her husband's incarceration, she was feeling hopeful: He had begun losing weight, and the prison did not seem as frightening as she had imagined.

For a period of time, de Cardenas's isolation was relieved by the presence of another convict from Miami: David Goodhart, the former judge sentenced to eight years on bribery charges stemming from the judicial scandal known as Operation Court Broom. "He was there for two or three months while I was there and I talked to him every day because we had a lot of mutual friends," de Cardenas recalls. "I tried to cheer him up but he was really depressed. He was in awful shape. He was smoking two or three packs of cigarettes a day."

De Cardenas, however, concentrated on his own situation. He took the advice of other prisoners and indulged in a fantasy to maintain his spirits: Imagine in detail what you'll do on the day you're released. For de Cardenas that day would be December 12, 1998. He made mental notes of the restaurants he'd visit, the people he would see. But then in September he was notified by prison officials that the INS had placed a "hold" on him. Instead of being set free on December 12, he would be placed in INS custody. Under a newly strengthened federal law, any noncitizen convicted of an aggravated felony who receives a year or more in prison would be deported upon completion of his criminal sentence.

De Cardenas never became a U.S. citizen. Describing himself as a "die-hard" Cuban, he didn't want to change his citizenship. Because the United States and Cuba do not have a deportation agreement, Cuban citizens legally living here can be held in INS custody indefinitely.

Indefinitely. "That word, it suffocates you mentally," de Cardenas says.
On December 12, the day he was supposed to have been released from prison, he was handcuffed and shackled and herded onto a plane for an INS center in Oklahoma. A week later he was on his way to another detention facility in Louisiana. This, however, would be no country-club prison.

De Cardenas was sent to a rural county jail in St. Martinville, a town of about 4000 people 100 miles west of New Orleans. The jail has a contract with the INS to house detainees. For each inmate the jail takes in, it receives $387 per week.

"I got there at one o'clock in the afternoon and they put me in 'the hole' until they could process me," he relates. "And the hole is a hole -- concrete floor, no seats. It was about six feet wide by nine feet long, and in the middle of the floor was a hole in the concrete for people to go to the bathroom. Just a hole, not a toilet, but a hole in the floor where you are supposed to go in front of whoever else is in there."

After several hours his jailers began formally booking him into the jail. They asked his name, address, and date of birth. "Then they asked me where I was born," he remembers. "And I said Havana, Cuba. And the guy who asked me, he was a lieutenant, started laughing. I said, 'What are you laughing about?' And he said, 'You are from Cuba?' And I said yes, and he said, 'You're going to be here for a long time, buddy.' I asked why. 'Because we don't forget that you people burned our jails in 1983. You burned Talladega. You burned Oakdale. You burned Atlanta. And some of our partners died.' And I said, 'Wait a minute. I have nothing to do with the Mariel people. I came here in 1958 and I had nothing to do with that.' And he said, 'You're still a fucking Cuban, buddy.' And I thought to myself, Oh my God, where am I? I got scared. For the first time in my life I felt fear. Not even when I was going to court was I afraid. But now I thought, What was this shit? Where am I?"

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