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.
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?"
Jail officials had only one uniform that could fit de Cardenas's large frame, so he had to wear it every day. But it took more than three weeks for them to find underwear in his size. "The biggest industry in that town was a Fruit of the Loom factory, and yet they couldn't provide me with underwear," he says with a chuckle. "I can laugh about it now."
The food, however, was something he'll never look back on with humor. "The first day I was there," he says, "they served turkey neck. Turkey neck! I had never heard of that as a meal before. And everything they cooked was very spicy."
His section of the jail housed 23 other inmates, 20 of whom were Cubans placed there by the INS, many of them former mental patients or violent criminals. Some of the men had been detained for years, confined in extremely cramped quarters.
Within days of arriving in Louisiana, de Cardenas's health began to deteriorate. His blood pressure skyrocketed to such a dangerous level that on December 27 jailers took him to a hospital in Lafayette. He arrived shackled in his orange jumpsuit and looking scraggly, having not shaved or cut his hair in more than a year. His white beard stretched to his chest.
As he sat in the waiting area, armed guards by his side, he noticed that several children were staring at him. "One of the kids started crying, 'Mommy, Santa Claus is in jail,' and all the other kids started crying and screaming," he says. "They had to take me out of there. It was a horrible feeling."
One of de Cardenas's lawyers, Roger Bernstein, visited him at the Louisiana jail and was appalled by the conditions. "I had never seen anything like that place," he says. "It was demoralizing. I left there a changed man." Bernstein, along with fellow attorneys Linda Osberg-Braun and Keil Hackley, immediately began working to have de Cardenas transferred to the INS-run medical clinic at the Krome detention center.
Bernstein, Osberg-Braun, and Hackley knew the workings of the federal bureaucracy as well as anyone. Before launching their own Miami law firm this past November, all had worked for years as senior attorneys within the INS. Osberg-Braun, for instance, was deputy district counsel for the Miami regional branch of the INS, the second-highest-ranking attorney in the office. Eventually the attorneys persuaded INS to transfer de Cardenas to Krome.
On his final day in Louisiana, de Cardenas was once again placed in "the hole." Soon the jailers brought in one of the mental patients. The man, a Cuban, began yelling at de Cardenas. At times he would get to within a few inches of de Cardenas's face and scream obscenities. The barrage kept up all day and night, according to de Cardenas. "He didn't stop talking for 30 hours," he says. "I got really scared. I couldn't sleep because I didn't know what he might do. He didn't sleep; he just kept talking. I think they put him in there with me on purpose because I had caused them so many problems with my lawyers. I think they wanted to make my last night in Louisiana special so I wouldn't forget my stay there."
If that was their goal, they succeeded. "I spent a year in Kentucky and I don't think about Kentucky," he says. "I spent a month in Krome and I don't think about Krome. But every time I close my eyes to sleep, I think about Louisiana. I have nightmares about Louisiana. Years ago I used to go to New Orleans for vacation. No more. I hope I never have to go near the State of Louisiana again."
De Cardenas's lawyers were now working to have him released. Earlier they had asked a federal judge in Miami to reduce retroactively his prison sentence by one second. By knocking off a mere second, de Cardenas would have served less than a year in prison and therefore would not have fallen under the new INS law. They also began appealing for his release on humanitarian grounds. Both efforts failed. Some of de Cardenas's friends (including Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, former Miami mayor Maurice Ferre, Radio Unica president Jose Cancela, and former radio tycoon Herb Levin) wrote letters to Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham asking them to intercede on de Cardenas's behalf.
At one point de Cardenas's family sought help from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. De Cardenas's mother and son went to her office, but the congresswoman refused to see them. "I've known Ileana for many years," de Cardenas says, shaking his head. "I've helped her on her campaigns."
The family's reception was no better when they sought a meeting with Miami's other Cuban-American congressional representative, Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "His staff gave my family some forms to fill out," he says. They still haven't heard from the congressman. "My people, my Republican friends, my fellow Cubans couldn't be bothered," he says indignantly. "I'm not angry; I'm hurt."
Ironically for de Cardenas, relative strangers ended up being his biggest supporters. U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, during a tour of Krome, spotted de Cardenas and took an interest in his case. She also solicited help from fellow Congressman Alcee Hasting. "I don't know Carrie Meek that well and I've never met Alcee Hastings in my entire life," he says. "But they called every day to immigration here and in Washington, asking for a daily report on my health and to see what they could do."
De Cardenas's attorneys made one final appeal in court. They argued before U.S. District Court Judge Shelby Highsmith that the medical care de Cardenas was receiving at Krome was inadequate. In late January de Cardenas suffered an attack of Bell's palsy, which paralyzed the right half of his face. He also continued to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and circulatory problems.
During a hearing this past March 9, Highsmith described de Cardenas's continued detention as "patently absurd," and ordered INS officials either to find a proper medical facility to house de Cardenas or he would order him released. The next day the INS allowed the 53-year-old de Cardenas to go home.
More than 100 people stopped by his rented house in Coral Gables to wish him well his first day home. "I haven't paid for a meal in the last week," de Cardenas says with a smile. "Every time I go to a restaurant, somebody from another table asks for the check." He's been offered jobs and money. De Cardenas says he is stunned by the support: "I was talking to Jose Cancela about it and he said that if I had come back on December 12 like I was supposed to, I would have been just another prisoner who came back home. But what happened with immigration people feel is not fair and have rallied to my side."
As a man who cheated the city, paid kickbacks, then refused to cooperate when caught, de Cardenas deserved to be punished. He was forced to sell his home. He lost his business of 30 years and his reputation in the community. He paid nearly $200,000 in legal fees and spent a year in prison. All of which is fair and just punishment for his crime. For those losses he merits no sympathy. But the notion that he should sit indefinitely in a Louisiana jail, or even in a hospital bed at Krome, is patently ridiculous. It simply doesn't fit the crime and it transformed him into a martyr.
To his credit de Cardenas says he doesn't feel like a martyr. In fact he admits he feels pretty dumb. "I made a mistake," he declares, referring to kickbacks he agreed to pay to the city's crooked finance director, Manohar Surana. "I was very weak. I was into making money." The sad part, he says, is that he didn't even need the business. "I was living in a plastic world," he says. "I wanted more, more, more."
De Cardenas fights the urge to blame Surana for pressuring him into the scheme. But his contempt for Surana, who has yet to serve a day in jail, is evident. "I should have told somebody what was going on, that Mano was pressuring me," he says.
Why didn't he?
"Because I don't believe in that," he replies. "It's not for me. I was just raised that way -- never to turn people in. That's why I went to jail, because I wouldn't cooperate."
In his three decades at the center of South Florida politics, de Cardenas knows plenty about that world. "I've seen a lot of things, not only at Miami City Hall but all over the county," he says cautiously. "But I don't want you to get the impression that everyone is taking money. They're not." It's more subtle, he explains, a system of doing favors for people, of looking out for friends.
De Cardenas will have to find a job (probably in marketing though not involving politics), but he says his life has changed forever. "Peace of mind," he declares, "is more valuable to me than money."
His wife welcomes the change. "I think things happen for a reason," she says. "I think he needed to lose weight. He needed to change his priorities in life. He was a workaholic and business came first, and now he is more oriented toward the family and toward me. And to be honest, I needed that."
De Cardenas says he hasn't talked to Cesar Odio since the former city manager went to prison. Though they have both been released, they are still forbidden from talking to each until their probation ends in three years. "I wish I could talk to him, he's a friend," de Cardenas offers. "I'd like to talk to him about how stupid we were, how very stupid we were."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.