Updated: Mar 19
Recently I went to visit Andre Cooper at FCI Cumberland. Andre contacted me last May from an OpEd published in the Washington Examiner. My OpEd dealt with white-collar offenses, and Andre is a Juvenile lifer.
Andre and I have been communicating through email since May. His story compelled me to try and help him; It was a calling I could not deny or shake. Andre was charged with 'Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering' federal charge - 18 USC 1959(a)(1). A charge with which I am unfamiliar.
The grounds of FCI Cumberland are quite pleasant. The facility is surrounded by Wills Mountain and Haystack mountain in Western Maryland. An abundance of mature trees give this place almost a serene setting, and I quickly noticed how eerily quiet it was there. I sat in my car for a moment to look up Andre's BOP number, so I would have it to write on the required visitation form. I felt a deep ache in my chest, and sadness as his release date stated LIFE. I thought to myself if I have this type of reaction, not even having met this man yet how he must have felt hearing the judge hand him a life sentence and what heartache and despair his mother felt.
FCI Cumberland has a medium facility along with a camp. I have been visiting my husband for three and a half years at a Federal camp in Denver. I quickly learned that the procedure for a medium facility is much more intimidating. The first thing the correctional officers said to me as I pulled open the glass door with zest and entered the lobby, " You must be looking for the camp." I was taken aback by why they would make that assumption. I said, "No, I am where I need to be." I walked to the table that held the required visitation forms. It felt somewhat odd as It has become so routine to fill out these forms with my husband's information, and today I was filling it out with another person's information. I thought I had come very preparedly for visiting as I had learned the rules from visiting my husband. The dollar bills I had in my clear baggie that are acceptable when visiting my husband are not allowed here. I had to change the dollars into coins at the change machine before going further. The debit card I had with me just in case the vending machines take credit cards was a no go; The officer was polite in telling me he would keep it for me after he made a joke if there was enough money on the card to do some online shopping. They asked for my car key and then handed me a silver token. I wondered aloud what it was for they told me when I bring it back after visiting, they would give me back my key.
I then put my coat, shoes, and clear baggie, which now contains dollar coins on the x-ray machine. I walked through the metal detector without incident. I came prepared as I had often heard from other ladies to wear a sports bra because an underwire bra will set off the alarm, and you won't be allowed to enter visiting. I put back on my shoes and coat, which the officers allowed me to take with me and then stamped my hand with invisible ink. One of the officers asked me to come behind the desk. He swabbed my hands with gauze and said he was testing for drugs, and he let me know this was routine. My mind raced for a minute as I had heard of people testing positive because they had just pumped gas in their car. I thought for a moment had I filled up with gas, and I realized I had not. The machine beeped I had passed the test.
One of the officers was now my escort to visiting. We went through one set of doors which lead to a hallway, and the left wall was blacked out glass. I was told to put my hand that was now home to invisible ink under a scanner, and once I heard a knock on the window, I could proceed. I looked at the officer in a confused manner and asked if someone was behind the glass. The answer was yes. I heard a loud two knocks and the officer, and I continued our walk. At the end of the hallway, he unlocked the door that leads to the outside. We walked across the courtyard, and again I take notice of how quiet it is not a good quiet but an unsettling stillness.
I was lead into visiting by the officer opening yet another locked door. The officer behind the visiting desk asked who I was there to see. The officer then instructed me on which set of plastic tables and chairs I would sit. I promptly took my seat and then told I need to sit on the chair on the other side of the table. I was perplexed for a moment until I observed that there are specific sides for the residents and visitors to sit.
Sitting waiting for Andre, I observed everyone visiting. The couple next to me enjoying their vending machine lunch while capturing life and intimacy in laughter. An older white man was visiting a black man. They had shaken hands not like they were life long friends but more like new friends. A woman with three restless children was visiting her; I assumed husband. It was a calm visiting room I took note of how respectful everyone was and again the quiet even though half of the room is filled with people.
I recognized Andre from his photo on his change.org petition. A black man standing about 5'10" bald head, beard, and institution glasses. I stood we said hello, and he extended his hand for a handshake I instead opted to greet him with a hug. We exchanged pleasantries. He said he wasn't sure that I would visit today. I smiled and said that it was my mission to come and visit him today and how happy I was to be there. I thought to myself that it must be a coping skill not to have expectations to avoid disappointment.
Although Andre wrote to me his story, I wanted to be able to grasp his words and feel his emotions by him telling me his story sitting across from me. He began by telling me his mother was fifteen-years-old when she gave birth to Andre. He was born in Wilmington, Delaware, but his mother took him and moved to Chester, Pennsylvania, when he was one-year-old. His father stayed in Wilmington.
Andre explains to me that Chester was and still is a dangerous place to live. With no parental supervision, he started running the streets at twelve years old and smoking weed at thirteen. Andre was abducted thrown into a trunk of a car and pistol-whipped at the age of fourteen. He thought his life was over that day. His uncle taught him to sell drugs, and without Andre having any mentor looking out for him and growing up in an impoverished, violent, and drug-infested neighborhood, he was in constant survival mode. His mentors and idols became the drug dealers who were driving the new Mercedes, dressed in designer clothing and dripping of expensive watches and jewelry. Dealing drugs was the business that Andre knew and for which he was being groomed. To Andre, those men driving the Mercedes in his impoverished neighborhood were what he perceived as being a success.
Andre started his story with what he was charged with racketeering. I did not know what racketeering is I had heard the term I thought it had something to do with illegal gambling. I asked Andre what it meant in layman's terms. He said it is what they would charge the mafia within organized crime. The following is the definition. Racketeering is a criminal activity in which a person or organization engages in a “racket.” A racket is when the criminal creates a problem for others for the purpose of solving that problem by some type of extortion. The person or organization who engages in the racket is called a racketeer. Andre was 16 years old at the start of this alleged racketeering and cocaine(drug) trafficking enterprise. Federal prosecutors alleged that Andre and his codefendants formed an association or drug enterprise called "The Boyle Street Boys." These kids were all seventeen and younger and lived in the same neighborhood hence the name that the prosecutors gave to their alleged organization.
I had stopped Andre for a moment to offer him something to eat and drink from the vending machines. He was a bit shy in accepting my offer. I insisted as I know all too well what lack of quality food is fed to the men and women who are incarcerated. It is a luxury to have an opportunity to eat real food if even that food comes from a vending machine. At least it is not marked "Not for human consumption."
As I come back to sit down with an assortment of snacks, we pick up where we left off with our conversation. I had to lean in close to hear Andre again the quiet. Everyone in the room spoke in a low voice. There were three homicides included in Andre and his codefendant's indictment. Andre's convictions include the aiding and abetting of two of the killings and the hand that pulled the trigger on the third victim. The third victim that Andre is charged in killing is a man that murdered Andre's cousin. I asked Andre if he had done it if he had pulled the trigger. He was not defensive of me asking the question. What I felt from him and what I saw was a moment of reliving a life that has long passed him a life that he could no longer imagine. What I saw was remorse and thoughts of what could have been had he the opportunity.
Andre wanted to know about me. I shared with him some of my life stories. He was surprised I did not attend college. He said, "You could never tell." I spoke about my husband Chris and his journey and what a romantic and good man he is. I talked about how I had run away at the age of seventeen. I enjoyed seeing him genuinely laugh. He looked at me as I was half crazy, telling him I try to get my husband to use humanizing words where he is located. I gave hem the examples of resident vs. inmate, returning citizen vs. offender. He laughed and said, "no, Cassie, we don't use that language in here."
It was as though our conversation had just begun when I heard the CO yell INMATES against the wall, and visitors stay seated. I was startled and said, what happened? Andre said everything is okay visiting is just over. I was irked that visiting had to end in such a harsh manner; I found it unnecessary. We parted our visit the same way we had begun with a hug.
Visitors remained seated until the section we were sitting was called to leave. We were escorted out by a correctional officer. Half-way across the courtyard was a sign that said visitors stop hear until motioned to continue. As I stood looking at that sign along with four other ladies, the cold wind whipping causing a frigid coldness, all I could think is I would suck at being an incarcerated person. Conforming at such a high level is unnatural.
There were many moments during our visit where I teared up and had to hold back from crying. Andre grew up in Federal Prison he is now a man who sits before me with gray in his beard, and he entered the system as a very young man. During our visit, he looked at me, and he spoke with such conviction and passion. Telling me Cassie, I am not that person I was as a boy I am reformed, I reformed myself. The prison system is not going to reform anyone; you have to choose to become a better person and to grow, and I made that choice.
In the letter that Andre sent me eight months ago, the very first sentence reads. I am not proud of some of the things that I've done, took part in, or which I am accused of. I'm truly remorseful and sorry for the pain that I've caused a lot of people in the community. Andre was transparent in his letter to me, leaving out no details in his honesty. He ended the letter saying Cassie; I had been changing my life well-before the juvenile or young adult issues were coming to light. Everything that I stated in this email, I can provide proof of it to you. I hope this helps and don't view me in a different light because of the facts of my case. But, I had to be upfront with you about the facts of my life and situation.
I see Andre as a man that as a boy had made some awful decisions. Andre was just a boy at the time, and his environment dictated a lot of his behavior. I have not walked in Andre's shoes. I do not know what it is like to have to survive in a neighborhood full of violence, drugs, and poverty. What I do know is that this man, along with many other juvenile lifers, deserves a second chance. They deserve an opportunity at life. What gifts we are missing out on that these people could bring into our world if we just recognized them now as grown men and women, not the children they once were.