• U.S.

We Are the Abandoned Ones

8 minute read
Jacob V. Lamar Jr.

The images seemed phantasmagoric. Red-orange flames licking the nighttime sky. Helicopters slicing through clouds of black smoke. Tough-looking men in T shirts and blue jeans roving through smoldering ruins with makeshift clubs, knives and spears. Phalanxes of helmeted riot police gathering outside the gates as groups of frightened women and children look on, implore, pray. At federal institutions in Georgia and Louisiana last week, more than 2,000 rebellious Cuban inmates holding a total of 120 hostages were protesting an accord that could send them back to the impoverished, Communist-ruled island they fled seven years ago. Their precise demands shifted and wavered through days of negotiations, but one thing was clear: they preferred to go down fighting on American soil rather than live again under Fidel Castro’s regime. “We are willing to die here,” said Atlanta Inmate Carlos Marrero- Gonzalez, speaking through a lattice of thick, rusting bars. “We want to make sure we are not going back to Cuba.”

& The twin uprisings at the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, La., and the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta confronted the Government with a formidable challenge. The most immediate problem was how to end the standoffs without bloodshed, a task complicated by the fact that neither set of inmates seemed to have a unified leadership. Beyond that lay the more intangible questions of why these men had reached the breaking point of rage and frustration — and of what could be done with them once the sieges were lifted.

The Oakdale and Atlanta inmates were among the 125,000 Cubans who first arrived on U.S. shores in the 1980 Mariel boat lift that Castro sanctioned in part, evidently, to get rid of some homegrown troublemakers. The U.S. had agreed to accept most of the refugees, the vast majority of whom settled in southern Florida. But the Marielitos also included 1,850 convicted criminals and mental cases, who were immediately detained by federal authorities. All but 300 of them were eventually released. An additional 7,300 were subsequently arrested for committing crimes after their arrival in the U.S. Half of them, including some whose offenses were as petty as refusing to pay a $7 taxi fare, have since served out their sentences, but remain in prison indefinitely while awaiting deportation back to Cuba.

Federal courts have ruled that since the Marielitos were met by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents at Florida ports, they never legally “entered” the U.S. Classified as “excludable” aliens, they have no constitutional rights. No wonder shouts of “Somos los abandonados” (We are the abandoned ones) have long echoed down their prison corridors. “I saw a progression of despair,” says Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who served nine months at Oakdale for protesting the training of Nicaraguan contra guerrillas in Florida. “Everyone has a breaking point.” Adds Steven Donziger of the Decatur-based Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees: “They’re indefinitely detained. That’s psychologically tormenting.”

The inmates’ frustrations over open-ended prison stays were compounded by uncertainty about their ultimate fate. In December 1984, Castro agreed to take back 2,746 Marielito criminals and mental patients. The U.S. in turn agreed to admit 3,500 Cuban political prisoners and allow some 20,000 other Cubans to immigrate to America each year. But Castro pulled out of the deal when the U.S. began broadcasting anti-Communist propaganda over the Cuban airwaves on < Radio Marti in May 1985. Two weeks ago, however, the Reagan Administration and the Cuban government agreed to revive the exchange program.

Word of the renewed deal, which calls for deporting 2,545 Cubans, hit Oakdale and Atlanta like a torch in a powder keg. For reasons that remain baffling, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was informed of the accord only hours before it was publicly announced on Nov. 20. Thus authorities did not have time to cushion the shock by briefing the Cubans on the decision. Most of the inmates learned of the deal from radio and TV reports.

At Oakdale, a sprawling, campus-like complex nestled in the pine forests of western Louisiana, the anger of the 998 Cuban detainees exploded the next day. The riot began with a cafeteria free-for-all. Rampaging inmates attacked guards and set fire to the kitchen. Within two hours they had effectively taken over the 48-acre compound, which was just completed last year at a cost of $17 million, and eventually destroyed 11 of 15 buildings. Two days later a similar upheaval rocked the 85-year-old Atlanta penitentiary, where 1,397 Cubans are housed. One inmate was killed in the initial rioting. Despite news of the Oakdale uprising, Atlanta Warden Joe Petrovsky had failed to bring in extra guards or take any other special precautions.

Thus began the long standoff. Attorney General Edwin Meese early last week dispatched negotiating teams to Atlanta and Oakdale armed with a letter promising to postpone the deportations and to grant a “full, fair and equitable review” of each case. Meese’s gesture, however, did little more than restate the Administration’s policy. The Cubans refused to end the siege on that basis but seemed unable to agree on a coherent set of demands as rival factions at both facilities struggled for control. “There is no one who speaks for the detainees as a group,” complained Thomas Stewart, a Justice Department spokesman. “I don’t see an end in sight right now.”

There was one brief moment of hope late last week, when federal negotiators at Oakdale believed they had established a firm deal with four prisoners representing their peers. According to John Breaux, a Democratic Senator from Louisiana who has been involved in the talks, the “guts” of the agreement included a prompt review of deportation cases and amnesty for all riot actions. But other Oakdale detainees ultimately rejected the plan. Said an exasperated Breaux on Friday evening: “Our Government has gone far down the / road with an offer. It is time for the Cubans to realize there is only so far we can go.” The situation was no less frustrating in Atlanta, where an agreement to release 50 of the 94 hostages was likewise vetoed by the squabbling inmates.

If the obstacles to successful talks were great, the alternative seemed both chilling and futile. Through the week hundreds of police, state troopers and SWAT-team commandos staked out both facilities. The Pentagon dispatched an Army Special Operations Forces group to Atlanta. Yet no one was anxious to resort to force, remembering the lessons of the 1971 uprising at New York’s Attica prison, where after four days of inconclusive talks lawmen stormed the facility and touched off a bloodbath in which 32 prisoners and eleven guards and other civilian personnel died. Experts on hostage situations have since tended to focus on negotiations, however protracted, as the best way of wearing down the other side. That seemed to be the stance of Michael Quinlan, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who declared at midweek, “We will take no invasive action so long as the hostages are not harmed.”

For the most part, in fact, the hostages were well treated. In Atlanta four prison guards who complained of illness were set free. “They fed us so much I think I put on some weight,” said former Hostage Bob Gravitt. “We were treated like gentlemen.” As the tension mounted, however, there were signs that the inmates’ fears and frustrations might turn against their captives. On Friday morning an Oakdale inmate viciously stabbed one hostage in the back of the neck. Fellow prisoners immediately delivered both the victim, who was listed in fair condition by the local hospital, and the assailant, a mentally ill detainee, to police. At week’s end tempers appeared to be fraying in Atlanta as well. Ominous threats of “We’ll kill them all” were heard over the inmates’ walkie-talkies. One Atlanta inmate was stabbed in a scuffle with another detainee; he was treated at a local hospital and returned to the penitentiary.

Through it all, the families of both hostages and captives held vigils near the prisons in an uneasy symbiosis of suffering. The tension between the two groups seemed most acute in Oakdale, a small rural town of 7,200. On Thanksgiving Day, a group of Cuban women made a peace offering to a congregation of hostage families who had gathered in a church hall: a baked turkey adorned with a Cuban and an American flag. Though a few polite hugs * were exchanged, the gesture failed to relieve the resentment and anxiety. “I’ll tell you one thing,” muttered a sympathizer with the hostage families. “That Cuban flag isn’t there any longer.”

The irony is that the prisoners themselves were not waving the Cuban flag either. In the midst of a torrential downpour last Friday, some 75 Oakdale inmates gathered around an American flag, linked hands and raised their arms above their heads in silent prayer. In the distance, a ragged banner proclaimed FREEDOM OR BLOOD.

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