Cubans Hold 28 at Prison in Louisiana : Talks Continue After Inmates Riot Over Planned Deportation

Times Staff Writer

Rioting Cuban prisoners who overpowered their guards and took control of the federal detention center here refused to surrender or release an estimated 28 hostages Sunday and again demanded that they not be deported.

About 1,000 Cuban prisoners took over the detention center in rioting that began Saturday night. Throughout Sunday, as hundreds of police and immigration officers ringed the compound, negotiators attempted to persuade the prisoners to give up and release the hostages taken during the wild rioting. As of late Sunday night, those efforts had failed.

The riot occurred in the wake of an announcement by the Reagan Administration on Friday that about 2,500 Cubans, most of them criminals or mentally ill, would be returned to Cuba. They came here during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans were allowed to leave their country.


The Cubans are to be returned under a program that was restored Friday, 30 months after Havana had halted it in protest of the opening of Radio Marti, a U.S. government station that broadcasts in Spanish to the island nation.

Late Sunday night, Jim Stevens, a prison spokesman, confirmed that Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III had sent a letter to the prisoners that was delivered at mid-afternoon. He said he did not know its contents.

“I’m sure it was a positive letter trying to reassure them,” he said.

He also said that since the rioting 41 prisoners had turned themselves over to officers and were put on a bus parked outside the compound.

Hostages Are Employees

Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Sunday night that the 28 hostages were all detention center employees.

About half a dozen others were released during the day. Bergeron also said the inmates set fire to and heavily damaged all 14 buildings in the compound. A pall of smoke hovered over the prison Sunday, although the fires appeared to be out. Among the buildings burned were the chapel and dormitories. Heat and electricity were off during the night and temperatures dropped to near-freezing. But the power was on Sunday night and Stevens said there was heat and electricity, as well as television. He said bedding and food had been offered but that the Cubans had not responded.

“It’s quiet out there now,” Stevens said.

The center opened in April, 1986, despite protests by the American Civil Liberties Union that it was so isolated that few inmates would have access to legal advice. Oakdale, a town of about 7,000 residents, is an estimated 30 miles south of Alexandria.

“The latest update I have is that the negotiations are continuing and that progress is being made,” Bergeron said.

Meanwhile, 17 Cuban inmates in Laredo, Tex., escaped from a medium-security detention center early Sunday but most were captured several hours later.

The mood immediately after the takeover here was extremely tense, primarily because of the inmates’ fear that the hundreds of law officers surrounding the 48-acre compound would storm it.

But the scene calmed considerably when an agreement was reached that, as long as negotiations were continuing and the hostages were safe, no one would enter the compound forcibly.

Bergeron said the inmates are demanding several things, including a guarantee that they would not be sent back to Cuba and assurances that they would not be punished for the riot.

“They want information on what will happen to them in the future,” said J. R. Johnson, the detention center warden.

“They’re very, very patient,” he said. “We are ready for the long haul.”

However, Bergeron said it seemed unlikely that prison officials would make a blanket concession that no one would be deported. And he questioned whether no punishment could be meted out for the massive amount of destruction during the riot.

After the announcement Friday of the plan to return inmates to Cuba, Johnson attempted to assuage the fears of the prisoners that they would all be sent back in a group. Bergeron said steps were taken in anticipation of trouble, including the beefing up of security around the perimeter of the compound.

He said there was a large food fight in the center cafeteria Friday night but that the mood had remained calm until the riot erupted about 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

An estimated 23 people suffered minor injuries during the riot. All but about 50 of the 1,050 inmates at the prison are Cuban.

As of late Sunday, one of the difficulties in the negotiations was that no clear leader had emerged among the prisoners. Bergeron said that, as far as he knew, the negotiations were being conducted with several different groups. Stevens confirmed that even after more than 24 hours there was still no leadership core.

Father Roy Bourgeois, a Roman Catholic priest, said the announcement that the prisoners would be sent to Cuba was the last in a long line of injustices for inmates at the center.

“When I got the word they were being shipped back, my first thought was that something serious was going to happen,” he said. “That was the straw that broke their backs.”

Bourgeois said Oakdale is so remote that many prisoners he talked to “wanted to know if there were any lions and tigers in the woods.”

Bergeron said the hostages, all of them men, were being treated well. That was confirmed by the hostages who were released for health reasons.

Authorities in Texas said the Cuban prisoners at the Laredo facility were apparently panicked by Friday’s announcement.

Capt. George Magnon, spokesman for the Webb County Detention Center near Laredo, said they pried off a ceiling grate about 2:30 a.m. and fled through a roof into rugged country of brush and cactus north of Laredo. All but three were later recaptured.

In Louisiana, Johnson said that all of the Cubans in the prison had arrived during the Mariel boatlift and that some had been in prison ever since they arrived in the United States. Others were being held for crimes they committed in this country.

At least 200 of the prisoners were eligible for parole, Johnson said, and others had parole hearings pending.

Of the refugees to be returned to Cuba, 1,000 are at Oakdale, about 1,400 are at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where no unrest was reported, and the rest are scattered in more than 60 jails across the country, authorities said.