Cubans Riot, Seize Dozens in Atlanta : One Dies, Prison Set Ablaze; Meese Offers to Reassess Refugees' Cases

Times Staff Writers

Cuban inmates fighting deportion to their homeland staged a bloody riot at the Federal Penitentiary Monday, seizing dozens of hostages and setting fire to the prison.

At least one prisoner was killed. Local hospitals reported admitting a total of eight Cubans suffering gunshot wounds, along with two prison guards who were slightly injured.

In Washington, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III offered a moratorium on returning any of the refugees to Cuba soon in an effort to help quell the Atlanta riot and regain control of the federal detention center in Oakdale, La., where inmates were holding hostages for the third day and threatening to kill them if their demands were not met.

Meese promised that before a renewed U.S.-Cuba agreement went into effect, the inmates would first be given "a full, fair and equitable review" of their cases. Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) delivered Meese's offer to the Oakdale inmates Monday afternoon but said he expected no resolution there Monday night.

Follow Announcement

The Oakdale riots began the day after the Reagan Administration announced the agreement with the Cuban government for the return of about 2,500 of the estimated 125,000 refugees who came here during the 1980 Mariel boat lift.

There are about 1,400 Cuban detainees in Atlanta--as well as 200 American prisoners at the facility--and another 1,000 Cubans in Oakdale. Several hundred more Cubans are in smaller facilities scattered around the country.

The Atlanta disturbance broke out shortly before 11 a.m., as prisoners seized control of the dilapidated 63-year-old building, setting fire to a warehouse area.

At about 3:30 p.m., gunfire erupted from inside the prison, according to witnesses, one of whom said "it sounded like a popcorn popper."

Throughout the day, thick clouds of dark gray smoke rose from the facility, but fire department officials would not allow firefighters to go into the prison until their safety could be guaranteed. Instead, several helicopters with 250-gallon buckets swooped over the prison, dropping water in an effort to fight the raging fires.

About 7:30 p.m., several Cuban women raced across the street and tried to crash the prison gates, which were partially opened to allow fire trucks to enter to set up water lines. Police closed the gates and subdued the women, who were not arrested.

Atlanta Fire Chief W.H. Hamer told reporters that a great deal of wood was used in the construction of the prison, making it a virtual tinderbox in some locations.

The antiquated institution, which houses what is considered one of the most dangerous prison populations in the country, was difficult to secure. And the job was made tougher because the prisoners reportedly had broken up into at least 19 factions, controlling different portions of the prison.

The body of the dead inmate was shown by prison authorities to inmate negotiators during negotiations inside the prison Monday night, said WSB-TV reporter Marc Pickard, who was allowed to witness the talks. It was not known who or what killed him.

A dozen ambulances were lined up outside the three-story gray stone facility, and throughout the day attendants carried out the wounded on stretchers.

City police, Georgia state police, and several psychologists shuttled in and out of the prison, but officials refused to brief the dozens of reporters and prisoners' relatives camped out across the street from the prison.

However, several family members brought a portable radio and tuned it to a frequency that allowed them to hear conversations between police and the inmates.

A spokesman at Grady Hospital said five prisoners had been admitted with gunshot wounds, and Georgia Baptist hospital said one guard had been admitted there.

Each time an ambulance left the scene with siren wailing, many of the relatives cried, concerned that their loved ones might have been shot.

"We can see the tears of the wives," drawled Roger Weese, 40, a local construction contractor who plopped down on a wall across the street from the prison to take in the drama, "but what about the tears of the victims? Who cares about them?"

He nodded toward the prison. "That place should be for hard-working American criminals."

Luz Maria Napolis Ramirez, whose husband, Armando Ochoa, is a prisoner, waited all day for news, holding on to her 6-year-old daughter, Lupe Ochoa.

Don't Know 'if He Is Alive'

"I don't know if they have killed my husband or if he is alive," Ramirez said.

Her daughter carried a sign, reading: "Please don't kill my daddy Armando Ochoa."

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), in whose district the prison is located, has advocated that the U.S. officials grant individual hearings for the 1,392 Cuban prisoners. He rushed to the scene Monday, conferring with officials and talking with reporters.

Meanwhile, in the Louisiana hamlet of Oakdale, a team of negotiators went into their third day of talks with Cuban prisoners who took over the detention facility there Saturday evening, setting fire to all 14 buildings in the compound and heavily damaging them.

Warden J.R. Johnson said that the negotiations over the hostages being held at the 1,000-man facility were continuing. But he refused to give details on some aspects of the talks, including the actual number of hostages in the compound.

"I'm not going to answer that," he said. "We're negotiating and the number is critical." Originally, it had been announced that 28 were being held.

At a Justice Department press conference in Washington, Meese offered the moratorium but conditioned it on the Cubans' not harming federal correctional officers and others being held hostage and releasing them "without delay."

"The purpose of this statement is to restore order, to protect the safety of all persons involved, including those detained, and to assure fair treatment," Meese said. "There will be no unlawful reprisals."

Asked if the Cubans were being given anything they would not have been entitled to under U.S. law, Meese said:

"Obviously we can't give them anything they're not entitled to under the law. But there has been a great deal of apprehension, concern and tension about fair treatment. A lot of rumors get started in these institutions . . . and the clear statement that we've made today about a moratorium and a case-by-case careful review is to alleviate those concerns and let all of them know that they will receive fair treatment."

Meese, who returned to the Justice Department to announce the moratorium after making his latest appearance before the federal grand jury probing the Iran-Contra scandal, contended that he and other department officials had not been caught short by the announcement Friday of the U.S.-Cuban agreement.

Lack of Time Assailed

But other department officials complained bitterly of the lack of advance notice, which they maintained would have allowed them to notify the Cubans that the agreement was back in force and to stress that they would not be immediately deported.

Meese said he was told of the agreement by the State Department at 7 a.m. Friday, about five hours after it had been reached, and that he in turn notified appropriate department officials.

"We should have had more time," said J. Michael Quinlan, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. "We thought we were on top of it. Obviously, there were some plans or some leaders in the group who had other plans."

Associate Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott, who oversees the Bureau of Prisons and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said: "It's very clear that not everybody will be on his or her way back to Cuba" as a result of the restored agreement. Trott declined to discuss whether Justice Department and other government officials had handled the U.S.-Cuban agreement properly, saying that this was not the "appropriate time for a post-mortem. . . . We'll do that later."

He also would not say whether he expected criminal action to be taken against those responsible for the rioting.

Trott said 2,746 of the 125,000 to 129,000 Cubans who came to the United States during the Mariel boat lift in 1980 had been identified as "excludable," some admitting to crimes committed in Cuba and others committing crimes after entering the United States.

Approximately 1,200 of that number are being held at U.S. correctional facilities, according to Quinlan. The other 1,500 or so are in state or local jails, halfway houses or have been set free, a department spokesman said.

At the detention center in Oakdale, Warden Johnson would not say who was participating in the negotiations to save the hostages, except to broadly describe them as representatives from a number of agencies.

"It makes you wonder if they know who is in charge," said Steven Dozinger, a spokesman for a group known as the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees, an Atlanta-based advocacy group.

Little of the $17-million, 48-acre facility escaped fire damage. On Sunday night, three of the Cuban detainees were brought out of the compound for medical reasons.

Johnson said he was certain the hostages were being cared for because officials had seen some of them and received written messages as well. But he said there was still a problem with dealing with the hostages because of the fragmented leadership among the rioters.

While the negotiations went on, many family members of the hostages waited for word in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Cots were set up in the hall so the relatives would not have to leave in the evening.

In the late afternoon, the hostage relatives tied 28 gold ribbons around posts at the Catholic church.

The warden said that safety precautions were taken in advance of the announcement of the agreement to deport the Cubans, but that he had not believed a riot would occur.

Ronald J. Ostrow reported from Washington and Lee May from Atlanta. Staff writer J. Michael Kennedy also contributed from Oakdale, La.

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