The Weirdest Riot : ‘The Joint Could Blow’--and It Did

Times Staff Writers

When Harvey Staplefoote went to work, he was carrying the tuna sandwich his wife, Bessie, had fixed for him. He never got to eat it, for this was Monday, Nov. 23, the day the prison blew.

There had been an alert in the broom factory. He and the other unarmed guards were scrambling down the stairs. That’s when they first saw the Cubans, crawling under a fence. They had machetes. In a blink, one was against his neck.

“Do like we tell you and you won’t get hurt,” they commanded. Then they stripped away his two-way radio and his keys. They tied him up. Soon after, much of the complex was ablaze.


So this was it, he thought. The riot that had happened two days earlier in Oakdale, La., had now spread to Atlanta. And it was the weirdest kind of prison riot, too. Harvey Staplefoote will always remember thinking that right off.

Not Like a Prisoner

Tied up as he was, a hostage of men he had guarded for six years, he really did not feel like a prisoner. “No one is to be hurt,” he overheard one of the Cubans say in the early hours of fear and fire and confusion. “Buildings can be replaced; lives cannot.”

Indeed, these riots were peculiar, both the one at the Federal Alien Detention Center in Oakdale and the one at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. The trigger was uncommon to prison mayhem: foreign policy.

The inmates were reacting to a new immigration agreement between America and Cuba, announced by the State Department on Friday morning, Nov. 20.

As part of the deal, the U.S. government would be able to deport at least 2,500 law-breaking refugees to Cuba--the place Cuban inmates in Oakdale and Atlanta least want to go.

The timing of the announcement was strange, as well. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III was called at home with the news of the deportation plan at 7 a.m., only five hours before.


Alert Time Disputed

While Meese said he had enough time to properly alert prison officials to take precautions, others in the Justice Department bitterly complained this was not so.

They were unprepared. They also made misjudgments. “We thought we were on top of it,” J. Michael Quinlan, director of the Bureau of Prisons, said in post-mortem, sadly acknowledging that they were not.

Those in charge--top to bottom--were caught flat-footed. That Friday night, J. R. Johnson, warden at the 47-acre Oakdale prison, felt his facility tranquil enough that he left for a party.

While he was gone, Cuban inmates disrupted dinner, smashing glasses and plates against the wall of the cafeteria. To ward off another mealtime protest, officials simply changed to paper plates.

It was scant preparation. The next night festered into an uprising at the medium-security prison.

But instead of fiercely confronting the corrections officers, they seemed almost apologetic. “ ‘Man, don’t worry, we’re not going to hurt you,’ ” Manny Cedillas, one of the guards, recalls being told.

Twenty-eight jailers were now the jailed. The compound was in flames. Inmates actually saved the lives of several guards as the fires raged.

Soon--and predictably--the unrest spread. The Bureau of Prisons had not taken a word to the wise. With 1,000 inmates rioting in Oakdale, it failed to secure the 1,400 Cubans kept at the maximum-security prison in Atlanta.

“In retrospect, we should have locked it down,” said John Vanyur, the bureau’s chief of management development.

They had in fact considered it, but were deterred by past experience. In 1984, after a disturbance, a prison lock-down had led to mattress burning and the like. So it was a risk either way. They lost big.

By nightfall, Cubans were roving among the cellblocks, slicing through barriers with bolt cutters, looking for hostages. The entire industrial complex was destroyed. One inmate was dead, shot by federal officials.

And Harvey Staplefoote, he was at the start of an 11-day captivity. It would be a dreariness of Scrabble and Monopoly and a TV set that was never turned off. And wondering: How is this going to end?

A lot of Americans would be wondering the same thing--and some other questions as well: Who are these Cubans? And what is their grievance?

Of the 2,400 Cubans in the uprisings, eight were arsonists, 14 kidnapers, 88 murderers, 445 burglars, 661 guilty of drug charges. They ran the gamut from homicidal maniacs to penny ante con men. Some had committed only misdemeanors.

If there was something extraordinary about the whole incarcerated bunch, it was that most of them had served their time for whatever they had done in America. They were not prisoners any more, but detainees--held not for their crimes but for their immigration status.

What is more, they were detained indefinitely. Cuba would not take them back, and America would not let them go. There were a few sporadic releases. But this was done at the whims of foreign policy and bureaucratic red tape. The men had no predictable release dates, no pages to tear from the calendar.

And they had few champions, for these immigrants were among this country’s newest Cubans. In 1980, they had come in a gush, 125,000 newcomers suddenly released by Fidel Castro and ferried from Mariel harbor in a ragtag armada of sloops, shrimpers and speedboats.

In the wonderful promise of a jubilant spring, the parade of vessels was dubbed the freedom flotilla. In a flurry of welcome, the newcomers were named with an affectionate diminutive, Marielitos.

Many Bad Apples

But it soon became apparent that there were bad apples in the generally good barrel--people Castro called the parasites of his revolution. He had swept them out of his jails and mental asylums.

Unfairly, the good Mariels were often lumped in with the bad, and the entire group--younger, more male, more black and less educated than previous influxes of Cubans--were branded as misfits.

Over the years, most of them survived the slurs and melded into American society. But some of the bad simply turned worse. And others turned bad, rebuffed by discrimination and vexed by the complexities of a new land.

Presently, 7,600 of the Marielitos are behind bars. Half are immigration detainees. Most were held in two locations:

One was in Oakdale, 2 1/2 hours from Baton Rouge--for a Cuban, the middle of nowhere. The other was the Atlanta pen. Al Capone, the gangster, had once been locked away in “The Big A.” Eugene Debs, the Socialist, had run for President from one of its cells.

Two years ago, Atlanta Magazine published a profile of the 85-year-old prison. The story noted the overcrowding. Eight Cubans were packed into 10-by-20 foot cells. Frustration was their companion, violence their outlet.

The article was titled, “The Joint Could Blow.”

Ed Meese made the rioting Marielitos an offer right away: An indefinite moratorium on deportations and “a full, fair and equitable review” of each inmate’s eligibility to remain in America.

But it was no go. To the Cubans, it was too late for trusting American officials. Besides, they wanted more than a moratorium. They did not want to go back to Cuba. Not now. Not ever.

So it was a stalemate. For the detainees, it was important to show they meant the hostages no harm, that is, no harm unless attacked. Their olive branch could quickly be whittled into a spear.

That first night in Oakdale, the Cubans marched a hostage toward the gate with a machete pressed to his throat, but only after they assured him he would not be hurt. “They just wanted to see what would happen,” hostage Donald Thompson remembers.

They were enjoying their new freedom, raiding the pantries of sweets and soft drinks. They built lean-tos out of scrap. They marched about with weapons fashioned on a grinder from the machine shop.

Once, their industriousness became too much. When they tried to erect a brick wall near a building used for negotiations, they were repelled by high-pressure water hoses. FBI sharpshooters stared them down from the roof.

Meant Business

Federal officials were showing that they, too, meant business. Both prisons were surrounded with heavy equipment. SWAT teams scattered around in riot gear, and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets of Oakdale. Helicopters bobbed in the air, as much to show muscle as take a peek.

From the start, the Atlanta riot was deemed the more serious. The number of hardened criminals among the Cubans was greater here. They had taken control of most of the prison and seemed intent on seizing even more.

In the Atlanta uprising’s second day, the Cubans stormed the prison hospital, ferreting out 25 more prison employees who had been hiding since the riot. That made the total 94.

As the Cubans battered against the hospital doors, Weldon L. Kennedy, the FBI agent in charge of the Atlanta office, strongly considered sending in the 1,500 heavily-armed lawmen at his disposal.

“That was a very, very difficult decision,” he recalled Friday. “It was a risk of losing (hostages) or let 25 more be taken.”

A day later, the government announced that Army commandos had been flown in as advisers. The news rattled the hostages as much as the Cubans.

“Please, for God’s sake, please, understand we are being taken care of!” pleaded one of the captives to a prison official over a walkie-talkie.

“Nobody has hurt us. They have taken care of us. . . . But please don’t do anything stupid. These guys mean business.”

An assault would have been extremely difficult, anyway. The old prison has dozens of compartments and barriers. A 17-foot granite wall rings the 23-acre perimeter.

Besides, many of the Cubans were packing three-foot long machetes. They waved them through the air like cane cutters. Several had donned SWAT team jackets from storehouses. In an attack, it would be hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

Negotiations were the way to go. But for how long? “My patience is endless,” said Quinlan, of the Bureau of Prisons.

FBI agents had been brought in from around the country, including some Spanish-speaking men from Puerto Rico. Those who took part in the face-to-face talks had completed special courses in negotiating and stress management at the FBI’s National Academy in Quantico, Va.

Their first task, they said, was to get the Cubans to coalesce around leaders. It would be impossible to meet the disparate demands of 2,400 desperate men in two locations. Some among them had to be able to speak for the others.

But several hostages say the FBI overestimated the leadership problem. “There may have been several factions, but there was leadership from the beginning,” said Atlanta guard supervisor Antonio Gonzalez. “If there hadn’t been leaders, several of the hostages would have been hurt.”

There are reports of detainees who wanted to harm hostages, but, it seems, other detainees always stepped in. That was crucial. If there was anything that calmed the first tense days, it was the increasing awareness among officials that no one was being mistreated.

At Oakdale, the detainees organized a security detail to not only guard the hostages, but protect them. If any inmate got out of line, he was handcuffed.

Hostages were given mattresses, clean sheets and pillows. The food was mostly rice and hot dogs. One inmate scoured the place for cigars because one of the captive guards had run out.

At Atlanta, hostages were cuffed or tied up in the first hours of the uprising, but then let loose. They were split into three groups, held in the chapel, the hospital and a dormitory. Machete-wielding Cubans watched them night and day. “They treated us like gold,” Harvey Staplefoote said.

The prison pharmacist, James E. Riley, said the hostages were fed before the detainees themselves: bologna and cheese one day, chicken the next, always one or two vegetables.

Pharmacy Off Limits

Detainee leaders placed the pharmacy off limits. “I would say that although they took over the hospital, we were still free to run it,” Riley said by way of commending them.

At times, the hostages’ resourcefulness amazed their captives. They repaired a public address system that had not worked in three years.

“It was incredible what was going on inside,” hostage Gonzalez said. “They were doing welding, welding doors shut, covering windows with boards. They were constantly making knives because you could hear the grinder going all the time.

“It looked like a market place. Everybody seemed to be in good spirits. Everybody seemed to have settled their differences all of a sudden.”

Among the non-Cuban inmates was Thomas Silverstein, a feared killer. Federal officials worried he might become a leader of the rebellion. Instead, the Cubans kept him under constant guard. Eventually, they turned him in.

The Cubans had their own important agenda, and Silverstein was not a part of it. Their yearning was expressed in one of their banners: “Mr. Reagan, if you deny us freedom, you kill us.”

In a legal sense, the Cuban detainees were not even in America--and never had been. They were men without a country, caught in a limbo known as the “entry fiction.”

Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter welcomed the Marielitos with an “open heart and open arms.” But since their arrival circumvented normal immigration procedures, all this openness had to be demonstrated in a peculiar way.

The Mariels, stopped at the border, were by law “excludable aliens,” or people who had never entered the country. To keep them from being sent back, they were “paroled” to families, friends and religious groups.

But those who were lawbreakers, in the view of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, forfeited that parole. They were to be returned to Cuba--when, and if, Havana would take them.

For years, Castro wanted no part of the outlaws. Instead, they accumulated in U.S. prisons, languishing in a netherworld without even the legal rights provided Death Row inmates.

Some religious leaders, like Auxiliary Bishop Agustin A. Roman of Miami, took up their cause. So did a few civil rights lawyers. An organization exists called the Coalition for the Support of Cuban Detainees. It has a staff of one and a paltry annual budget of $20,000.

In 1983, U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob ruled that the indefinite detention was unconstitutional. “Our society has a fundamental interest in treating all persons with basic fairness,” he said.

But a higher court overruled Shoob, agreeing with the federal government that if excludable aliens are given access to due process in U.S. courts, the nation’s borders could never be effectively controlled.

In 1984, the State Department thought it had an answer to its Marielito problem. Castro agreed to accept 2,746 excludables in return for allowing an orderly emigration of Cubans to this country. But only 201 were returned before the deal soured.

Ironically, as the pact was renewed two weeks ago, many of the Cubans originally listed for exclusion had been released. Other detainees had taken their place, and nearly 900 of those had been recommended for release.

A transfer from Atlanta to Oakdale was considered a step on the road to freedom. And that is where the riots broke out first, in Louisiana, with those who thought they were the closest to a fresh start in America.

Bishop Roman was not well-known outside Miami. For that matter, he was not that well-known inside that city.

The 59-year-old prelate is a simple man, prayerful and tireless, dedicated most of all to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, modeled after a shrine in Oriente Province in Cuba. The shrine in Miami, to exiles like himself, represents faith, liberty and nostalgia for an old Cuba.

In Miami, there is great concern for Cuban prisoners. It is a cause for the wealthy and the mighty. But the regrets are not for men in U.S. jails, but for those in Castro’s.

In the past, few Cuban-Americans complained about the plight of the imprisoned Marielitos. Roman was only one of a handful. This evolved from his counseling duties. He had prayed with their wives, consoled their families.

So the rioting detainees trusted Bishop Roman. He was one of the few they asked for--he and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and civil rights lawyer Gary Leshaw and the woman from the coalition, Carla Dudeck.

Last-Moment Flinch

Several times, the Cubans at Oakdale thought they had acceptable settlement terms from the FBI team. Then they would flinch at the last moment. Was it really a good deal? Would it be honored by the government?

They wanted the assurances of the bishop. Last Sunday, shortly after 7 a.m., federal officials set up four large TVs and amplifiers in the gravel path between two fences at the detention center. They played a videotape.

In it, Roman said, “I want you to release the prisoners who are in your custody and I want you to demonstrate to the world the good will every Christian should have in his heart. . . . Sign the document.”

The seven-point agreement called for an expeditious review of each of the Cubans’ immigration status and amnesty for the riot.

The white-haired prelate arrived for the signing. He rode through the compound in a white pickup truck, waving to the Cubans, as one hostage later put it, “like the Pope.”

Then he and the detainees gathered in the burned-out administration building. The bishop said Mass.

The Cubans in Atlanta thought the detainees in Oakdale had signed a bad document, bishop or no bishop. They studied the agreement ending the Louisiana uprising and made one woeful inference: they could still be deported.

The Atlanta inmates scoffed that their brothers in Oakdale had sold out too quickly. They vowed not to do the same.

Legal aid lawyer Gary Leshaw had watched the Atlanta negotiations move forward, then stall. He had been there on the first day, when talks began while buildings were still burning. He had emerged from a meeting with the Cubans on Wednesday and implied that one critical question remained: deportation.

Then, on Thursday, only hours before an agreement was announced, Leshaw was sitting in his spartan office, wondering about the ethics of it all. What was he supposed to do, tell the Cubans to hold out for a better deal?

No, he had some obligation to the hostages, to take care of them, too, even if it meant putting the best light possible on any deal Ed Meese offered the Cubans. But he wondered out loud if there was some way of addressing the deportation issue, some middle ground.

The detainees would never get any guarantee. Leshaw read the English version of the agreement. A deportation ban was not there. Instead, there was a promise Meese had made early on--a deportation moratorium, length unspecified.

Bishop Roman flew from Miami to give his blessing. And at the signing, one of the Cubans, Santiago Hernandez Lima, draped himself in Cuban and American flags for the ceremony. Like most of the other detainees, he was elated.

Carla Dudeck was there, too, but she was not so sure elation was warranted. She did not think the Cubans had gotten enough.

“They accomplished what they had been trying to do for a long time, to get their story in front of the American people,” she conceded.

But what happens now, she wanted to know. After all this--after burning two prisons, after taking 122 hostages--where did the detainees stand?

They were still locked up, still away from their families, still dependent on the good faith of a government that said they were not really here.

Staff writers Ron Harris, David Lauter, Lee May, Ronald J. Ostrow, Edith Stanley and David Treadwell contributed to this story.