Bishop Fears Spirit of Pact Is Broken : Prisoners With Jobs, Families Plead With Roman for Help

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Associated Press

The letters pour in, 30 to 50 a day, from federal prisons in Colorado, Michigan, Kansas, Virginia.

Some of the letters to Roman Catholic Bishop Agustin Roman begin with a cheery “Hello, Agustin.” But they quickly turn into desperate pleas for help.

Six months after he helped end riots by Cubans detained at federal facilities in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta, Roman cannot understand why hundreds of them, even those with jobs and families waiting outside, sit in federal prisons throughout the country, fearful that they will be deported to their Communist-governed island.


“I don’t think the government has broken the agreement they signed,” Roman said in a recent interview. “But they have not kept the spirit of the agreement.”

Key Guarantor

The soft-spoken 60-year-old Roman, who was expelled from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s takeover and became the highest-ranking Cuban-born priest in the Miami archdiocese, was the key guarantor of the pact that helped end the fiery uprisings in Atlanta and Oakdale.

Roman, already well known in Miami’s Cuban community, was called to the Oakdale negotiations by prison rioters. When he arrived, he told the inmates, many of whom wept at the sight of him, to lay down their arms. They obeyed.

Inmates in Atlanta and their supporters in Miami then demanded that Roman negotiate at the penitentiary as well. But nervous government officials said they were reluctant to bring him in, fearing that if he failed the riot would turn uglier.

Instead they negotiated an agreement with the inmates by promising to have Roman monitor the agreement. Roman attended the signing ceremony that ended the siege.

The agreement promised that prisoners would have their cases reviewed in exchange for releasing their hostages. The inmates were dispersed, and the prisons closed.


Meets With Task Force

Roman helped set up a task force to monitor the pact; he meets each Monday with its members for the latest news. For the most part, it hasn’t been good.

Roman points to the file of a prisoner officially given his release in November, but still waiting inside a federal prison.

“These are people who have completed their sentences, sometimes as much as three years ago,” he said. “They have families, they have jobs waiting, but still they are not free.”

He shows a computer printout containing more than 1,000 names of prisoners he says could be released immediately, yet are hung up in red tape.

The riots followed news of an agreement between the United States and Cuba for the deportation of “excludable” immigrants.

“What started all this is the terror of deportation,” Roman said. “Terror of deportation to a country that we know does not respect human rights--and that terror continues.”


Sees Promises Fading

He and members of his committee believe that the promises made during the uprising are fading. Even though Cubans are gradually being released under a review program, Roman says his committee doesn’t understand “why some people without families are being released to the streets, while those with families are not.”

The situation is especially frustrating to families who must painstakingly look for jobs for their loved ones before the inmates can be released. Sometimes, the jobs are gone before the government has acted.

Those who do get out are a good bet to stay out, the bishop says. He runs a special 15-week counseling session for released prisoners and their families. They recently had a mass meeting of members of the program, and Roman says every ex-prisoner had a job.

Life Stays Same

Despite the publicity that dogged him during the riots, Roman said his life remains the same.

“For a clergyman, for a bishop, when one problem ends, another one begins,” he said. “We know clearly that we are on a trail of troubles our whole life, a very narrow trail.”