Ex-Hostages Seek Ways to Cope With Harrowing Ordeal

Associated Press

Scott Sutterfield spends his nights at the federal detention center in Oakdale, La., trying to forget the nightmare he lived through last fall, when he felt like a pawn in an eight-day stalemate between rioting Cuban inmates and federal officials.

Sutterfield was one of 28 hostages taken Nov. 21 by Cubans who rioted at Oakdale after a State Department announcement of a pact with Cuba to return some of the detainees to their homeland.

Twenty-six of the hostages were held until the siege ended Nov. 29. Sutterfield was among them.

“That’s a feeling you never forget,” Sutterfield said. “You just try to forget and get back to work.”


Dentist Jack Belchinsky, chief medical officer of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, was among 108 people taken hostage there two days after the Oakdale uprising. His freedom came 11 days later.

Jumps Back Into Work

He said he decided to jump right back into work as his way of dealing with the ordeal. But in a recent interview, he lashed out at the State Department for “ill-advised . . . stupid remarks” regarding the deal with Cuba, and for giving prison officials so little notice of the pact.

Of the 108 guards and other prison workers taken hostage in Atlanta, 91 have returned to work with the Bureau of Prisons, although not all of them in Atlanta. Mike Caltabiano, executive assistant to the warden, said 16 had yet to return to work and one had resigned.

Authorities declined to say how many of the Oakdale captives have returned to work.

After the riot, Sutterfield went to a temporary duty post at a federal prison in Denver. He is now back at Oakdale supervising inmates on the graveyard shift. He says he still remembers fearing for his life during the riot.

“Every time the helicopters would come up, (the inmates) would handcuff us to chairs and stand ready to kill us,” he recalled. “Even today, hearing a helicopter--that’s one thing that brings it back.

‘Get It Over With’

“Having to deal with dying so many times over, you got to the point where you thought, ‘If it’s going to happen, let’s get it over with,’ ” he said.

“A lot of people still have a problem with it. They still have nightmares.”

Lt. Douglas Howington, who as captain of the guard at the time of the Atlanta riot was the highest-ranking hostage, said he was more frightened after the episode after “hearing that there were so-called death squads out” to get him. “That even bothers me now.”

“In that 1,600 Cuban group, there were 300 or 400 incorrigibles, no doubt about that,” Belchinsky said. “But thank goodness the other 1,200’s opinion kind of pervaded and kept those guys down.”

Sutterfield, 22, said counseling with others who had been held hostage had helped him.

“I don’t have any bad feelings towards the Cubans,” Sutterfield said. “I sympathize with their cause, but the way they went about achieving their goals I hold against them.

Unsure About Feelings

“It’s hard to say whether I could work with (Cuban inmates) again. I’d have to give it a try.”

U.S. Bureau of Prison officials say they have not decided what the mission of the Oakdale center will be after renovation is finished.