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

November 24, 1987|LEE MAY and RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writers

ATLANTA — 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.

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