ATLANTA — The Cuban inmates who rioted at prisons in Atlanta and Oakdale, La., are, for the most part, criminals who already have served their time.
But instead of being released, they have become trapped in a legal limbo, detained indefinitely, men literally without a country.
"This ought to be unheard of in America," John Lewis, a congressman from Atlanta, said Thursday. "This is a basic human rights violation."
Lewis, like workers with dozens of civil rights and religious organizations, has tried many times to bring the Cubans' situation to national and international attention. There have been pleas. There have been warnings.
High Violence Level
"Hundreds are held arbitrarily and indefinitely in cramped, squalid conditions . . . " read an editorial in the Atlanta Constitution a year ago. "The institution has seen a ghastly level of violence in recent years.
"Small wonder: Some inmates have been locked up for more than six years without knowing precisely why they are imprisoned or if they will get out."
About 125,000 Cubans came to America in the "freedom flotilla" of 1980. The vast majority of the Marielitos --so called because they sailed from the Cuban port of Mariel--were released among family and friends, and have settled quietly into society.
Others, however, were retained in custody because they had been convicted of crimes in Cuba or were found to be mentally incompetent. Two hundred have yet to spend a day in this country outside a penitentiary.
Over the years, those 200 have been joined by 3,600 others--two-thirds of them locked up in Atlanta and Oakdale--who have committed crimes and served their sentences, but are now deemed "excludable" by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
These men were guilty of a wide range of crimes, many of them nonviolent.
Crimes Run 'the Gamut'
"It runs the gamut: robbery, drug charges, manslaughter," INS spokesman Verne Jervis said. "Their crimes were felonies for the most part. In some cases, repeated misdemeanors."
So, for years, this was the situation: The U.S. government would not set the Cubans free and the Havana government would not take them back. In the overcrowded Atlanta prison, the limbo was harrowing and sometimes lethal.
As many as eight inmates have had to share 10-by-20-foot cells, a single sink and toilet. The Atlanta prison accounted for almost 20% of all assaults on inmates or guards in the 59-institution federal prison system.
Appeals Court Ruling
Legal challenges to the limitless detention failed. A federal appeals court ruled that since the Cubans are not legal residents, they have no legal rights.
"The government can keep them in the Atlanta penitentiary until they die," U.S. Judge Robert S. Vance wrote.
If there was any hope for freedom, it involved a slow INS review process. Better candidates for release were moved to the detention center in Oakdale.
But even for the hopeful, incarceration was tormenting.
Steven Donziger, of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, has been a champion of the Cubans' cause. He wrote in Thursday's Atlanta Constitution: "The American prisoners have calendars and they would cross off each day until their release. The Cubans had no such luxury."
Instead, they had a great fear--return to Cuba. And, last week, the State Department announced that this was about to happen. Then the riots.
'An Utterly Hopeless Situation'
"The Cubans are rioting not because they are violent, but as a logical response to an utterly hopeless situation of forced return to Cuba," Donziger wrote.
"Their frustration was deepened by the fact that many had married and started families in the United States before being arrested. Now they are worried that they will never again see their wives and children. A return trip to Cuba is their worst nightmare."