ATLANTA — Federal authorities cut off water to the federal prison here Saturday, hoping to force the release of 94 hostages seized by Cuban inmates who fear possible deportation.
Authorities had similarly cut off water to the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, La., earlier in the week. Inmates seized control there a week ago and now hold 26 hostages.
Inmates here, who took over the federal prison on Monday, set two unoccupied buildings on fire Saturday night. One had housed cells used for solitary confinement and the other was the prison's education building. At least a dozen fire trucks responded, but Justice Department spokesman Tom Stewart said they would have to direct water over the prison walls. The education building was too far away for the streams of water to reach, authorities said.
Call for Bishop
At Oakdale, detainees communicated to the outside world with bed-sheet banners, accusing the U.S. government of prolonging the hostage crisis by blocking a meeting with a Cuban-born bishop.
"America, we will release everyone when Bishop Roman tells us the agreement is agreed. This is the only change added to the agreement," read one banner, referring to Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.
Later in the day Saturday, federal officials moved to stifle the rebelling Cubans by blocking reporters' view of the center.
Leaders of the 950 prisoners at Oakdale had apparently agreed to a secret deal to end the standoff on Friday, but the settlement collapsed with both sides blaming the other.
J. Michael Quinlan, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, said in Washington early Saturday that government negotiators already have "substantive agreement" with Oakdale prisoners, and contended that the situation has not deteriorated over the past 24 hours, although negotiations have not resumed.
He expressed optimism that a final deal could be struck in Oakdale "within hours."
No Plans for Third Party
However, he said the government had no plans to allow Roman or any other third party to participate in the stalled negotiations.
"I am not saying that we will never allow a third party," Quinlan said, but "we are not going to involve third parties until such time as the (negotiating) team feels that their involvement will be relevant and will be helpful to the situation."
Continuing negotiations in Atlanta are "a very positive sign," but "the situation at Atlanta is not that far along." he said.
Quinlan said the government believes that the hostages are in good condition. He declined to comment on the specifics of either side's bargaining position.
The cutoff of water was designed to produce "quick resolution of the situation," he said. However, "there will be no deadlines set."
"Our goal and our paramount concern is the safety of the hostages, and we will wait forever until they are returned safely. . . . I believe that the attorney general's patience is limitless also."
Agreement Triggers Uprising
The Atlanta and Oakdale uprisings were triggered by a renewal of a U.S.-Cuban agreement to deport to their homeland more than 2,500 refugees from the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Most of those targeted for deportation are classified as criminals or mentally ill.
The water cutoff has apparently had little visible positive effect so far. Inmates were reportedly collecting rainwater in Oakdale. Atlanta inmates organized work parties to drain water from storage pipes and told federal officials through radio channels that hostages would be the first to be deprived of water.
There appear to be sizable stores of food inside both facilities.
One of the 1,100 Cubans inside the Atlanta penitentiary argued with another inmate by two-way radio and said he was ready to kill some of the captive prison employees.
"I've got the rednecks (Americans) in here. We'll kill them all. We all have our knives out," the inmate said in Spanish to another Cuban, possibly of a rival faction.
Inmate Receives Wound
A scuffle broke out between two inmates early Saturday, and one of those involved was later taken from the prison with a stab wound in the foot. Two other Cuban inmates surrendered to authorities Saturday.
Justice Department spokesman Stewart in Atlanta said there was nothing to suggest the hostages had been harmed and announced that inmates had on Wednesday provided Polaroid photographs and signatures to demonstrate that all 94 hostages "continue to be well treated."
He said the inmates' water supply had been cut to restore water pressure elsewhere in the prison, which had been dwindling since fires set by inmates Monday destroyed underground water mains.
But Stewart said the shutdown might also suggest to inmates "that they think about a serious negotiating position."
Although dialogue between inmates and federal negotiators continued only in sporadic phone conversations, Stewart said federal negotiators had been encouraged by the fact that they were talking day after day to the same inmates, who appeared to be acting as spokesmen.