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Prisoners Sift Rubble to Find Stuff of Survival

November 29, 1987|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Two dozen prison inmates worked in the dimness of a drizzly Saturday afternoon, fetching the stuff of survival from the rubble at the rear of the partially burned-out Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.

Observed through a 1,200-millimeter lens from atop the silo of a winery a half-mile away, the detainees hauled mattresses and buckets of water, sometimes shuttling the cargo on a wood-frame dolly.

The water is critical to their uprising. Federal officials on Friday turned off the supply. The Cuban inmates are tapping what is

left in the pipes.

Over their two-way radios, talking in Spanish, one of them defiantly said the government tactic won't work. "Tell them the little water we have is for us," he said. "It'll be the guards who die of thirst."

Some of the men painted a sign: No food. No water. Just liberty.

It is hard to figure out what is going on within these conquered grounds--hard for the heavily armed federal agents who still occupy the front of the penitentiary, harder still for reporters outside the 17-foot granite walls that ring the 23 acres.

Dressed in Long Coats

From the top of the silo, it seems that the prisoners have some organization. They have work details. They operate a backhoe and other equipment. They are dressed in long coats and stocking caps.

The back end of the prison is mostly demolished. The broom factory has been cut down by fire. So has the industrial complex, a storehouse and the gym.

But amid the wreckage of scorched red bricks and mangled steel there are treasures. The men are after food and blankets and the makings of barricades. Wood, like water, has become precious.

Many of the 1,100 detainees are armed with knives and makeshift weapons. They have no guns, Justice Department spokesman Tom Stewart said. Correctional officers and other staff were not carrying firearms when the riot took place Monday.

The prison is steam heated, so shutting off the water will leave the remaining buildings cold. The temperature is dipping toward 30 degrees.

"They'll be uncomfortable in there," Stewart said.

Most Contact by Phone

So will the 90 hostages. Negotiations for their release have been a troublesome business. Most contact is by a telephone hookup between the inmates and an FBI team.

"They have many proposals coming from many mouths," Stewart said. "We keep urging them to solidify around a leadership."

There are some signs this is happening. The inmates have rigged up a public address system. Leaders can speak to them all at once.

Non-Cuban Inmate Feared

But there also is concern that leadership might be falling into the wrong hands. Among the non-Cuban inmates is Thomas Silverstein, one of the most feared and closely guarded men in the federal prison system.

He once murdered another inmate. He killed a guard by stabbing him three dozen times with a homemade knife. He had been locked up in a specially constructed isolation unit.

But now Silverstein has been seen roaming free in the yard. Guards have been overheard talking about him on their radios.

"(Silverstein) is going toward the (administration) area," one of them said. "He seems like the person in charge. He is being chauffeured by golf cart."

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