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Prison Impasse Blamed on Minority : Officials Say Radical Band Rules More Moderate Inmates

December 01, 1987|ROBERT GILLETTE and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writers

ATLANTA — Federal authorities said Monday that a "small but aggressive minority" of the Cuban inmates holding 90 hostages in the Atlanta penitentiary appeared to be obstructing a settlement of the week-long prison takeover.

Officials said there were no face-to-face negotiations on Monday with the inmates who hold portions of the 85-year-old federal prison, and there were only sporadic contacts on a telephone line leading into buildings occupied by the prisoners. They said one additional Cuban detainee surrendered overnight, leaving 1,118 Cuban and 20 American prisoners still inside.

More than 24 hours after settlement of the prison takeover by Cuban detainees in Oakdale, La., Cuban prisoners in Atlanta have given no indication that resolution of that uprising would affect the Atlanta mutiny, federal officials said.

Although it appeared that a majority of the Atlanta prisoners favored an agreement that would release the hostages, the Justice Department said in a statement, a "small but aggressive minority appears to be able to intimidate this majority into dragging out the incident and avoiding a settlement."

'Patient as Necessary'

The statement added that federal authorities were "prepared to be as patient as necessary" while the prisoners sought to resolve differences among themselves .

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten, in an open-air briefing for reporters across the street from the prison, repeated earlier government assurances that no force would be used to put down the mutiny "as long as the hostages are safe and unharmed."

"Had it been up to those who have been negotiating on behalf of the apparent majority, they (the hostages) would probably be out," Korten said.

Overnight, at the request of federal officials, prisoners made videotapes of the hostages to support their claim that all were being treated well. Korten said about 70 hostages appeared in the tapes, seemingly in good condition. He added that "we have verified the safety of all the rest by other means," but refused to elaborate on how this was done.

Monday evening, one of three Cuban-Americans who have been acting as negotiators at the government's request confirmed that a relatively small group of radicals among the Cuban prisoners was intimidating a more moderate majority and obstructing a settlement.

Jorge Mas Canosa, the head of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, told reporters that he had come away from hours of talks on Thanksgiving day and again on Sunday with the impression that, while the hostages were in the control of the moderate majority, a "handful of radicals" held veto power over the terms of settlement.

"There is only a handful of radicals, but they have control of the situation," Mas said. "They have knives, machetes and the killing instinct. They don't understand democracy as you and I do."

But he added that the "good news is that they are willing to meet with the very moderate leadership" of the Cuban majority, and he said he felt encouraged by the rapport he believed he had established with two of the radicals.

"I think this will take some persuading, that it will be a long haul," Mas said.

Late Monday, it was reported that the Atlanta inmates handed over American prisoner Thomas Silverstein to authorities. Silverstein, who has been convicted of three murders, including those of a guard and a fellow inmate in an Illinois prison, was turned over in shackles and handcuffs.

"Silverstein was, and is, a threat to any individual, whether prison staff or fellow inmate, in a federal prison setting," Korten said.

Korten said the action was "obviously involuntary" on Silverstein's part and showed that the safety of the hostages is of concern to the inmates. Silverstein was not part of the negotiations.

Earlier, after the prisoners issued a lengthy set of demands late Saturday night and released four hostages hours later in an apparent gesture of good will, federal authorities had voiced guarded optimism that a unified leadership was coalescing among the Atlanta prisoners. By Monday, however, with no substantive talks in the wake of the Oakdale agreement, officials struck a more pessimistic note about the immediate chances of progress.

Minority of 100

Korten said the radical minority of perhaps 100 prisoners had been responsible for blocking a tentative agreement last week to release 50 hostages, and he suggested that intimidation by the same group may explain why the number of detainees surrendering to authorities inside the prison had slowed to a trickle of one or two a day.

Officials have consistently pointed out that the Cuban detainees in Atlanta are different from those in Oakdale, a minimum security facility, and include a number who have been convicted of major crimes, among them at least one murder.

"This is a different group of detainees, and in a very real sense this remains a separate and distinct incident," Korten said of the Atlanta uprising.

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