And they had few champions, for these immigrants were among this country's newest Cubans. In 1980, they had come in a gush, 125,000 newcomers suddenly released by Fidel Castro and ferried from Mariel harbor in a ragtag armada of sloops, shrimpers and speedboats.
In the wonderful promise of a jubilant spring, the parade of vessels was dubbed the freedom flotilla. In a flurry of welcome, the newcomers were named with an affectionate diminutive, Marielitos.
Many Bad Apples
But it soon became apparent that there were bad apples in the generally good barrel--people Castro called the parasites of his revolution. He had swept them out of his jails and mental asylums.
Unfairly, the good Mariels were often lumped in with the bad, and the entire group--younger, more male, more black and less educated than previous influxes of Cubans--were branded as misfits.
Over the years, most of them survived the slurs and melded into American society. But some of the bad simply turned worse. And others turned bad, rebuffed by discrimination and vexed by the complexities of a new land.
Presently, 7,600 of the Marielitos are behind bars. Half are immigration detainees. Most were held in two locations:
One was in Oakdale, 2 1/2 hours from Baton Rouge--for a Cuban, the middle of nowhere. The other was the Atlanta pen. Al Capone, the gangster, had once been locked away in "The Big A." Eugene Debs, the Socialist, had run for President from one of its cells.
Two years ago, Atlanta Magazine published a profile of the 85-year-old prison. The story noted the overcrowding. Eight Cubans were packed into 10-by-20 foot cells. Frustration was their companion, violence their outlet.
The article was titled, "The Joint Could Blow."
Ed Meese made the rioting Marielitos an offer right away: An indefinite moratorium on deportations and "a full, fair and equitable review" of each inmate's eligibility to remain in America.
But it was no go. To the Cubans, it was too late for trusting American officials. Besides, they wanted more than a moratorium. They did not want to go back to Cuba. Not now. Not ever.
So it was a stalemate. For the detainees, it was important to show they meant the hostages no harm, that is, no harm unless attacked. Their olive branch could quickly be whittled into a spear.
That first night in Oakdale, the Cubans marched a hostage toward the gate with a machete pressed to his throat, but only after they assured him he would not be hurt. "They just wanted to see what would happen," hostage Donald Thompson remembers.
They were enjoying their new freedom, raiding the pantries of sweets and soft drinks. They built lean-tos out of scrap. They marched about with weapons fashioned on a grinder from the machine shop.
Once, their industriousness became too much. When they tried to erect a brick wall near a building used for negotiations, they were repelled by high-pressure water hoses. FBI sharpshooters stared them down from the roof.
Federal officials were showing that they, too, meant business. Both prisons were surrounded with heavy equipment. SWAT teams scattered around in riot gear, and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets of Oakdale. Helicopters bobbed in the air, as much to show muscle as take a peek.
From the start, the Atlanta riot was deemed the more serious. The number of hardened criminals among the Cubans was greater here. They had taken control of most of the prison and seemed intent on seizing even more.
In the Atlanta uprising's second day, the Cubans stormed the prison hospital, ferreting out 25 more prison employees who had been hiding since the riot. That made the total 94.
As the Cubans battered against the hospital doors, Weldon L. Kennedy, the FBI agent in charge of the Atlanta office, strongly considered sending in the 1,500 heavily-armed lawmen at his disposal.
"That was a very, very difficult decision," he recalled Friday. "It was a risk of losing (hostages) or let 25 more be taken."
A day later, the government announced that Army commandos had been flown in as advisers. The news rattled the hostages as much as the Cubans.
"Please, for God's sake, please, understand we are being taken care of!" pleaded one of the captives to a prison official over a walkie-talkie.
"Nobody has hurt us. They have taken care of us. . . . But please don't do anything stupid. These guys mean business."
An assault would have been extremely difficult, anyway. The old prison has dozens of compartments and barriers. A 17-foot granite wall rings the 23-acre perimeter.
Besides, many of the Cubans were packing three-foot long machetes. They waved them through the air like cane cutters. Several had donned SWAT team jackets from storehouses. In an attack, it would be hard to tell the good guys from the bad.
Negotiations were the way to go. But for how long? "My patience is endless," said Quinlan, of the Bureau of Prisons.