WASHINGTON — The federal government has released a dozen Cubans under a newly broadened screening program that was initiated in the wake of two prison riots, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Monday.
The INS had begun a review program last June but suspended it in November when Cuban detainees took over federal facilities in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta. In resuming the program last month, the INS increased its number of screening "teams" from seven to 16.
"We started the program back up because of the agreement ending the riots" Dec. 4, said Duke Austin, an INS spokesman. That agreement called for the program to go into effect again and assured that no retaliation would be made against prisoners involved in the uprising.
Teams Fanning Out
Officials said that the screening teams are now fanning out to 17 prisons, including one in Lompoc, Calif., where 214 Cubans are being held. Many of these prisons hold some of the 2,400 Cubans who were moved from the heavily damaged facilities in Atlanta and Oakdale.
The resumption of the program is likely to reignite a long-standing dispute over the release of the Cuban prisoners into American society, which has raged since most of the immigrants came to the United States in the Mariel boat lift of 1980. Many of those Cubans were known to be criminals or mentally unstable.
Before the riots began in November, 1,149 of the 7,600 Cubans held nationwide had been approved for parole, and 100 had been released.
INS officials said that most of those freed are being placed in halfway houses and that some are going to the homes of relatives.
To determine whether prisoners should be freed, the screening panels will review incarceration records to make sure "that they do not pose any danger to the community," said Verne Jervis of the INS. "We don't want to release people who will do harm to people."
In Santa Barbara, Calif., Don Looney, an assistant regional INS commissioner, said that four INS officers from Los Angeles will begin reviewing files of the Cubans at Lompoc federal penitentiary today. He said the process will take about a month.
"We'll take into consideration the types of crimes they committed, their prison history, the jobs they had in prison, the kind of write-ups they received from their case officers," Looney said. "We'll give a personal interview to the ones we don't initially recommend for release."
Lompoc Mayor Marvin Loney, citing the good security record of the Lompoc facility, said: "The community isn't disturbed about the Cubans being here." People in his city "take it all in stride," he said.
Began on Nov. 21
The disturbances began in Oakdale on Nov. 21 and spread to Atlanta two days later as a reaction to an agreement between the United States and Cuba allowing the deportation of Cuban refugees who had broken the law in this country. Under that agreement, about 2,500 Cubans could have been deported to Cuba.
The legal status of the "Marielitos"--labeled as such because their boats originated from the Cuban port of Mariel--has been in limbo since their arrival. Resumption of the INS screening process calls attention once again to that problem.
Although some will be released, INS officials said, others will be turned down. When the screening program was interrupted, 603 inmates had been recommended for continued detention.
Their cases must be reviewed by special panels at the Justice Department, which will either uphold the INS or overrule it.
At the Justice Department, spokesman Joseph Krovisky said that no cases have been referred to the department since the resumption of the INS screening program.
"Right now, they're concentrating on record reviews," Krovisky said. "It's possible some of the cases will come over later this week."
INS officials said that they will need to work at least until April to complete the screening program. The job was made more difficult because some records were destroyed during the riots, but officials said that they were able to obtain the missing information elsewhere.
Cubans involved in the uprisings who are recommended for release could be reviewed by the FBI before they are freed, a provision that has angered some activists who contend that this could be a violation of the agreement that ended the prison riots.
Federal officials said that the FBI will only be looking for "ringleaders" of the riots. But Carla Dudeck, coordinator of the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees, said: "I guess, just given our experience, it doesn't look good."
Dudeck, who said she has kept in touch with many of the Cubans involved in the uprisings, said that "one guy in Leavenworth wrote about the rumor that FBI agents would be involved, and he said: 'I wonder what little trap we will walk in.' "
Staff writer Miles Corwin in Santa Barbara contributed to this story.