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Six Months After Riot, Oakdale Prison Rising From Ashes With PM-Prison Riots-Aftermath

May 18, 1988

OAKDALE, La. (AP) _ The resurrection of the Oakdale Federal Detention Center is under way, six months after it was nearly destroyed by rioting Cubans and none too soon for many Allen Parish residents.

″If it reopened tomorrow, it would be six months too late,″ said Sandy Strother, a 25-year-old resident of this south central Louisiana town of 7,200.

″I’m ready for it to reopen,″ she said. ″In fact, I’ve applied for a job there.″

Last Nov. 21, the 1,000 Cubans held here pending federal decision on their future went on a rampage at the news that some would be deported to their native land. They burned 10 of the 14 buildings at the $17 million center and took 28 guards hostage.

Two days later, Cubans at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta followed suit. That uprising lasted until Dec. 4, while the siege at Oakdale ended after eight days.

Assistant Warden Art Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, arrived at the Oakdale center the night before the Cubans rioted.

″I’ve been through riots, but I’ve never been to a place before where they burned the place down,″ Espinoza said.

A pair of dormitories, which escaped with only broken windows and some minor damage, serve as temporary administration offices and housing for about 45 inmates maintaining the site.

Inside, bright white, orange and yellow paint makes the dormitories nicer than those on some college campuses. There are no steel-gray cells with bars and wire mesh here.

″If you would have walked in the first day after it was over, you would never have believed people who lived here would have destroyed it, as nice as it was,″ Espinoza said.

Despite the destruction, Espinoza said he had no animosity toward the Cubans. ″Inmates are inmates. Just because they burned the place down we can’t say we don’t want those types here,″ he said.

A Justice Department report released earlier this month placed some of the blame for the Oakdale and Atlanta riots on prison officials. It said they failed to recognize signs of impending trouble.

The report also said placsing Cubans at the Oakdale facility, a low- to medium-security alien processing center, was a ″calculated risk.″

Espinoza said rebuilding the center will cost more than $13 million and should be finished by Oct. 1. The prison should being taking new inmates by November.

Oakdale Mayor George Mowad said he’d been assured by federal officials that the prison would not again be home to a large group of a single type of illegals, such as the Cubans from the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

″Any concentration of Cubans, our people would be upset with,″ Mowad said. ″The people of Oakdale were very proud of that facility. And then to go out and see it destroyed ... it was hard.″

Mowad says those worries aren’t enough to keep the town from eagerly anticipating the prison’s reopening. ″We had 100 percent support for it before it burned. After the riot it dropped to about 90 percent, but we’ve got most of those people back.″

After the Oakdale center is rebuilt, a second phase called Oakdale II is tentatively scheduled to open in November 1989, Mowad said. With both facilities operating, the 500 federal jobs would make the detention center the city’s No. 1 employer.

Each month since the riot, Oakdale has lost $6,000 in water, sewer and sales tax revenue, Mowad said.

A few reminders of the uprising remain. The once landscaped grounds and paths at the prison now have patches of bare earth glaring in the sun.

In some areas not yet scrubbed and repainted, slogans remain, such as ″Muertos No Cuba″ - ″Death, Not Cuba.″

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