Many Offered But Few Got Call To Help In Prison Crisis With PM-Cubans-Atlanta, Bjt
ATLANTA (AP) _ It took a quiet, 35-year-old American lawyer to help mediate the 11-day Cuban-inmate uprising that ended peacefully early today after offers of help from a congressman and some powerful Cuban-born politicians failed.
Gary Leshaw, an Emory University School of Law graduate, had represented many of the Cuban inmates at Atlanta’s U.S. Penitentiary in class-action lawsuits before the Nov. 23 takeover by inmates fearing deportation to Cuba.
″A lot of the guys know Gary, and a lot of them obviously trust his judgment,″ Carla Dudeck, coordinator of the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees, said Thursday.
″Any attorney could have given them some advice, but the fact that it’s Gary was doubly powerful.″
Leshaw played down his role, saying he was serving as a legal adviser rather than negotiator, and portrayed the Cubans sympathetically, not surprising for someone described by friends as a reserved, humble man who listens well.
″I think the lesson to be learned is that we simply can’t as a nation treat people as these people have been treated over the last seven or eight years and then become surprised when something like this takes place,″ he said on ABC-TV’s ″Nightline″ early today.
Before late Thursday, Leshaw’s last session inside the 85-year-old prison came Wednesday, when he spent 90 minutes with six inmate spokesmen outside the presence of government negotiators.
The night of the takeover, Leshaw was summoned inside by the rebelling inmates and spent more than an hour with five inmates, two U.S. officials and a federal hostage negotiatior.
″The problem is, they don’t believe anything anybody’s telling them,″ Leshaw said after leaving.
Early in the siege, while Congress was in recess, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., whose district covers the federal prison, stood ready to assist. He was allowed a brief visit inside but wasn’t invited to help mediate.
Charles King, head of the Urban Crisis Center in Atlanta, stopped by on Thanksgiving, conferred with a Justice Department official, but wasn’t allowed to meet with the detainees.
Then, Miami’s Cuban-born mayor, Xavier Suarez, traveling with several other Cuban-born politicians from South Florida, flew here Nov. 27 but an offer to meet with the detainees and trade places with hostages was rejected by authorities.
″Outsiders, though they may be well-intentioned, don’t always help,″ said Justice Department spokesman Tom Stewart.
Leshaw, however, had the benefit of years of work with Cuban detainees, dating to 1980, the year some 125,000 Cubans traveled across the Florida Straits in a flotilla from the Cuban port of Mariel.
A lawyer with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Leshaw had worked at first with lawsuits surrounding the inmates’ legal status. Later, he concentrated on lawsuits to improve prison conditions.
″I don’t have any vast experience, but I think I have some credibility,″ Leshaw said. ″I’m a lawyer who’s dealt with these people. I think I know where they’re coming from.″