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Cuban Inmates Release All Hostages At Oakdale; Four Freed Earlier in Atlanta

November 30, 1987

OAKDALE, La. (AP) _ Cuban inmates Sunday threw down their weapons and freed the 26 hostages they had held for eight days at a burned-out federal prison after a Cuban-born bishop urged them to sign a surrender.

The surrender promises no reprisals for the damage to the prison and a one- by-one review of all prisoners’ cases. The inmates had been fighting possible deportation to Cuba because of criminal records or mental illness.

At Atlanta’s riot-torn federal penitentiary, Cuban inmates released four of their hostages early Sunday, leaving 90 people still captive. They later received a briefing on the Oakdale agreement, but officials expressed little hope that a settlement there was imminent.

The former Oakdale hostages, some of them grinning broadly, walked from the Federal Detention Center at 2:25 p.m. Cheering and weeping relatives ran alongside the bus that carried the men to Humana Hospital for checkups.

″They’re dirty. They’re in good spirits. They’re hungry. They all appear to be stressed somewhat,″ said Dr. Roy Harding of Humana Hospital. ″All have been checked and appear to be doing very well.″

Harding said one guard among the hostages had a sprained knee or ankle, but was not seriously hurt.

″They got tired of weiners, but they were treated well,″ said Harding. ″They ate the same thing as the inmates. They drank a little swamp water because the water ran out. The people I saw show no signs of physical abuse. Mostly, they have a lack of water and soap.″

After releasing the hostages, some of the 950 Cuban inmates threw their homemade knives, clubs, hammers and boards studded with nails into a pile in the prison yard. One Cuban waved an American flag.

Cubans seized the facility on Nov. 21 and the federal penitentiary in Atlanta two days later in riots sparked by a government announcement that many inmates would be returned to Cuba.

The inmates demanded that they be allowed to remain in the United States. Federal officials had offered earlier in the weeklong crisis to delay any deportations until the Cubans’ cases could be reviewed individually.

The rioting left one person dead in Atlanta, 53 people injured and both prisons badly damaged by fires and looting.

About a half-hour after the hostages were released, four representatives of the inmates signed the agreement with the government.

The signing was witnessed, at the inmates’ insistence, by Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman of Miami’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, who earlier had urged a surrender by videotape and then in person.

Shortly before the surrender, Roman rode among the inmates Sunday afternoon in an open van and blessed them. Some wept, said his attorney.

″They put all of their weapons - their homemade machetes and other weapons - in one huge pile. Then the bishop asked them to let the hostages go and they did,″ said the attorney, Rafael Penalver.

Verdun Woods, whose 22-year-old son, Patrick, was one of the hostages, said the first thing his son wanted to know was what kind of deal was struck for their release.

He said his son, a correctional officer, looked drained. ″They (doctors) told me don’t expect the same person,″ Woods said. ″He’s the same guy, just quieter.″

J.D. Williams, a regional director of the federal Bureau of Prisons who was the government’s chief negotiator, refused to immediately reveal details of the agreement, saying it might jeopardize negotiations with Cubans in Atlanta. But the agreement was displayed to news cameras by an aide to Roman, and an attorney for the bishop later discussed details at a news conference.

″We did not give away the store,″ Williams said. ″I think it’s a good agreement. It’s an agreement we all can live with. We got an amenable agreement.″

The agreement, as displayed to reporters, said that ‴No Cuban detainees will be held liable for any damage, to this date, sustained by the institution during the hostage situation at this facility.″

It also promises an ″expeditious review″ of the cases of inmates not already approved for parole and no ″arbitrary change″ in the status of inmates with sponsors or families who have already been approved for parole.

Attorney General Edwin Meese III, in a statement released by the Justice Department in Washington, said, ″While this is understandably a time of rejoicing and thanksgiving, the Department of Justice will not rest until the situation in Atlanta is also peacefully concluded and all the hostages there are released.″

About 200 minimum-security Cuban prisoners will be sent to the Army base at Fort Polk, La., Williams said, while others will be transferred to any of more than 40 federal lockups.

At Sacred Heart Church, where families of the hostages had been keeping vigil, relatives began screaming and crying as they watched a closed-circuit television picture of the captives being released.

When the bus carrying the hostages to the hospital passed by the church, many of the relatives ran out of the church, jumped ditches on the side of the road and started following it.

Ron Thompson of Mobile, Ala., began screaming the name of his twin brother Donald, when he caught sight of him getting off the bus. ″Oh, God 3/8 Thank you 3/8,″ he yelled four times before breaking down crying.

Inmates had asked that Roman be allowed to participate in negotiations, but federal authorities rejected the proposal.

Roman’s taped message was shown to inmates on closed-circuit television sets set up around the perimeter of the 40-acre detention center, said Mark Sheehan of the Justice Department.

″The past will end and the future will begin,″ Roman told the inmates. ″Sign the document. You can be sure that what you will have done is good.″

Negotiations continued Sunday with Cubans prisoners in Atlanta. Three Cuban exile leaders met with the detainees during the evening, briefing them on the Oakdale agreement.

Federal authorities had said they might ask Roman to make a similar appeal to the Atlanta inmates, but they ruled out any immediate invitation. Roman told reporters after the Oakdale crisis ended that ″I’m ready to do likewise in Atlanta - if they request me.″

Justice Department spokesman Thomas Stewart sounded a pessimistic note on the progress of talks Sunday in Atlanta, saying, ″I can’t suggest to you that anything significant is occurring.″

However, Stewart said the release early Sunday of four hostages, plus the submission of a typewritten list of demands indicates ″good staff work″ by the 1,119 inmates and the possible creation of leadership among the inmates.

On Sunday, Atlanta inmates used a tractor inside the compound to gather garbage and dump it into a pit, while others dragged what appeared to be laundry carts from one building to another, also collecting garbage. Outside the prison walls, Special Weapons and Tactics teams went through their exercises.

Water was restored to the prison, but extensive damage to the plumbing left water gushing from pipes, Stewart said, adding that the resupply of water was contingent on no more fires being set.

About 15 inmates gathered atop one of the prison buildings, waving flags and signs to onlookers across the street. The detainees also set up a public address system and offered to allow some inmates to leave.

″All those who want to leave, the doors are open,″ said a voice, speaking in Spanish. ″They are free to take the road to treason. If not, they can stay and follow the road to discipline.″

There was no immediate response to the offer, Stewart said.

Authorities were surprised by the release of four hostages, Stewart said.

″They just called and said, ’We’re going to do it,‴ he said. ″We have absolutely no clue as to what their motivation was. This could be a hopeful sign, but we have no way of knowing.″

The release indicates leadership is beginning to evolve, because ″we know they were able to deliver some hostages. ... There has to be some connection with leadership because they could not have gotten those four hostages away from 1,100 detainees without some consensus,″ he said.

The Cubans, who were among the 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, have demanded due process rights and individual judicial reviews of their cases; dissolution of the immigration agreement with Cuba that prompted the riot; treatment for mentally ill detainees and no retaliation or prosecution for damages caused in the insurrection.

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