As we gather with friends and family around the Thanksgiving table, a few might remember a holiday 28 years ago, when more than 100 hostages shared a meal with their captors in federal prison in Atlanta.
On Nov. 20, 1987 , the Friday before Thanksgiving, the federal Bureau of Prisons said it would deport about 2,500 Cubans detained in federal penitentiaries. They’d been in the country since fleeing Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boat lift, when Cuban President Fidel Castro let thousands of countrymen leave the communist nation. Officials believed he also used the boat lift to empty Cuban prisons and mental institutions.
By 1987, nearly 4,000 of those Cubans were incarcerated; some were behind bars for crimes they’d committed, but others were there merely because they lacked documentation. They existed in a legal limbo. Nearly all preferred life in America, even behind bars, to the regime they’d left. The prison bureau’s announcement sent shock waves through the inmate populations at Atlanta, which held about 1,400 detainees, and the federal prison in Oakdale, La., which had about 1,000.
On Nov. 21, the day after the announcement, Oakdale fell. Inmates seized 28 hostages and torched several buildings. Two days later Atlanta’s federal prisoners followed.
Cuban detainees burned a factory at the prison, took more than 100 hostages and held off scores of federal agents.
Although it ended 11 days later on Dec. 4, the uprising caused about $35 million in damage and claimed one life, that of a Cuban inmate whom a guard shot on the first day. The repercussions lasted much longer.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons adopted more than 100 changes to prison security procedures. Some employees quit rather than return to work in a locked environment.
None of the hostages interviewed said they were mistreated physically in any way. They were fed three meals a day - ranging from roast beef and rice to sardines and crackers. They were offered regular showers, although the water and air temperature often dissuaded many from accepting. They were given books, cards, board games and cigarettes to help pass the time.
During the two days that a group of hostages barricaded themselves against a Cuban takeover in the penitentiary hospital, the Cubans regularly left plates of food outside the hospital gate. And those inside took it.
Such kindness, however, was bred more of self-protection than magnanimity, according to several ex-hostages. “They knew that their lives depended on our lives, that if they hurt us the SWAT teams would come in,” Riley Garner, a corrections officer from College Park told the AJC at the time. “It was more or less like they were cherishing gold, keeping it polished and keeping it from tarnishing.”
When the detainees became fearful that government troops would storm the prison, particularly when the thumping of helicopters overhead agitated the detainees, the Cubans made it clear they were prepared to die and to kill to achieve their goals.
“If they thought they were going to be assaulted, they came in, tied our hands, placed an acetylene cylinder in the center of the room and they’d say, ‘If they come, we all go, ’ ” recalled Charles Statton, an administrative assistant in the penitentiary’s education department. “I believe it happened about three times during the first week.”
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