25 years later, Atlanta prison riots live on in captive’s memory

Cuban detainees took more than 100 hostages

Atlanta, like the rest of the country, was easing into an end-of-the year mentality as the next big holiday approached. Travel plans were made, invitations sent: Thanksgiving 1987 was just days away.

Few people suspected a revolt was brewing at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. It was an upheaval with quiet beginnings, a rebellion fueled by rumor and fanned by anger. When it erupted, it did so with flames and hostages and the nation watching.

Twenty-five years ago today, , most of the 23-acre site at the end of Boulevard in southeast Atlanta was in the hands of inmates. Cuban detainees burned a factory at the prison, took more than 100 hostages and held off scores of federal agents.

The uprising caused about $35 million in damages and claimed one life, that of a Cuban inmate whom a guard shot on the first day. It ended Dec. 4 and remains the longest takeover of a federal prison in U.S. history.

Even now, the repercussions from a quarter-century ago linger. The Federal Bureau of Prisons adopted more than 100 changes to prison security procedures afterward. Some prison employees quit rather than return to work in a locked environment; one has a filthy memento of his time as a hostage. An FBI agent at the standoff got a hint of what he would encounter in a future conflict. An Atlanta resident whose home is in the prison’s shadow vividly recalls the police, the sound and flames.

It all began with an announcement from Washington.

On Nov. 20, a Friday, the federal Bureau of Prisons said it would deport about 2,500 Cubans detained in federal pens. 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 detainees.

On Nov. 21, the day after the announcement, Oakdale fell. Inmates seized 28 hostages and torched several buildings. In Atlanta, prison officials watched and worried. Would their prison be next?

On Nov. 23 they found out.

It was a Monday. It dawned warm and promised to be a nice day, but Alfredo Villoch paid it little heed.

Arriving at the prison at 8 a.m., Villoch noticed how quiet the Cubans were. An accountant at the prison's factory where detainees made brooms, gloves, blankets and other items, Villoch felt a prickle of unease. At about 10 a.m., with tension on the factory floor mounting, he turned to his female office coworkers. "You need to go," he said. "Now."

Moments later, he recalled, “all hell broke loose.”

Detainees stormed his office, beating on the locked door so savagely the hinges threatened to break. Villoch took off his necktie and ordered others to do the same: The garb only helped identify them as employees.

He opened the door. A handful of Cubans rushed in. “You’re being held hostage,” one said. Similar scenes played out throughout the factory. Villoch soon smelled smoke.

Atlanta police closed off McDonough Boulevard, the roadway carrying traffic past the prison’s main gate. FBI agents established a command center, then took positions outside the prison and along its watchtowers.

Special Agent George Murray got his orders: tower 9 on the west wall. Murray, a trained sniper, took a .308-caliber marksman rifle and ascended. From his vantage point, he saw tendrils of smoke curling out of factory windows. Inmates and captives milled about in the prison yard, a tangle of confusion. Murray cradled his rifle and worried. If negotiators failed to make a deal with the Cubans, he and other agents might have to storm the prison — and that didn’t bode well for the captives.

Night fell, the temperature dropped into the 30s and Murray bundled up. Flames lit the sky.

A quarter-mile away, Dot Isenberg joined her neighbors and watched the fire. Earlier that day, an Atlanta cop had stopped her car as she drove to her Benteen Park home on Federal Terrace, a block from the prison.

“You can’t go down there,” he told her.

"What do you mean?" Isenberg answered. "I live there." The cop checked her license and let her pass.

The neighborhood, a tiny enclave of homes, echoed with noise – police cars, the occasional crackle of loudspeakers, shouts from the prison. Isenberg opened her home to reporters needing bathroom breaks and worried. How long would the standoff last?

On Dec. 3, negotiators and detainees worked out an agreement. Federal officials agreed to delay deportations and to have a new round of hearings for Cuban detainee in federal custody. Over the next few years, about 1,000 detainees were sent back to Cuba, and the rest were released.

On Dec. 4, before daylight, the detainees released Villoch and 88 others, freeing the last of more than 100 people taken nearly two weeks earlier. A bus took them to a building on the prison campus, where physicians checked them out and agents asked questions. Overall, said the hostages, they’d been treated well. Their captors even gave them turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Several chose not to return to their prison jobs; they’d had a taste of the captive life and wanted no more of it. Villoch was one. Three months after the uprising, he took a job with the U.S. Department of Labor, where he still works.

He has a grimy reminder of his incarceration. Villoch’s captors, in the final moments before his release, signed the sweaty, stained shirt he’d worn for the last 11 days. “When I got home, I took about 11 showers,” said Villoch, 63. “I threw away all my clothes except that shirt.”

Murray, who never fired his rifle at the prison, went on to a 24-year career. In 1991, the Roswell resident was on the team that stormed Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama, rescuing nine hostages from 121 Cuban inmates. It was a reminder, Murray said, when he was a younger man with a sniper’s rifle in his hand.

“That (Atlanta uprising) was truly a long, drawn-out ordeal,” said Murray, 70, who retired in 1992 and is now a professional investigator.

Benteen Park looks much the same as it did a quarter-century ago, a community occupying a spot somewhere between gentrification and neglect. Isenberg, 81, still lives in the frame home she and her late husband, Ike, bought in 1975.

Like others who witnessed the riots of 1987, she has a mental image that doesn’t go away. Hers is the silhouetted figure of an inmate on the prison roof, a symbol of 11 days when neighbors gathered in worried knots and searchlights sliced the sky.

“Who was he?” she asked. “What happened to him?

“I wish I knew.”

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