Two days before Thanksgiving, at 7 p.m., chief psychologist Carl Gates stood in the federal prison in Atlanta and looked at his watch. He thought: "I want to know the exact time that I am going to die."

It has been nearly two months since the largest prison hostage crisis in U.S. history, and many questions about the uprising of Cuban prisoners in two federal prisons have yet to be answered. But the lessons learned from events at the Oakdale, La., and Atlanta prisons are already rewriting the script for dealing with future hostage crises.

Government officials now acknowledge that the danger to the hostages was far greater than the public realized at the time.

More than a dozen hostages were chained to propane tanks, which Cuban inmates threatened to blow up. Two hostages were brought out to a metal cage and told they would be doused with fuel oil and set afire. Five medical staff hostages were going to be used as human shields on a suicide mission to break out of the prison walls.

In the end, thanks to careful negotiation, patience and luck, there were very few casualties. All the hostages got out alive.

Most significant for the future, government officials found -- as they have in the past -- that the most effective weapon in hostage negotiations is not guns but psychology.

Right from the start, J. Michael Quinlan, the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, recognized the pivotal role mental health professionals could play in the crisis. His instructions: Do whatever is necessary to help the hostages and their families. As a result, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers from the Bureau of Prisons, the Public Health Service and the FBI participated in every phase of the crisis. They served on the negotiating teams, drew psychological profiles of the Cuban leaders, set up family hostage crisis centers, conducted impromptu therapy sessions and debriefed the hostages when they were released.

In a sense, everyone involved in the uprisings is held captive. "We were all hostages, both inside and outside the prison," said Dr. John Duffy, an assistant surgeon general with the Public Health Service who helped coordinate the family crisis center in Atlanta. Fear of Going Home

The seeds of the uprisings were planted in 1980, when 125,000 Cubans arrived on U.S. shores during the Mariel boatlift. Many had been released from Fidel Castro's prisons and mental institutions. Over the years, those who did not fit into American society often wound up on the wrong side of the law, creating a population of Cuban nationals in U.S. federal prisons.

Then came word in late November that the government was planning to send some of them back to Cuba.

As most of the country was absorbed in planning for Thanksgiving dinner, 2,600 inmates took control of the two federal facilities. Angered by the impending deportations, the Cuban detainees staged a well-planned uprising at the federal detention center in Oakdale, La., on Nov. 21. The 2-year-old facility -- a model of the new minimum security design -- fell within minutes, and 54 prison employees were trapped inside. Twenty-six escaped in the first three hours, but 28 remained captive for nine tense days.

Two days later -- on Monday, Nov. 23 -- Cuban inmates overtook the much larger federal prison in Atlanta. Despite warnings that a repeat of Oakdale was in the works, the officials did not believe that an uprising would occur.

A special government report on the two uprisings will be given to Attorney General Edwin Meese by the end of the month. The report will be critical of prison officials in Atlanta, according to sources familiar with the investigation. While officials at Oakdale had only hours to prepare Cuban inmates for the State Department's deportation announcement, sources say there is evidence the hostage crisis in Atlanta could have been prevented. One lieutenant at the Atlanta prison, for example, had wanted to keep the facility "locked down" on Nov. 23 -- everyone confined to cells -- to prevent any uprising, sources say, but he was overruled.

Joseph Petrovsky, warden at Atlanta, declined to discuss the case, citing pending investigations.

Once the rioting started, the 85-year-old fortress-like Atlanta prison fell within minutes, leaving 106 prison employees hostage.

During the 13-day crisis, Cuban inmates in both prisons set fire to buildings, smashed furniture and equipment, stole cash and valuables from safes and defecated on walls. The entire facility at Oakdale was all but destroyed. The financial cost of the uprisings is estimated at $100 million by the Bureau of Prisons but could run as high as $200 million.

Misunderstandings between Cubans and federal officials were frequent, causing both sides to hold their breath, convinced that massive bloodshed was about to occur. In fact, the two federal facilities came closer to "meltdown" than any other time since the 1971 Attica State Prison uprising, in which 42 people died, and the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Prison in Santa Fe, which left 33 dead.

"We could have had another Attica easily," said Oakdale Warden J.R. Johnson.

In the early hours at Atlanta, one Cuban inmate was shot and killed by a tower guard. Four other Cubans were wounded by other prison guards. At Oakdale, Officer Manuel Cedillos Jr., was badly injured by a Cuban mental patient wielding a homemade ax.

For Bureau of Prisons director Quinlan, two key ingredients kept Oakdale and Atlanta from becoming reruns of Attica: patience and a sophisticated understanding of the psychology necessary for successful negotiations. When the crisis began, he told reporters that he would negotiate for as long as it took to come to an agreement. "I have endless patience," he said with words that gave hope to the Cubans and their hostages. "I just felt from the beginning that the one thing I had to demonstrate was calm," Quinlan said recently. "Patience is critical. The lessons of history have taught me and others that the worst thing you can do is act in a precipitous manner." Captor-Hostage Relationship

Whether a hostage is captured by a terrorist hijacking an airplane, kidnaped by a bank robber who has been cornered by police or caught in a prison during an uprising, a series of psychological events begin that will help determine whether the hostage lives or dies.

Psychologists say that a special relationship, called the "Stockholm Syndrome," develops between captor and hostage. Named after a 131-hour Swedish hostage incident where it was first recognized, the Stockholm Syndrome is an automatic, unconscious psychological defense that occurs as hostages learn to identify with -- and often to sympathize with -- their captors. The hostage "is more like the infant who must cry for food, cannot speak, may be bound and immobile," writes FBI agent and social worker Thomas Strentz in the book "Victims of Terrorism." "Like the infant, the hostage is in a state of extreme dependency and fright."

In the hostages' minds, the "bad guys" are not the people who have taken them but the people who are refusing to grant their captors' demands. "The weapons that the police have deployed against the subject {the captor} are also, in the mind of the hostage, deployed against him," Strentz explains.

As in infancy, survival for the hostages depends on a powerful authority figure -- not the loving parent of years ago but a feared, and perhaps crazy, captor. At the same time, this parent-child relationship is what can help hostages survive. Studies show that the closer a hostage can feel to his captor, the less the likelihood that the captor will harm the hostage.

Brief hostage situations are common in federal prisons -- so common that Bureau of Prison officers go through a special course as part of their regular training to learn how to act if they are taken captive. In most instances, just one or two hostages are held for a couple of hours. "Many of our staff knew how to facilitate the Stockholm Syndrome and what it means to their long-term survival," said Dr. Curt Toler, chief psychologist for the Bureau of Prisons. "But training can never completely prepare you for the actual situation."

Another important element of the Stockholm Syndrome is the long-term emotional impact of being a hostage. Regardless of how people are taken captive or for how long, life for former hostages is never the same. In the early weeks, hostages suffer an acute stress response, much like what some soldiers experience from being in combat. They often feel obsessed with their physical health. Night terrors are common. So are feelings of anger, self-blame and depression, which can last for months.

"Long-term follow-up studies show that this is a trauma that is there for life," said Toler. "It will poke its head up occasionally throughout a person's lifetime, when their resources are low."

The emotional scars of being a hostage come largely from feeling helpless and being totally out of control. "You are dangled around like a little puppet on the end of a string, and many times during that time, you think that there is a good chance that you will die," Toler said.

Hours of boredom are punctuated by moments of terror. "I was convinced that we were all coming out in body bags," said former hostage Steven Manuel.

Takeover Trauma

The greatest chance for bloodshed is usually in the early stages of a hostage crisis, when confusion dominates the situation. The captors are trying to establish their control; the hostages are trying to protect themselves. Both sides are angry, insecure and traumatized. Death is in the air.

After a few hours, hostage experts point out, the crisis tends to settle down. Hostage, captor and outside negotiator start to establish relationships. Unless there is continued bloodshed, the longer a hostage crisis continues, the more likely it can be resolved through peaceful negotiation.

The Oakdale and Atlanta prisons are two very different facilities. Oakdale is a sprawling, 47-acre campus of cheerful buildings that looks more like a college than a prison. The Atlanta prison could be the setting for an old-fashioned James Cagney prison movie, a stark compound enclosed by 40-foot walls with guard towers every hundred yards. Oakdale held 1,036 prison inmates, Atlanta 1,584.

In the first hours, however, the uprisings at both Oakdale and Atlanta prisons came close to becoming bloodbaths.

The accounts here of what took place at the two prisons are based on extensive interviews with hostages, Bureau of Prison officials, Public Health personnel who helped with the crisis and hostage negotiators from both the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI.

At Oakdale, Cuban inmates stormed the small building that marks the entrance to the detention center. All that stood between the Cubans and the outside world were panes of 16th-of-an-inch bulletproof glass. If the Cubans could break the glass, they would have been able to escape out the front door of the prison and overrun the town of Oakdale, population 7,000.

Twenty prison officers lined up in the small room on the other side of the glass. With their shotguns and .38 revolvers drawn, they stood or kneeled just four feet from rioting Cuban detainees swinging planks and hurling rocks against the glass.

"If they break the glass, shoot until you have no ammunition left," Johnson told the guards.

The glass cracked but did not break, and after a while most of the Cubans backed away.

A few minutes later, officers Rick Nichols, Alvina Brandon and Colton Duplechain were trapped in the control center in the middle of the facility. The room controlled communications, electricity, water and access to the prison. Guards radioed their planned escape route to the control center and asked for the back gate to be opened, but Cuban detainees overheard these plans on captured radio receivers. They raced to intercept the guards before they could escape.

Now the control center building was ablaze, smoke was pouring through the ceiling, warning bells and alarms were screaming. The electronically operated metal door that once had protected its three occupants from the Cuban detainees trapped them inside. There was no escape through the bulletproof windows, where inmates were pounding on the panes with rocks and boards. Warden Johnson radioed that a rescue team would be there in 30 seconds.

But the smoke was so thick that Nichols could no longer see Brandon, who was working a foot away. Nichols took a deep breath and sank to his knees. If they didn't go now, they wouldn't get out. Nichols hit the button to open the metal door. Nothing happened. He hit it again and again. Nothing. They were trapped. He hit it one more time. Finally, the door swung open. Now they faced an angry mob of Cuban detainees, armed with homemade weapons. Duplechain carried a stun gun -- a weapon that resembles a sawed-off shotgun but shoots only beanbags. He pointed it at the Cubans, who then backed away. Nichols remembers getting out of the control room and then realizing that Brandon was still inside. He doesn't remember exactly what happened next, but Brandon told him later that he came back inside and pulled her out. The two of them ran the 50 yards to the gate, under cover of some tear gas, and escaped.

In another part of the Oakdale facility, four prison employees huddled in the kitchen as the Cuban detainees conducted their rampage. Fire erupted and the employees could hear the hiss of gas. Convinced they were no longer safe, they ran out through the dense smoke, uncertain if they were headed into a group of Cubans. Seconds after they left the kitchen, it blew up.

A short time later, Lt. Charles Marmelejo donned a Cuban inmate's uniform and went back into the prison to escort the employees safely out the front gate.

In Atlanta, there were similar tales of fear and violence. For each hostage, there came the moment when death seemed imminent.

Soon after the Atlanta facility fell, the 25 people who worked in the prison hospital tried to escape. They locked three Cuban orderlies -- inmates who worked at the hospital -- into the psychiatric ward, and transferred several patients into another ward. Then they waited at a prearranged spot for FBI agents to unlock emergency fire escape doors and then help them climb ladders over the 40-foot wall surrounding the Atlanta penitentiary.

They stood there for 15 minutes. But no one came. They were furious. They felt betrayed. They could hear the orderlies break out of the psychiatric ward while a crowd of angry inmates banged on the barricaded hospital entrance. Chief prison pyschologist Carl Gates looked at his watch and thought to himself: "I want to know the exact time that I am going to die."

Outside the walls, the FBI agents faced an excruciating decision. They had forwarded details of the escape to the hospital via a guard in Tower 10. High-intensity beams lit up the 85-year-old fortress, and television cameras were broadcasting live into Atlanta's living rooms -- and into the prison, where Cuban inmates watched their uprising on film. Suddenly the camera shifted: There were FBI agents putting ladders up the prison wall. Now the Cubans knew an escape was under way. FBI officials knew that to continue would mean a bloodbath. So they took the ladders down.

Back in the hospital, one of the orderlies, whose first name was Santiago, paced back and forth in front of the group. It was only a matter of minutes before the Cubans on the floor below would break through the door with their homemade machetes and sabers. "They'll probably kill me for letting this happen and they'll kill you for doing it," Santiago told the hostages. Then he turned and faced them. "I'm going to go downstairs," he said. "I want someone to go with me. The rest of you go to the psychiatric ward. Give me all your keys and radios. I'm going to show them that we have all of you totally under control. I'll try to convince them that nobody has escaped and that nothing like this will happen again."

In the end, Santiago saved their lives.

While these experiences left no physical scars, the emotional burden was much more significant than many of the hostages or their families understood at the time.

A common response was anger. Once the immediate danger had passed, many of those who escaped experienced a wild outburst of rage. For Nichols, who narrowly escaped the control center, that moment of anger came later in the crisis, when the Cubans had built a concrete block wall with a homemade flame thrower on top to break out of the front gate. Government negotiators ordered the Cubans to take down the wall. They refused. Fire hoses were brought in to knock it down -- but failed. The Cubans danced in the spray. Hundreds of government and local troops were pressed against the fence around the prison, armed and ready to fire. FBI snipers were positioned on the roof.

The Cubans then brought out two hostages and a metal cage. It looked like they were going to place a hostage in the cage, douse him with flammable fluid and set him on fire. Among the guards standing there was Nichols, who had borrowed two guns from friends. "I was kind of deranged then," Nichols explained later. "I kept thinking: Kill them. Kill them. Just shoot. But something stopped me from doing it. " The standoff ended when some Cuban inmates started knocking down the wall with their homemade sabers.

Many of the hostages who did not escape in the early hours of the uprising were unable to express their anger so directly. The group of doctors, pharmacists, dentists and psychologists whose escape was foiled directed their anger at the FBI and officials outside rather than at the Cuban inmates.

In fact, the person they were forced to depend on was the Cuban orderly Santiago.

But after the hostages were released and they learned why the FBI had to abandon the planned escape, their feelings changed. "I would have made the same decision," said psychologist Gates.

Living Together

After the uprising's initial frenzy, life within the prisons went on in a relatively orderly fashion. The Cubans adopted many of the rules and regulations of the prisons. They appointed guards who worked on rotating shifts around the clock. They wrote duty rosters and had special disciplinary forces. They made sure that the hostages ate before the Cuban inmates.

At Oakdale, some of the Cubans broke into the supply building and donned three-piece suits along with riot gear to wear while they patrolled the perimeter of the prison.

In Atlanta, the Revs. Ray Dowling and Russell Mayberry were given free run of the prison to conduct their ministry.

The day after Thanksgiving, under a cool, bright fall sky, Dowling calmly and with great poise conducted mass in the prison courtyard at 3 p.m. His majestic purple robe provided a colorful contrast against the drab, green clothes of the hundred or so Cubans who stood pressed around him in a tight, solemn circle. A silver chalice and cross sparkled in the sunlight on a makeshift altar. Behind Dowling, someone had taped a sheet to the prison brick and hung a painting of Jesus, one hand with a bleeding hole, the other draped in comfort around the shoulders of a faceless inmate. In the background, fires burned in barrels to keep inmates warm.

The prison hospital also operated as usual in Atlanta, serving hostages and Cubans alike. In the early hours of the uprising, doctors stabilized two Cubans who had severe gunshot wounds to the chest, then transferred them to Grady Hospital in Atlanta for further treatment.

Psychologist Gates was allowed to conduct some stress management seminars with other hostages throughout the prison. "It gave me a chance to see most of the hostages," he said, "but it was like trying to keep someone dry in the rain without an umbrella."

Beneath the outward calm, however, were waves of tension that erupted periodically during the crisis. Helicopters, for example, frightened the Cubans. FBI agents used infared cameras and listening devices to learn what was going on in the facilities at night. But each time the copters buzzed the prison, the Cubans were sure that SWAT teams were about to be dropped on the prison to put down the uprising.

In Oakdale, the Cubans placed seven hostages in chairs with their hands handcuffed behind their backs to a railing. When a helicopter flew overhead, a Cuban inmate would stand before each hostage with a homemade machete in hand ready to kill, should the prison be stormed.

What's more, little molehills quickly became mountains as the negotiations dragged on. In Atlanta, the water to the prison had been turned off in hopes of getting the Cubans closer to an agreement. But the effort boomeranged. The Cubans, who had lived with water shortages in Cuba, were infuriated by the cut-off. As a result, they made plans to storm the front gate on a suicide mission, using as shields five doctors who were hostages at the prison.

Once again the Cuban inmate Santiago stopped his compatriots and saved the lives of the hostages. "Burn the segregation building instead," he told the other Cubans, which they did.

Throughout the situation at both facilities, a few Cubans such as Santiago emerged as protectors of the hostages. Health officials point out that this is part of the Stockholm Syndrome. Once the relationship is established, the line is often blurred between the hostages and their captors. As the crisis continued, the relationship between hostage and captor became more secure.

"There was a kind of mutual respect that developed," said officer Leon Smith, who was a hostage at Oakdale.

Psychological Strategies

A key factor in the government's negotiating strategy was to identify the leaders among the Cuban factions who were most likely to reach an agreement with federal officials.

The situation at Oakdale was unusual for several reasons. First, the Cubans controlled the entire compound, a 47-acre area surrounded by two 12-foot wire fences. They had ample food -- some 40,000 pounds. The water and electricity had been cut off to the facility by federal authorities, but the Cubans were able to restore power within hours with an emergency generator.

What also made negotiations tough was that unlike in prison uprisings in the past, the Cubans were not trying to gain concessions from prison officials. In fact, they had no complaints about the conditions at either Oakdale or Atlanta. Their demands centered only on the State Department's decision to deport some of them back to Cuba.

"It was very difficult in that respect, since we could not guarantee to them that nobody would go back to Cuba," said Dr. Homer Keeney, a clinical psychologist and chief hostage negotiator for the Bureau of Prisons. Several federal agencies were involved: the State Department, Immigration, the Bureau of Prisons, the FBI, the Justice Department. Everyone had to agree on a solution.

"It's tough to put several agencies together and get harmony," Keeney said. "And the negotiating process is very different within a prison than it is outside the prison."

There could be no negotiating in bad faith. No false promises of the type sometimes made to hijackers of airplanes who demand, for example, large sums of money. Federal officials knew that whatever the outcome, these and other Cubans would still be their problem for months to come.

At Oakdale, the first negotiations began over a hand-held walkie-talkie. "I can't count the number of times that my mother was cursed that night," said Dr. Miguel Bravo, a prison psychiatrist who served on the negotiating team.

But it was clear early on that the Cubans wanted to reach an agreement. At 11 p.m. on the night the uprising began, the Cubans released one hostage, physician assistant Ricardo Pizarro, a Spanish-speaking prison employee who had also worked in Atlanta with some of the Cubans. "We need you outside, we need someone we can talk to," the Cuban inmates told Pizarro.

The break in the Oakdale negotiations came when a hostage with a heart condition was released. That meant a person in authority from the Cubans would have to come forward. This would help federal authorities determine who were the leaders among the fragmented Cubans.

The negotiators at Oakdale also insisted on speaking in English rather than Spanish. "I think that that was the turning point," said negotiator Keeney. "It slowed down negotiations and gave all of us a chance to think."

In Atlanta, the negotiating team took a different tack. FBI negotiators there chose to speak only Spanish. "Language played a very important role," said FBI agent Diader H. Rosario, who was one of the negotiators. "The majority of the Cubans did not speak English."

A major break in Atlanta came when federal officials and Cuban inmates worked out an agreement to release a non-Cuban inmate named Thomas (Beserko) Silverstein. A convicted murderer, Silverstein stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds. He had been placed in solitary confinement after killing a guard in prison. During the uprising, he was freed from his cell and now roamed freely throughout the prison.

Federal officials were worried that Silverstein might harm a hostage and force the SWAT teams to storm the prison. They convinced the Cubans that he was a liability. So the Cubans slipped some chlorohydrate into his coffee. Then they jumped him, put him in shackles and handcuffs and left him at the barricade that separated the Cuban-held side from the government-held side.

"We got him!" an excited and very nervous Cuban detainee yelled into the telephone to Rosario. "Come and get him, now, now, now!"

After Silverstein had been picked up by federal agents at the barricade, the Cubans called back.

"Can we have our handcuffs back now?" they asked. Rosario laughed. "That seemed to be one of the lighter moments in the negotiations," he said recently. "Everyone on both sides breathed a sigh of relief."

It was also a psychological coup. A significant level of trust had been built up between Cuban inmates and federal officials. They realized they could work together for a common goal.

At each institution, the length of the negotiating sessions varied from day to day. "Sometimes we'd just talk about what happened to them in Cuba," said Rosario. At other times, silence filled the room for moments on end.

"We'd go on for as long as we needed to," Keeney said. "One of our sessions was 3 1/2 hours. I felt that we were really relating well. There was honesty in that room. It was a landmark in getting a settlement."

In the end, it was religion that put the final imprimatur on the agreements reached between the government and the Cubans.

Oakdale was the first to reach a settlement, but 20 minutes before the scheduled release of hostages, the Cubans balked.

"I was deflated," recalled Keeney. "There was frustration on both sides of the table, as you might expect."

What saved the agreement was the arrival by helicopter of the Rev. Agustin A. Roman, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Miami. He rode around the detention center on a truck and by loudspeaker, he told the Cubans that it was a good agreement. Shortly thereafter the hostages were released.

In Atlanta, meanwhile, a few hostages were starting to trickle out. Negotiators knew that many of the Cubans practiced a religion called santeria -- a combination of Catholicism and African paganism. But for all Cubans, Santa Barbara is their patron saint and Friday, Dec. 4, was Santa Barbara day. During the negotiation on Dec. 3, FBI negotiator Pedro Toledo suggested to the Cubans that it would be meaningful to reach a settlement that night in honor of Santa Barbara Day. It was the right bargaining touch at the right time and convinced the Cubans to settle.

Later the FBI negotiators passed candles and blessed beads for altars that had been set up in the prison and Bishop Roman visited the prison to give his stamp of approval to the agreement. The next day, on Dec. 4, the hostages were released.

Emotional Epilogue

The crisis was over, but those who went through it say that they will never be the same.

"It had a greater emotional effect on me than any other situation I've ever been involved in," said Keeney, who is a veteran hostage negotiator. "When I walked out of Oakdale, I wanted to leave it behind me for a while. I dreamed about it. In my dreams I was still negotiating; I was still at the negotiating table."

Many of the hostages are picking up their lives as they sort out what effect the crisis has had on them. All have been given 45 days' paid leave and have psychological counseling and support groups available -- if they want them. They also have the option of transferring to another prison.

Meanwhile, reconstruction has begun at Oakdale. "I tell my family and friends that I was here for the construction, the destruction and now the reconstruction," said former hostage Steven Manuel, who worked on the construction crew of the original prison and later became a guard. Atlanta is also undergoing a rebuilding campaign.

But the psychological reconstruction for each hostage goes far beyond the prisons' bricks and mortar. For some, the changes have already been beneficial.

"I'm a better man, a better father because of this experience," said Oakdale officer Leon Smith. "I don't take things for granted. I've been doing a lot of things with my family that I'd been putting off. When we left {the facility}, I brought the American flag with me. We live in the greatest country on the globe. I think that we take our freedom for granted. I think that too often we overwork, and we forget how fortunate we are."

For Oakdale Officer Scott Sutterfield, returning to work was important. A few weeks after being released, he was sent on temporary duty to Denver. His job: to guard a group of prisoners for three weeks. Two of the inmates were Cubans who had held him hostage.

At first the Cubans didn't recognize him. Nervously, hesitantly, he told them who he was. "But then they asked me how I was doing, and I asked them how they were," he said, "and it was O.K."