When it comes to the standoff involving the Cuban inmates in that Louisiana jail, the first thing to do is to put your book of easy answers and pious platitudes back on the shelf. They don't apply here.

The knife-wielding inmates at the St. Martin Parish jail have been holding the warden and two guards hostage for a week now, threatening to kill them if their demands for freedom aren't met. But their beef is not with the guards. It is with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) which is paying the St. Martin jail to hold them.

Their complaint: They have served their sentences (some of them for violent crimes) and they want to be released. But some of them have been deemed by the INS to be so dangerous as to merit deportation.

The hitch: Cuba doesn't want them back.

The flawed "solution" that led to last week's uprising: Keep them in jail--essentially forever.

And what would you do? Federal officials, in an obvious attempt to head off criticism, disclosed the backgrounds of the three hostage-takers thought to be at the center of the rebellion. Their records include convictions for such violent offenses as aggravated assault and rape.

On the one hand, you think, if they were Americans who had served their sentences for these offenses, they'd be released. Maybe they'd be watched by the authorities, maybe local law-enforcement agencies would be put on notice, maybe (under circumstances that would trigger the provisions of "Megan's Law") their new neighbors would be notified. But they'd be released. It would seem blatantly unconstitutional to do otherwise.

On the other hand, can you imagine the horrified shrieks if one of these characters deemed deportably dangerous by the INS should be released only to rape again? Doesn't America have the right--the duty--to protect its citizens from foreign thugs?

So much for the easy answer.

As for the platitude that we must roundly condemn the violence that is at least implicit in the jailhouse uprising--well, of course. But what nonviolent course would you recommend? Without something dramatic and newsmaking and serious enough to get official attention, the inmates would surely have continued to rot in jail, long years after their sentences were completed and their debts theoretically paid.

Their violent behavior has had what is, from their viewpoint, the only outcome worth talking about: We're at least discussing their legal dilemma.

The sub-paragraph of the condemn-the-violence platitude is that at the very least we mustn't reward violence. Yes, let's take the occasion to review our policies, but surely you don't want to encourage hostage-taking or other violence by every inmate who thinks he has a beef.

That's a line of reasoning Joseph Heller, the "Catch-22" author who died the other day, would have appreciated. If you behave yourself, you rot unjustly in jail. If you act up in order to draw attention to the injustice then you rot in jail not for the injustice but for acting up.

Clearly the rules that force the open-ended imprisonment of people who have completed their sentences need to be changed. And yet one of the key sticking points is beyond our ability to change: the refusal of some countries (Cuba and Vietnam among them) to take their own nationals back. Their home countries don't want them, and we don't want them, and so they remain in jail. The number of inmates trapped in this legal limbo has increased since the 1996 Immigration Act broadened the criteria for deportation.

Well, if they'd only behaved themselves . . .

But of course you could say that of anyone who's ever run afoul of the law. It may justify whatever punishment the law prescribes, but it can hardly justify transforming ordinary sentences into life sentences for reasons beyond the convict's power to change.

If it were only the handful of inmates in St. Martin Parish, it would be easy enough to say: Let them walk, and we'll take our chances.

But according to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, there are some 2,500 Cubans being held in the United States for a variety of crimes. Should we just release them all and run for cover?

Easy answers indeed.