IN THE LAST four days, the nation's capital has felt some of the trauma that came to this country with the Cuban boat lift last spring. The problem began Saturday night when some of the Cuban refugees brought to St. Elizabeths Hospital here last week started fighting with hospital staff. On Sunday, the incident grew into a small-scale disturbance, with some Cubans breaking windows, setting small fires and fighting with police and hospital staff. By Monday, police had to physically remove 17 angry Cubans who had taken over a hospital building. According to a Cuban-American sent inside the hospital to talk with the refugees, the problem is that the Cubans are offended at being held in a hospital that usually serves as a home for mentally or emotionally disturbed people. The Cubans also want to go out into the United States after five months of confinement in refugee camps; they want to sample the freedom they've heard so much about.

The Cubans' complaints have been formally presented to the U.S. government in a suit filed by an attorney from the District's Public Defender Service, Harry Fulton. Mr. Fulton claims that the government ilegally brought the Cubans to St. Elizabeths. He says that under the law governing mental institutions, the Cubans should have been examined by doctors either prior to coming to the hospital or during their first two days there to determine if they were in need of treatment in a mental institution. Mr. Fulton contends that the Cubans are being illegally "storehoused" by the government at the hospital because many of them do not have mental or emotional problems. Government officials say that the Cubans were brought to the hospital to be examined for mental or emotional problems.

Whatever the case, the Cubans have now been at the hospital for a week. The government could reasonably be expected to have completed some assessment of them in that time to determine which of them truly belongs in such an institution. The government should not force Cubans who are not in need of mental or emotional care to be held at St. Elizabeths. A hospital is not the place to keep refugees. The Immigration and Naturalization Service should move quickly to evaluate the Cubans now at St. Elizabeths and remove those who do not need medical care. The approximately 12,000 Cuban refugees still remaining in camps throughout the nation are a serious problem. But their problems cannot be solved by forcing them into jails or hospitals without regard for their rights. Such actions threaten this country's good name.