Innocent Miclisse, a Haitian refugee who sailed to America to help nine children back home, stared at the government's fine print posted at Fort Allen, the detention camp here, and shook his head over the legal barriers to his release. "We'll never get out of here," he sighed.

That night, the 50-year-old man screamed in his sleep, rolled over and died from what an autopsy report called a massive heart attack. "He really died from despair," said one friend who held the body hostage for a day until immigration officials sent a doctor to certify his death Dec. 5.

Miclisse was among some 800 Haitians who daily sink deeper into despair as they spent their first Christmas season in America behind bars at the converted military base here. Some have spent seven months in federal detention camps, and as the weeks drag on, the Haitians have resorted to almost anything to get heard.

Some 200 women sent an open letter to the news media, threatening mass suicide unless they were released by Christmas.

As hope dimmed that any of the refugees would be allowed to accept invitations into homes of Puerto Ricans who have warmed to their plight, several hundred rampaged last Saturday night, throwing stones and injuring 10 guards.

It was the first such fracas since the camp opened in August.

"They just blew up," said Carlos Garcia Gutierrez, an attorney for the Haitians. "Normally, they are quiet country folks. But even normally gentle people aren't going to stand for continued and increasing oppression.

"They came to this country for freedom and they've been put in jail. They don't understand why. It's a denial of what America always meant to them."

In Miami, the refugees at the Krome North facility were staging a Christmas Eve hunger strike to draw attention to their pleas for freedom.

Immigration officials said only three of the refugees ate breakfast and all boycotted the noon meal of beans, rice and chicken.

"They have been upset because activists from all over the country have been promising they would be out by Christmas. That was unfortunate. They were upset enough to stage the hunger strike," said Immigration and Naturalization press aide Beverly McFarland.

Among the refugees are people like Samid Gay, who was dispatched to Fort Allen with his son. His wife and daughter were kept at Krome North.

Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) has launched in investigation into how many families like the Gays have been split up by the government because immigration regulations don't recognize Haitian common-law marriages.

"These people only want to be treated with dignity, not like stray dogs," said Garcia after a recent visit to the camp. "The conditions of the camps could be greatly improved. Refugees with sponsors should be released while their cases are being decided. We're dealing with human beings."

He urged that Haitians be released to local families willing to accept them. But Haitians at Fort Allen face a double bind. An agreement between Puerto Rico and Washington stipulates that no Haitian be released here unless a close relative lives on the island.

Initially, leaders of all Puerto Rican political parties objected to the proposed transfer here of Haitians from the Krome camp.

Gov. Carlos Romero tried unsuccessfully for a federal court order blocking the transfer, and pro-independence leaders charged that Washington's decision to dump the Haitians here dramatized the island's lack of control over immigration and its alleged "colonial" status.

But the transfer of the Haitians to Fort Allen in August sparked a surprising sympathy for the newcomers, a mood local politicians have been quick to exploit. Those who who once railed against Washington for dumping the Haitians now rail against Washington for its cruelties to them.

On Dec. 12, several hundred Puerto Ricans carried torchlights and marched from Juana Diaz to the isolated camp on the outskirts, where the Haitians are held. Inez Munoz, widow of the late governor, Luis Munoz Marin, was among the marchers who sang carols and decried the "concentration camp."

Jean Claude Bejeux, coordinator of the inter-regional council for Haitian refugees, says the conditions imposed on the refugees is a government tactic designed to get them to join some 200 exiles who have given up and gone back to Haiti.

Government officials say the strict detention policy is designed to send Haitians a message that immigration policies will be enforced.

One Haitian volunteered to leave and asked for his boat back. He wasn't going home, he said. He planned to set sail for another country, any country that would accept him.