OAKDALE, LA., NOV. 30 -- Inmates who overran the federal detention center here Nov. 21, seizing 28 hostages and burning more than half of the 47-acre complex, developed a well-oiled internal police force and a sophisticated communications system, some of their former hostages said.
"At one point, they had more people locked up in segregation than we had when we controlled the place," said prison guard Leon Smith, 32. Smith was among the 26 remaining hostages released Sunday after four inmate spokesmen signed an agreement with federal negotiators.
The inmates had been protesting a revived pact with Cuba to deport about 2,500 Cuban refugees who had lost their immigration parole into this country by committing crimes after they arrived.
As accounts of life inside the facility during the eight-day siege unfolded, officials continued moving 1,000 inmates to other federal institutions around the country. By late afternoon, about 800 prisoners had left the facility, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
At midday, federal officials moved onto the prison grounds for the first time since the takeover and later discounted rumors that two inmates had died during the initial rioting. "We expect to have a good count, with no deaths and no serious injuries," said Luenette Johnson of the Bureau of Prisons.
All the inmates who had been transferred were reported in good health, and all but two of the former hostages were released from Humana Hospital by noon today.
Prison guard Carlton Jack, 28, was in good condition but remained hospitalized for observation. The second patient, also in good condition, was prison counselor Manuel Cedillos Jr., 40, freed Friday after being stabbed in the back of the neck by an inmate who was delivered immediately to authorities by fellow prisoners.
At a hospital news conference late Sunday night, Cedillos and Smith said they had been held in small, separate groups in prison dormitories. Although they were treated well, they said, they lived in a fear directly proportional to the inmates' fear.
Smith said the inmates told their hostages that "if someone comes in, we're all going to die." When reconnaissance helicopters flew low over the center, as they did regularly last week, he said, the inmates took it as a possible sign of attack, and "they were real emotional about that," he said.
But for some hostages, the most frightening episodes occurred during the first chaotic hours of the riot, when gangs of inmates chased down prison guards and other officials.
Cedillos said he and several other prison officials fled into the prison library's bathroom, where they locked the door and hid inside the suspended ceiling. The inmates, unable to unlock the door, smashed through the wall beside it with standard carpenters' hammers.
"They came through the walls. They looked like gremlins," Cedillos said.
Cedillos said the inmates seemed to enjoy the chase, even as they assured prison officals that they intended no violence.
"They were laughing. They had us scared," Cedillos recalled. "They were saying, 'Hey, man, don't worry. We're not going to hurt you.' "
Cedillos said the riot began around 7 p.m. Saturday after a mob of 300 inmates rushed the gate in what appeared to be an attempted mass escape.
Warden J.R. Johnson, who accompanied Cedillos and Smith at a news conference, said he and seven guards wielding 12-gauge shotguns turned back the mob without firing their weapons. When the mob turned back into the prison yard, the riot was on.
But Smith said most of the inmates were not participating in the disturbance and ran back to their dormitories to escape the violence. By then guards were following orders to lock the dormitories, Smith said, and frightened inmates were unable to find refuge there.
Many of them began throwing rocks at the dorms and became part of the riot. "They were outraged, upset," Cedillos said.
Before daybreak, however, the inmates appeared to have organized an internal police force, and the compound was calm. Smith said that inmates regularly patrolled the perimeter of the center and established a system of runners to keep inmate leaders apprised of events elsewhere on the compound.
"The system was so fine-tuned, they monitored everything," Smith said.
Offenses that warranted an inmate's confinement by the ad hoc police force included making excessive noise and wandering too close to the hostages.
"Even the more militant inmates knew our safety was in their hands," Cedillos said. "It wasn't worth hurting us."
During the takeover, inmates from the center's mental health unit apparently had the run of the compound. But they were quickly captured and handcuffed if they became violent, Smith said.
Food, which was running low by the end of the siege, was apportioned more or less equally to inmates and hostages, including a Thanksgiving dinner of hot dogs and rice. "When they ate, we ate," Smith said. "When they drank, we drank."