ATLANTA, DEC. 2 -- In 1984, when Carla Dudeck organized the first candlelight vigil for Cubans detained in the federal penitentiary here after finishing their criminal sentences, only eight Quakers came.
"Latin American groups I called said they didn't want to rock the boat," Dudeck said. "Leftist groups weren't sympathetic because these guys had left Cuba and were strongly anticommunist."
But Dudeck, from a conservative, moralistic family in Jacksonville, Fla., found "something kind of appealing to standing up for people who have nobody else to stand up for them, for people who've gotten a raw deal."
A year later, she says, "a rubber stamp and four people" became the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees after reporters here kept asking about the people holding monthly vigils at the prison. Last October, 100 people showed up.
One of them was Gary Leshaw, a lawyer with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, who had brought a lawsuit about conditions in the aging prison that resulted in an ongoing $50 million renovation project.
In exchange for the release of a hostage Tuesday night, the fifth to be freed of 94, Leshaw was admitted as legal adviser to the detainees in negotiations to end the 10-day takeover.
Another activist at the October vigil was Steven Donziger, who works for a sentencing-alternative group that has helped the coalition train citizens to represent detainees at parole hearings.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service began such administrative parole hearings last June during a prolonged suspension of Cuba's accord with the United States to accept deportees.
So far, INS panels have reviewed the cases of about 1,500 of the 3,806 Cubans being detained after finishing criminal sentences and have cleared about 800 for release to halfway houses, according to Justice Department sources.
As of Nov. 21, 91 had been released; four were released Monday and about two dozen are expected to be released "over the next two weeks," department spokesman Terry Eastland said. Justice Department officials blamed the delays in part on a shortage of beds in halfway houses.
"It's not a liberal-conservative issue, it's a human-rights issue," Donziger said. "It's not fair to detain people with no charge, no matter what crimes people committed in the past. Except for 200 people who have never been let go, all these guys are in prison for nothing, nothing."
Donziger and Dudeck spent several days last week in Oakdale, La., during negotiations that ended a nine-day takeover by Cuban inmates there.
With meager foundation and church support, Dudeck mails a monthly newsletter to 1,200 Cuban inmates and 800 of their families. Since March, she has been paid at the rate of $15,000 a year to do full time what she previously managed to do while working as a waitress and night-shift baker.
After Dudeck wrote a letter to a local newspaper pleading for fair treatment of the detainees, one inmate's wife called her from Wisconsin. Through her, Dudeck met her first detainees and their relatives.
When the U.S. Supreme Court refused a year ago to hear an appeal of a District Court decision favorable to the Cubans' release, Dudeck and the coalition became involved in preparation of a symbolic suit before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States.
Realizing that the INS was not keeping transcripts of parole hearings, over which Border Patrol officers often presided, Dudeck wrote to Cuban detainees around the country asking to hear their stories.
"I would write to one man in a county jail somewhere and get letters from 30 detainees back," she said.
Besides the 1,400 Cubans held here when the takeover began and an estimated 1,100 who were in Oakdale, 1,200 are scattered among about 60 prisons and jails around the country.
Tuesday night, about 200 inmates here stood on the roof of the prison hospital, serenaded Dudeck with "Happy Birthday" in English and released the hostage, partly as a 29th birthday gift for her.
"When I told my Moral Majority-type dad what I was doing, he said, 'These people are all murderers,' " Dudeck said. "Then I showed him enough information about who they are that now he writes his congressman."
She was further encouraged when an Atlanta jury acquitted two Cuban inmates of inciting a 1984 riot at the prison. "I thought, if you can convince my father and you can convince an Atlanta jury, then you can persuade the public," Dudeck said. "It just seems like the right thing to be doing."