Justice Department officials yesterday strongly defended their handling of the takeover by Cuban detainees of federal prisons in Atlanta and Oakdale, La., saying that they did the best they could with almost no warning from the State Department of the deportation pact that sparked the riots.

"The situations were well-handled throughout," Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlan told reporters. "Every decision that was made, either by me or by the attorney general, as I see it, was the best decision that could have been made at the time it was made," he said. "There is no decision that I look back on during the past two weeks that I would have wished I made a different decision."

He estimated it will cost $14 million to rebuild the Oakdale detention center, which opened last year, and said experts are still assessing damage to the Atlanta prison.

Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott said Justice Department officials were informed only four hours before the public announcement Nov. 20 that the State Department had reached agreement with the Cuban government to reinstate a pact permitting deportation to Cuba of more than 2,500 Cubans who entered this country during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

Cuban inmates knew of the revived pact within 10 minutes of news service reports about it, Trott said. "Obviously, the Department of Justice was therefore in a catch-up situation," he said.

Had prison and immigration officials had a few days' warning, Quinlan said, "we would have explained some of the ramifications" to the more than 1,000 Cubans held at the Oakdale Federal Detention Center and 1,400 at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary "and maybe that would have tempered their feelings about what was going to be happening to them."

The State Department declined official comment. However, a senior State Department official who asked not to be identified shrugged off the criticism. "How much warning do you need?" the official said, referring to the lag between the announcement and the uprisings at Oakdale and Atlanta. "Twenty-four hours? Seventy-two hours?"

Riots broke out at Oakdale on the night of Saturday, Nov. 21, the day after the agreement was announced, and Cubans seized control of the Atlanta prison the following Monday morning.

Once the news was out, Quinlan said, "We were doing everything we could to explain" what the agreement would mean. "It obviously was not enough time. Particularly, I think, at Atlanta they got caught up in a frenzy of what was happening at Oakdale."

Trott conceded, however, that "there's no guarantee that {additional warning} would have made any difference. None at all."

The Cubans seized 28 hostages at Oakdale and 94 at Atlanta. After standoffs that lasted nine days at Oakdale and 11 at Atlanta, they surrendered peacefully to federal authorities who promised a "full, fair and equitable" review before ordering any Cubans deported.

Quinlan said officials could not have prevented the riot by "locking down" the Oakdale facility, designed for short-term detention of illegal aliens and candidates for political asylum, and later used to house the Cubans. Most of the inmates had been convicted of crimes and were being held indefinitely after serving their sentences because Cuba would not accept them. "There was no total lockdown capability at that facility," Quinlan said.

He said he personally decided not to order a lockdown at Atlanta -- even after the uprising in Oakdale -- because 260 detainees lived in a large dormitory rather than individual cells, and because earlier lockdowns had themselves precipitated riots.

Trott termed that move "an informed decision." He said "professionals at the scene who had been taking the pulse of Cuban detainees for months and months and months" believed that "a lockdown under the circumstances at that time, with Oakdale where it was, was a guaranteed uprising, and in view of that . . . it was their best judgment that they had an opportunity to maybe ride this out."

The officials also said they consciously chose to let the Atlanta rioters seize additional hostages at the prison hospital rather than risk prompting violence to the hostages in both places. Three days after the disturbance broke out, the rioters took 25 other hostages who had barricaded themselves in the hospital on the prison grounds.

"We went back and forth and back and forth on what we should do on that hospital," Trott said. "The decision was made that if we tried to protect the hospital against a move by the detainees, that carried with it the capacity to spark violence at Atlanta" with "many lives lost."

Furthermore, Trott said, "if violence broke out at one place it would most probably break out at another, and we'd be faced with the simultaneous requirement to go into each to save lives . . . . We finally came to the conclusion that we have to allow the hostage group to get larger in order eventually to talk our way out of the situation."