A headline Firday on an article about uprisings by Cuban inmates should have said that the State Department alerted Justice Department officials to attempts to renew talks about a deportation agreement with Cuba, not to renewed talks. (Published 2/7/88)
A State Department lawyer testified yesterday that top Justice Department officials were alerted twice -- in July and October -- that the administration was trying to revive the deportation agreement whose announcement later sparked a takeover of two federal prisons by Cuban inmates.
Testifying at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the uprisings, deputy legal adviser Michael G. Kozak defended the State Department's decision not to warn the Justice Department last November that it was holding meetings with Cuban representatives and an agreement appeared imminent.
Justice officials have complained that they were told about the pact, in a telephone call from Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, only several hours before it was announced publicly.
Deputy Attorney General Arnold I. Burns said he was not blaming the State Department but that "in retrospect and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, yes, we think that we could have done more to prepare for handling the detainees had we had additional notice."
The agreement allows the repatriation of "excludable" Cubans, many of whom arrived in the 1980 Mariel boatlifts and have been detained after serving sentences for crimes committed here. Hours after hearing about the agreement, Cuban detainees rioted at the Federal Detention Center at Oakdale, La., followed two days later by rioting at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
More than 140 hostages were seized at both facilties, and buildings were burned. Burns testified yesterday that repairs would cost $30 million to $50 million. The inmates surrendered in return for the promise that their eligibility to remain in the United States would be reviewed individually.
U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob of Atlanta, who has heard cases involving the Cubans, yesterday described the process devised after the riots as flawed, because it does not allow the Cubans to present witnesses, testify or have lawyers appointed to represent them.
In his testimony, Kozak said negotiations with the Cuban government had to be secret and questioned what the Justice Department could have done with more warning. He added that when Meese was informed of the agreement, "there was no indication of 'Oh, well, we need a couple of days before we make an announcement.' "
Burns told reporters later that by the time of Abrams' call it was too late for Meese to seek a delay.
Burns said the July and October warnings from State gave the Justice Department "no idea that this was going to reach fruition at all."
A correctional supervisor at the Atlanta prison testified that Cuban inmates there warned him in September that Cubans planned a "major disturbance" in mid-November.
The supervisor, Calvin Whaley, said that on the morning of Nov. 23, two days after the Cubans had rioted at Oakdale, Atlanta prison officials were told the Cubans there "had made remarks about burning Atlanta and killing staff members." Despite misgivings among the staff about letting the inmates out of their cells for breakfast, Whaley said, top prison officials "repeated that we were under normal operation."
Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlan said at the time of the riot the Atlanta staff had been told to be on the lookout for signs of unrest and "reported none."