Jailhouse Riot

In 1987 I was stationed at the Federal Detention Center.…

In 1987 I was stationed at the Federal Detention Center. We were housing approximately 1,100 Mariel Cubans who had violated their immigration parole by committing crimes in the US. They had served whatever sentence a local, state or federal courts had meted out and were then held in limbo awaiting repatriation to their homeland. It was November and I just completed my first rotation as an Institution Duty Officer and was home on Friday when one of my staff dropped by and told me there was going to be trouble at the joint. Accordingly, I went to my office and removed any irreplaceable memorabilia from potential harm.

It seems the US State Department had reached an agreement with the Cuban government to return all Marielitos currently held in the US to their homeland. The State Department in the flush of actually achieving an agreement with the Cuban government, gave the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Executive Office of Immigration Review less than 24 hours notice before they went public with their announcement. To put it mildly, the detainees were not amused with the news. There was a minor disturbance on Friday during the evening meal but the Cubans involved promised the Warden that there would be no further problems.

Saturday, was a different story, the inmates were much better organized and staged a coordinated riot that caused the Bureau of Prisons to lose control of the compound and Control Center upon release of inmates for the evening meal. I was called at 6 pm and told to respond to the institution. Exiting my driveway I observed an orange glow from the fires that had been set at the institution.

Upon arrival I was directed to the Entry Building where the executive staff was attempting to resolve the crisis and establish a plan of action. A series of bad decisions were made that the senior staff, myself included, ignored. Something about confronting inmates armed with spears and homemade machetes with plastic batons just didn’t seem the best option.

While in the entry building I observed several staff that had been captured by the Cubans and were brought to the entry building and was abused. They were subsequently released and allowed to leave the compound. The amount of abuse was constantly increased and it was apparent they were eventually going to threaten lethal force as a bargaining chip.

Accordingly, I obtained a M1 carbine, informed the Warden that I was entering the sally port with a weapon. Questioning my decision the Warden seemed somewhat mollified by my assertion that if the Cubans obtained my rifle it would only function as a club. Sure enough about an hour later some Cubans showed up to the sally port with two staff hostages. Both were in the grips of Cubans who had knives to their throats and demanded that they be released without conditions.

I told the Door Key Man to give me a field of fire.  Once the door was opened a crack, I told the Cubans holding my staff that if I saw blood they would die. I aimed in and with a round in the chamber, the safety off and the first stage of the trigger pulled, the Cubans recognized that I would terminate them, so they released the hostages. The range was about 3 to 5 yards and I believed that if a decision to fire had to be made I would have less than 1 second to neutralize two targets. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.

The Cubans continued to hold 30-plus staff as hostages for the duration of the situation, which was resolved without any fatalities. The riot/hostage situation lasted another six days with many games played by both sides. There were times I thought I had seen my last sunrise but that was just part of doing what needed to be done.

— VP, LA

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