Prison riot! 

Cuban refugees took over the Atlanta Federal Pen 20 years ago. It turned into the longest prison takeover in U.S. history

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Sometime around 11 a.m., the joint blew up.

Villoch says he first heard shouting, banging and commotion from the mess hall. He locked the doors to the office building and instructed his remaining staff to remove ties and jackets – anything that would identify them as prison employees.

Battering began on the doors, and Villoch finally unlocked them when he saw the hinges start to buckle under the weight of the bodies pushing from outside. Inmates swarmed in and grabbed the workers, first locking them in a storage cage in the factory next door, then taking him to the kitchen and finally to the dorm where he was to remain for the next week and a half.

Fire soon broke out in a warehouse, which burned to the ground because firemen weren't allowed to enter the prison. In mid-afternoon, retreating guards shot and killed one of the Cubans, which only sent the rioters into a worse frenzy.

That first day, Villoch remembers, he didn't have time to worry about what the inmates might eventually do with their 89 hostages. "I was just taking things minute-by-minute," he says. "The Cubans all respected me because I had always treated them like human beings. I was never threatened personally, but you never knew what could happen."

The evening of the takeover, Leshaw got a call from the FBI: The Cubans were asking for him. They wanted to see their lawyer.

With riot police lining the hallway outside, Leshaw and two FBI hostage negotiators met with four inmates chosen to represent the detainees. The Cubans were demanding an end to deportations; the feds insisted that no one would be released without hearings.

Leshaw felt torn over his own role in the negotiations. "On the one hand, I was representing the Cubans," he says. "But I couldn't simply play lawyer and tell them to hold out for a better deal because I knew my first responsibility was to keep the hostages safe."

That first day, an estimated $20 million in fresh renovations to the prison had gone up in smoke. "We'd actually made some progress in getting the prison cleaned up before they burned it," Leshaw says.

After two days, negotiations stalled, although a trickle of hostages was released because of age or ill health, and the Cubans kept changing representatives, each time starting the process over from scratch. To Leshaw's frustration, the feds wouldn't allow him back into the prison for a solid week, so he spent his time giving interviews, appearing on news shows and attending impromptu vigils. Outside the prison, along McDonough Boulevard, there was a circuslike atmosphere. TV news crews, police, politicians, inmates' families and gawkers from surrounding neighborhoods crowded the sidewalks.

The worst part of the ordeal for Villoch was being asked to translate TV coverage into Spanish, because he didn't know what information might spur his captors to do something drastic. "I had to be very diplomatic in describing what the politicians outside the prison were saying they wanted to do about the Cubans," he says. "That was the most draining aspect of the whole thing."

Villoch reserved a special distaste for tough-talking Republican Congressman Pat Swindall. "Every time that guy opened his mouth, he caused trouble," the former hostage says. Two years later, Swindall himself would be sent to federal prison after being convicted of lying to a grand jury in a money-laundering case.

On day 9 of the standoff, Leshaw was fed up with waiting.

The Oakdale inmates had surrendered two days earlier, but Atlanta seemed at a stalemate. He went to a radio studio at WRFG-FM (89.3), where longtime DJ Ernesto Perez broadcast Latin music shows popular with the Cuban inmates. Perez had been taking calls from the detainees and their families all week and Leshaw now requested over the air that, as a sign of good faith, the Cubans should release another hostage.

When he returned to the prison, angry FBI agents accused Leshaw of interfering with negotiations, but he was unapologetic after the freed hostage passed him on his way out. "I remember the look of relief on the guy's face," he says.

Soon, however, negotiations gathered momentum. Leshaw explained the government's offers to the Cubans and relayed counteroffers. By noon Thursday, Dec. 3, a tentative deal had been struck. The eight-point agreement called for a moratorium on deportations and a fresh round of hearings for all 3,800 detainees in federal custody.

In retrospect, Leshaw believes the government kept its part of the bargain, more or less. Over the next four years, about 2,400 of the Cuban detainees were set free after it was determined they didn't pose a threat to the public. Those who weren't released at that stage were given annual parole hearings. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the remaining 747 Marielitos released in 2005. It is unknown how many of the refugees were deported back to Cuba.

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