Cover Story: Prison riot!

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

Most people might need a minute or two to remember what they did for Thanksgiving 20 years ago. Not Alfredo Villoch.

A naturalized citizen who fled his native Cuba as a boy, Villoch embraced the holiday as a tradition of his adopted homeland. On that particular day in 1987, his mother and sister had come to Atlanta to spend the weekend with him and his wife.

But Villoch had more immediate concerns on his mind that day. Chief among them was staying alive.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, the prison accountant – who was 38 at the time – was being held hostage by hundreds of desperate Cuban detainees in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.

He was unwashed, unshaven, dressed in the same clothes he’d worn to work the previous Monday, when the prison had erupted into riot. Thanksgiving came three days after the takeover, after Villoch had been herded from one wrecked building to another by inmates armed with homemade knives and machetes. He’d watched as the office building in the center of the ancient prison where he’d worked for six years was set on fire, its brick walls swelling from the heat and then bursting apart. He’d spent his days huddled in a dormitory with other hostages, guarded by inmates and surrounded by empty tin cans, broken glass and other debris. And he worried that, at any moment, the SWAT troops and federal agents stationed outside the prison walls would burst in with guns blazing.

At one point, Villoch was visited by a prisoner he recognized as a well-known psychotic who normally was confined to solitary. Having gone several days without his medication, the man was wide-eyed and jittery. He’d come to ask Villoch, a fellow Cuban, for advice on how to deal with the stress of the situation.

“He said, ‘All this is really making me crazy,’” Villoch recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh, shit ...’”

But it was when smiling inmates brought out barbecued turkey to treat their hostages to a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner and then began to pass out Christmas cards that the reality of his predicament was hammered home for Villoch.

When the ordeal was finally over after 11 tense days, much of the prison was trashed and several buildings inside the walls lay in smoking ruins. The property loss was estimated at more than $35 million, with additional millions in government dollars going to relocate inmates, conduct investigations and pay disability for prison employees too shell-shocked by their experience as hostages to return to work.

During the standoff, Atlanta – and the rest of pre-Internet America – stayed glued to the evening news for updates. Would the feds storm the joint? Would the rest of the pen go up in flames? Would the Cubans free the hostages or kill them?

Officials at the Atlanta Federal Pen would prefer not to bring attention to a low point in its past: the longest prison takeover in U.S. history. They wouldn’t allow employees who were taken as hostages to be interviewed by CL, nor would they open their historical archives.

The riot and hostage crisis of 1987 was only the latest episode of notoriety for a hulking behemoth of a prison known to its unwilling residents as the “Big A.”

When it was completed in 1902, the wall – 37 feet high, 4 feet thick and enclosing a 23-acre compound – was the largest concrete structure in the world. It would hold that record until the construction of Boulder Dam in 1936. Sitting along a ridgeline in southeast Atlanta and ringed by guard towers, its vast façade of Stone Mountain granite ranks with the old Sears warehouse (now City Hall East) and the state Capitol among the city’s most imposing edifices. As relics of Machine Age America, its cellblocks – four stories tall – are like sets straight out of a Jimmy Cagney movie.

It’s a fitting venue for the rogue’s gallery of infamous inmates who’ve passed through the Big A’s gates over the decades. The list includes celebrated criminals such as Chicago gangster Al Capone, Mafia kingpin Vito Genovese and Boston mobster “Whitey” Bulger. It also housed such political prisoners as black nationalist Marcus Garvey and socialist Eugene V. Debs, who ran a presidential campaign from his cell. (He came in third with just less than a million votes.)

And the pen had its share of unique ne’er-do-wells: Frank Abagnale, the young con man portrayed in the film Catch Me if You Can; Denny McLain, the last major league pitcher to win 30 games; and Fred Tokars, the Marietta attorney who paid hitmen to murder his wife in front of their children.

Much like some of its occupants, the Big A has cheated death more than once. Outdated, overcrowded and run-down, it had long been considered the blackest hole in the American prison system. After a series of inmate killings in the ’70s – including several Mob hits – it was scheduled by congressional decree to be closed by the mid-’80s.

It was the Cubans, ironically, who saved it.

Gary Leshaw remembers the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary as a genuine hellhole, a place whose fortresslike architecture seemed designed to extinguish hope and imperil sanity. After he joined Atlanta Legal Aid as a staff attorney in 1976, Leshaw’s job was to sue the Bureau of Prisons into cleaning up the Atlanta Pen.

“It’s a prison from the old school,” he says. “At the time, a lot of the medical staff were unlicensed, there was no mental-health treatment, the plumbing didn’t work, the ovens didn’t get hot enough to kill bacteria and it was so overcrowded that people couldn’t get access to visitation.”

Now in private practice in Decatur and specializing in consumer litigation, Leshaw still has hundreds of old photos he took during court-mandated tours of the prisons. The photos document the squalor in which prisoners lived. They show ventilation ducts choked with dust, peeling paint, rubbish-strewn storerooms, broken porcelain fixtures and filthy, stained mattresses.

Every time a judge ordered prison upgrades, Warden Jack Hanberry, an ordained Baptist minister, would make a few fixes. Then, Leshaw says, things would quickly backslide.

After four years on the job, Hanberry was busted for shoplifting. Although a cop testified he saw the warden unwrap a hairbrush in a grocery store and stash it in his pocket, Hanberry was acquitted and returned to work. Even after his own brush with the law, he continued to use harsh treatment on inmates and “ran the prison like his own palace,” Leshaw recalls.

The frustrated attorney decided the warden needed still more embarrassment. He leaked a tip he’d gotten from Denny McLain, the ex-pitcher who was serving time in Atlanta for racketeering, extortion and cocaine possession. McLain told Leshaw that someone at the prison was ordering porno tapes on the taxpayers’ dime. Purchase orders obtained by local news outlets revealed the pen had requisitioned such titles as Emanuelle, Little Miss Innocence, Erotic Aerobics and, a particularly odd selection for an all-male prison, The Joy of Natural Childbirth.

Although Hanberry – who declined to comment for this story – said at the time that he knew nothing of the purchases, it was an embarrassment to the prison. Within a year, he’d been replaced as warden by Joseph Petrovsky.

Conditions gradually improved. The prison even launched a $63 million overhaul. But with nearly 2,300 inmates crammed into a prison built for 1,500, and eight men commonly housed in a four-man cell, there was only so much that could be done to better the quality of life.

By that time, Leshaw had shifted much of his attention to the plight of the Cuban detainees.

The Mariel Boatlift of 1980 began with an international incident that did not at first involve the United States. In April of that year, a time when the Cuban economy was in the toilet, scores of disenfranchised Cubans tried to gain foreign asylum by storming the Peruvian embassy in Havana. Fidel Castro responded by opening the port of Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave the island.

After President Jimmy Carter subsequently declared that the United States had “open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination,” the floodgates opened. By that fall, 125,000 Cubans, most of whom carried no papers and spoke little English, had landed in South Florida.

Many of the so-called Marielitos were sent to relocation camps and halfway houses by U.S. officials, who suspected that Castro also had emptied his country’s prisons and insane asylums.

Because none of the Cubans had gone through proper immigration channels, they were given the shaky legal status of “excludable aliens” – an INS version of parole – meaning they could be deported for any infraction. Refugees who ran afoul of the law for offenses ranging from robbery to loitering were seized by the INS after they completed their sentences.

Lacking space to house the Cubans, the feds decided to rescue the Atlanta Penitentiary from its scheduled mothballing. Over the next few years, more than 2,000 detainees were shipped off to cool their heels in the 78-year-old prison while the State Department tried to persuade Castro to take them back.

Alfredo Villoch was aware that the Atlanta Pen was crowded with his former countrymen, but he didn’t let that fact bother him when he took a job there in 1982 after a stint as a government accountant. It was only when he arrived for his first day at work that he wondered what he’d gotten himself into.

“When you first see those sally port doors close behind you, it’s kind of scary,” he says. “I told myself, ‘Well, this is a new beginning.’”

Villoch oversaw payroll, making sure prisoners got credited for time they spent working in the on-site factories making brooms, towels, mailbags, military blankets and institutional furniture.

He quickly adjusted to workdays in a maximum-security prison. Sent to the United States at age 12 by a father who didn’t want his son growing up in a Communist dictatorship, Villoch had spent several years in various orphanages before he was reunited with his parents. “Because of my experiences, I was used to being in a very structured environment that might have really bothered someone else,” he says.

His accounting staff even included a few prisoners, although Villoch says he was required to double-check their figures and collect all pencils and other materials before they returned to their cells.

It was a rough place to work, and a rough place to live. During the 1980s, the prison reported more than 175 suicide attempts among the Cubans – nine of which were successful – and a dozen inmate murders, not counting one detainee who allegedly was beaten to death by guards. The prison reported hundreds of cases of self-mutilation and averaged 15 inmate-on-inmate assaults a month.

Over time, Villoch got to know many of the Cuban detainees. “There was no question in my mind that many of them were criminals,” he says. “But the issue for me was that they weren’t told whether they would ever get out.”

The inmates grew more and more impatient with their legal limbo and with the conditions they faced. In late 1984, several Cuban inmates in Atlanta stood in the exercise yard and unfurled a bedsheet on which was written “Libertad” — Spanish for “freedom.” They were quickly subdued by guards and the entire prison was placed in “lockdown” for several weeks. No one was allowed out of his cell for more than a few minutes at a time. Prison guards threw out many of the inmates’ personal belongings — including family photos and Bibles.

In retaliation, prisoners staged a mini-riot a few weeks later, burning mattresses, smashing windows and chanting slogans. When two accused ringleaders were put on trial before U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob, the jury refused to convict them. “The jurors were incensed at the way the detainees had been treated,” the judge recalls.

By most accounts, that treatment was appalling. In his 1988 memoir, Strikeout, McLain expressed sympathy for the hundreds of Cubans who’d been locked away in Atlanta.

“I saw Cubans get locked to their beds for long periods, including one guy for three days,” he wrote. “Three times a day, a cop would unlock one arm so he could eat. I saw cops throw water on these guys so they’d get sick and vomit on themselves. Since they were immobile, they had no choice but to lie in their own waste. ... It was the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen.”

During the ’80s, the war on drugs created a population explosion among federal inmates and spurred a prison-building boom. To ease overcrowding in Atlanta, the feds had sent about 1,000 Cubans to a new minimum-security detention center outside of Oakdale, La. By 1987, there were a couple hundred American inmates in the Big A and about 1,400 Cubans, some who had been locked away for six years without so much as a hearing.

Leshaw recalls meeting one Cuban inmate who seemed to be a genius. “He didn’t speak English when he came to the U.S.,” Leshaw says. “But by the time I met him, he was quoting complicated statutory law to me.”

The situation began to heat up when, without warning the Bureau of Prisons, a State Department official announced on Nov. 20 that a deal had been brokered with Castro that would allow about 2,500 detainees to be returned to Cuba. At the time, there were about 3,800 detainees being held around the country.

Deportations, it was announced, would begin immediately.

A day later, a Saturday, the Oakdale inmates rioted, seizing 28 hostages and burning several buildings. Although prison officials worried that the Atlanta pen was another powder keg, Warden Petrovsky decided to keep business as usual, fearing that a lockdown would provoke violence.

Villoch recalls arriving at work that Monday, Nov. 23, and sensing immediately something was wrong. “Usually, the Cubans were very loud, like a beehive,” he says. “But when I walked through the cellblock that morning, you could’ve heard a pin drop and I thought, ‘Uh, oh.’”

By mid-morning, the tension was nearly unbearable. Villoch made a point of escorting the handful of female office workers out of the prison. Then he returned to his desk.

When asked if he regrets not joining other employees in leaving the pen, Villoch is quick to reply: “What do you think?” Then why did he go back? “I brought my lunch that day,” he explains. Twenty years later, he even remembers what he packed for himself: spaghetti.

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.

Leshaw says nearly all his former clients quickly faded into the woodwork. Having left marginal lives in Cuba and gained a well-earned distrust of the American government, they simply wanted to be free – and anonymous. “I don’t believe in predestination,” Leshaw says. “But I do believe one of my purposes in life was to be there at that time.”

During the 11 days of the standoff, none of the hostages had been hurt. In subsequent news accounts, trapped prison guards and employees said they were treated well and even reassured by their captors that they wouldn’t be harmed. Even so, several former hostages would later complain of nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

In the wake of the war against drugs, the federal government decided to renovate the federal pen and continue its use as a federal prison.

Alfredo Villoch continued to work at the prison for another few months. He eventually transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, where he still works as an investigator.

He says he’ll have an occasional flashback to Thanksgiving 1987, but he isn’t haunted by his experience. Instead, he says it helped him learn to cope better with life’s frustrations. “Those 11 days as a hostage was the worst time of my life,” he says. “But I don’t mind talking about it. Talking helps me be at peace with it.”

He and the other remaining hostages walked out of the pen to the sounds of the inmates cheering. He was a free man again. But just before he was released, a half-dozen giddy Cubans came up to him. They acted like buddies about to say goodbye at summer camp. And they insisted on signing his shirt.

When he got home after he was released, the first thing Villoch did was trash the filthy, stained clothing that he’d worn continuously through the 11-day standoff. But he did stash away one memento in his basement – the signed shirt. “I’m not sure why I kept it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I just kept it.”