Where are the "Marielitos" when we need them?
We do remember the Marielitos, don’t we? They were a gift from Fidel Castro to his warm, close personal friend, Jimmy Carter, when Mr. Peanut was President of the United States. Seeing a good opportunity to rid himself of a financial burden, Castro indiscriminately emptied his prisons, on the condition that the inmates depart immediately for America. Those released included the dregs of humanity—murderers, rapists, bandits, etc.—as well as political prisoners and the mentally ill. (Actually, any Cuban who opposes Castro’s regime is adjudged “mentally ill” for rejecting the communist utopia, so the line gets a bit blurred.) A mixed fleet of humanitarians and fishermen starved by Carter’s economic policies immediately set sail for Cuba. Since the majority of Castro’s castaways departed from the port of Mariel, they were given the appellation “Marielitos”.
It was a nightmare for our Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS]. The Coasties worked heroically to rescue overloaded boats, alleviate the horrible conditions aboard those boats, and generally bring some order to the chaotic rush to our shores. The overwhelmed INS tried feverishly to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in the influx. Of course, anyone who has seen Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” knows it was relatively easy for a common murderer to declare himself “a political prisoner” and hit the streets after a cursory interview.
Two items to note: Not all the “immigrants” were released. By whatever means, their records and the truth of their imprisonment had followed them across the Florida Strait. Some of the arrivers were obviously mentally ill, and required institutional care. Some were a combination of both: mentally ill criminals. These guys were bundled off to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, while the government pondered what to do with them.
The rest of the castaways were placed on INS parole. If they had sponsors—family, friends, or churches for the most part—and no obvious criminal record, they were released to pursue the American dream. Most of the Marielitos did this, and have flourished into solid citizens. They are an asset to America, and a testimony to the Cuban people and man’s inherent desire to be free.
Some Marielitos, however, wandered astray. Whether they were career criminals who prefer stealing and dealing to working for a living, or simply lacked the skill sets to get along in American society, they ran afoul of the law. The terms of the INS parole were pretty straightforward: if you get busted, you’ll do the respective state time to which you’re sentenced, and then you’ll be returned to federal custody pending an INS hearing to determine your future viability as a potential citizen. The transfer of state prisoners to federal custody is accomplished via documentation generalized as “a detainer”. Thus, those Marielitos who found themselves back in federal custody were “detainees”.
We’ve heard that word a lot lately: “detainees”. It’s been applied almost exclusively in regard to the terror suspects imprisoned at our military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. [“Gitmo” for short.] “Detainee” is a kinder, gentler word than “suspect”, “terrorist”, or “prisoner”. It suggests someone taking your elbow on the street and saying “Sorry to detain you, but could we talk for a minute?” It lacks the precision of “enemy combatants” as opposed to “prisoners of war”. “POW” suggests a uniformed soldier in the established army of an antagonistic nation-state. An “enemy combatant” is any squirrel with an AK-47 and a serious grudge. If an enemy combatant ignores Robert’s Rule of Order—“Don’t wave at the cops and don’t shoot at the Army”—and falls into our hands, he becomes “a detainee”. Why don’t we talk about this over a cup of coffee and a cigarette, Abu? It’ll only take a few minutes.
Enough about semantics, and we’ll return to Gitmo in a moment.
By 1987, the population of Cuban “detainees” being held in the antiquated Atlanta federal penitentiary had swelled to over 1000. USP-Atlanta, as it’s called, was built at the turn of the 20th century, and was scheduled for demolition prior to the Mariel boatlift. Most of the American inmates had been transferred to more modern facilities, so for the beleaguered INS, it seemed like a perfect place to hold the “detainees” until further arrangements could be made. The prison’s aging infrastructure was intact, and there was a large industrial facility that could continue to operate in the interim. (UNICOR, a.k.a. Federal Prison Industries, is a cash cow for the government, especially the Bureau of Prisons. It manufactures a variety of products for the military and for sale by the General Services Administration [GSA]. It will require a separate post here to adequately explain the history and corruption of UNICOR. Suffice it now to say that there were compelling political and financial reasons that the UNICOR facility in USP-Atlanta continue to operate using Cuban labor.)
Conditions in USP-Atlanta were brutal. There was a major fight every day, a stabbing every week, and a murder every month. Staff members were not immune to this violence, and they responded in kind. To give an idea of the housing conditions, I refer my readers to Alcatraz. I’ll bet anyone who is using a computer has seen some glimpse of the interior of Alcatraz prison, whether in Clint Eastwood movies or various documentaries. Bear in mind that when Alcatraz was built, it was modeled after the older Atlanta penitentiary.
The INS set up shop in USP-Atlanta, and a three-man panel began conducting parole reviews. They would average maybe four per day, between paperwork and coffee breaks. They were not conducting their hearings five days a week, 52 weeks a year, either. A Cuban “detainee” could literally wait years for an interview, and even then be told that his outside sponsorship and support was not sufficient to warrant a release into the community. Sorry, Jose, not a good enough release plan. Better luck next time… and his file goes back to the bottom of the stack for another year or two or three. The families of the “detainees” routinely gathered on the sidewalk outside the prison on weekends, along with church groups and members of Amnesty International, to protest the procedures, incarceration conditions, and ongoing imprisonments. They were routinely ignored, or given bureaucratic snow jobs.
In November of 1987, the United States finally reached an accord with Castro about a partial return of some of the Marielitos. Those who had been deemed unfit for release since their arrival, and only those, were to be returned to Cuba. These were regarded as “special cases”, and were being held in isolation from the general population of “detainees”.
Enter the liberal media at this point. WSB is a television station owned and operated by Cox Enterprises, the same conglomerate that publishes the execrable Atlanta Journal-Constitution. WSB immediately began reportage of the agreement between Cuba and the US on the Friday afternoon when it was signed. They neglected to mention that deportation would only apply to a handful of “special cases”. They merely blathered words to the effect that “the Cuban detainees being held in the Atlanta penitentiary will be deported.” The rumors started to spread inside the penitentiary, or “detention center” as it was now called. Over the long weekend that followed, the “detainees” convinced themselves that they were all going to be deported. WSB aired a series of emotionally inflammatory interviews with the families of the “detainees”. One that stands out in memory, even 19 years later, was a “detainee’s” wife asserting to the camera that her husband would rather die than return to Cuba. The “detainees” in USP-Atlanta had access to TV and newspapers; from the comfort of my living room, I wondered what effect these interviews were having on them. Along with the rest of the world, I would soon find out.
Whatever their shortcomings as productive members of society, whatever their sins might have been, there are two things to remember here about the Marielitos. Number one: the United States was not in a state of war, or quasi-war, with anyone at the time. The undeclared World War III against communism sputtered along in increments, but no gang of Cuban fanatics had slaughtered innocent Americans en masse, nor had the Marielitos fired at the Coast Guard when the cutters arrived to assist them. The offenses of the “detainees” ran the gamut from petty theft to murder, but they all had one thing in common: none of them wanted to return to Castro’s communist dictatorship. As brutal and frustrating as imprisonment in USP-Atlanta was, it was infinitely better than the indefinite hell of a Cuban prison, where release for many was contingent upon the whims of the dictator. They might have been hairball criminals in some cases, but none of the Marielitos could be classified as “enemy combatants”.
Number two, in America, all but the most despicable sociopaths are eventually released from prison and given a shot at redemption. What they make of it is up to them. Although the recidivism rate hovers around 66%, that still means one out of three convicts change their lives for the better. Despite their resentments and frustrations, prior to November 1987 the Marielito “detainees” knew that if they remained in America, they stood a good chance of eventually breathing free air again. To this point, they had controlled their seething emotions. Now, fueled by misleading reports and inflammatory rhetoric from the local liberal media, they decided they had nothing to lose. That Cuban wife was right; better to die than to return to Castro’s Cuba.
By noon on Monday, 23 November 1987, the Marielitos were in control of USP-Atlanta. The UNICOR factory, a warehouse, and the recreation building were blazing unchecked. At least one Cuban was dead. Fleeing staff members, debriefed at the gates, estimated there were 79 hostages being held inside the chapel and a separate dormitory building for “the American cadre”—a handful of homegrown inmates who worked at specialized skills within the prison. Every federal employee authorized to carry a firearm, along with the Georgia National Guard, was called out to take stations on the perimeter of the penitentiary. It was, to say the least, a tragic mess.
To quote one of my favorite people, Bill Cosby: “I told you all that so I can tell you this.”
In light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on our handling of “enemy combatants” in World War IV, I think we should close Gitmo immediately. Not because it’s brutal or inhumane; it compares well with all of our federal and most of our state prison facilities on the mainland. The terrorist “detainees” are catered to in ways that would make our indigenous criminals envious. Many in Gitmo have vowed that if released, they will return to the jihad and continue killing infidels… an infidel being anyone who doesn’t convert to Islam or agree to the slavery of dhimmitude. No, I have other reasons for advocating the dismantling of the prison at Gitmo.
The first thing that comes to mind is the climate. It’s too environmentally friendly. This falls in with my second reason for closing Gitmo. Since the Supreme Court now says the terrorists are entitled to civilian lawyers, and trials in civilian courts, let’s turn these “detainees” over to a civilian custodial agency: the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There are federal prisons in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and upstate New York that are much less climate-friendly than the pseudo-Club Med of Gitmo. With a little reshuffling of American inmates, one of these facilities could be made available. Better still, we could transport the “detainees” to Alaska. That state has no federal prison facility of its own; they must send their federal offenders to facilities in the lower 48. But, hey! It’s summer! Let’s take the Gitmo “detainees” somewhere above the permafrost line, put them in tents, give them tools and materials, and tell them they’d better get to work if they want decent shelter by the time winter arrives. The INS has been absorbed by the ICE bureaucracy, but they can be placed in charge of determining who’s going to go to civilian court first. That will guarantee a sizeable work force available for next summer, so the Alaska facility can be improved and expanded. By the time all the detainees have been processed through the civilian courts, and released by liberal civilian judges—like the 9th Circus Court of Appeals—to continue killing us, Alaska will have a nice federal penal facility of its own. Our military in Gitmo can continue their missions without the burden of caring for whining, belligerent thugs. Instead of being demolished, Camp Delta could be reduced to a minimum-security federal prison, staffed by the BOP. Volunteer American inmates in the federal system can go there to work on maintenance details for the military. The model for this is already in place, at Eglin Air Force base and other locations around the country. I’ll bet a lot of our homegrown convicts, especially those housed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, would like to serve their time in a milder climate, and be grateful for the chance. Security could truly be minimal; where could the inmates escape to? Cuba? Wouldn’t that be an ironic turnabout on Castro!
Which brings us back to the Marielitos. Where are they now? How many remain in the federal prison system under “detention”? Is it a revolving-door thing, where new “detainees” are still coming in as old ones finally go out? I confess to researching portions of this post, but not the answers to those questions. If any of my readers have made it this far, and care about the initial question, perhaps they will go and discover the facts for themselves. Please let us know what you find out.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the riot. A peaceful end to that situation was negotiated, and the hostages were released, none the worse for wear. (However, many resigned or retired from the BOP, and a few sued for emotional distress.) The Cubans were taken back into custody, and promptly dispersed into smaller, segregated groups throughout the nationwide federal prison system. USP-Atlanta was totally gutted and rebuilt into a modern, more humane facility; just as the city of Atlanta used to call itself “the Phoenix city”, so has the Atlanta federal prison risen from the ashes.
Hearing all of the rhetoric about terrorist “detainees” being held “indefinitely” pending military tribunals brought my questions to mind. Are any of the original Marielitos still in the federal system, being held without trial, or waiting years for their appearance before an INS “tribunal”? Their “rights” were blithely ignored for a decade or more, and they are at least benign towards the United States. Given a chance, most would like to become citizens. How many members of Al Qaeda—which, by edict must now be recognized under the Geneva Convention—would say that?