Atlanta — ''Freedom.'' The word was scrawled on a bed sheet hung outside one of the barred windows in the tall, gray-stone walled United States penitentiary here.
It was one of several banners, that, along with inmate-set fires and shouting last week, briefly showed the outside world the growing frustration among Cuban prisoners being held here with no release date. It was their second protest within a month.
Freedom was the drawing card for most of the 125,000 Cubans who came to the US in 1980 in a massive exodus. About 98 percent of them have found freedom in this country.
The other 2 percent are growing increasingly restless and less hopeful, not knowing when, if ever, they will be allowed out of prison.
The detainees have been confined for crimes they committed in Cuba or since arriving in the US. But unlike American prisoners who serve sentences and are released, some may never be released, say federal immigration officials.
''We will hold them till we can release them back to the country from which they came,'' says Louis Richard, district director here for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Moments earlier he had said that ''we cannot deport these aliens to Cuba'' because Cuba does not want them back.
Each prisoner is reviewed for release periodically, but most with less serious records have been released. The vast majority of detainees and those newly arriving in prison are felons, says Stephen Weglian of the Justice Department.
About 30 detainees a month have been winning release on parole, but about 60 others are imprisoned each month for actions in the US, he says.
''You have a more hardened group of criminal coming in, and their chances for being released are diminishing,'' says Mr. Weglian. Many are in for drug or violent crimes, he adds.
Nearly 1,500 Cubans are detained in the federal penitentiary here. Another 800 to 1,000 are in state and county prisons or await transfer to the federal prison when there is room, Mr. Richard says.
Still, the confinement of these prisoners could go on for years, says Dave Webster, one of the handful of lawyers seeking release of the Cubans and improved prison conditions.
Meanwhile, the imprisoned Cubans are feeling an''enormous frustration,'' says Deborah Ebel, another of the lawyers. ''They don't know when they're going to get out. They don't understand. Nobody really tells them anything,'' she says. Some also are being held for crimes that are not so serious, she adds.
Lawyers for the Cubans are seeking more formal parole hearings and court review of parole denials.
The lawyers also filed charges in federal court last week alleging improper prison conditions and needless destruction of prisoner property during the crackdown on the disturbance.
Many paroled Cubans have done well, the INS's Richard says. But about 150 who were paroled have been locked up again, he said. ''Many of them (those now in prison) don't know the difference between right or wrong.''
Photo albums, Bibles, and other belonging were ''thrown all over,'' Ms. Ebel says. Federal prison spokesman Bill Noonan says some inmates were burning their property. Two prisoners have been on a hunger strike for two weeks, he said. One was being force-fed, he added.