Manuel de la Torre Rodriguez, protesting the continued detention of some 1, 800 Cuban refugees in the federal prison here, has refused to eat since May 1. Mr. de la Torre says he is prepared to die in his attempt to force US officials to do something to end the plight of the refugees. And there are indications that some other Cubans in the prison here may join the hunger strike.
A year ago some 125,000 Cubans jammed into Key West, Fla., arriving in a flotilla of mostly small boats. Most of the refugees have found at least temporary homes in the United States. But the future of these "detainees" remains uncertain.
The offenses for which they were imprisoned in Cuba range from property crimes (75 percent) to homicide (5 percent).
The US doesn't want them because of their criminal records, and Cuba doesn't want them back. No other country seems likely to accept them.
"There are no easy answers," says Art Brill, a spokesman for the federal Cuban-Haitian task force.
A federal judge has ordered the release of one Cuban refugee here. The refugee's lawyer argued that his client was being held indefinitely in violation of international law. But the US Justice Department is appealing, and the refugee remains detained.
Some of the Cubans heled here are "petty" criminals; others are "hardened" criminals. But the "majority are in that big gray area," said Michael Trominski , director of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) screening at the US penitentiary here.
About 40 of the Cubans had been released from prison to sponsors, and another 170 had been cleared for release. But that process was halted pending a report expected in late May by a Cabinet-level panel on overall immigration policies.
"There has been less than full-speed action in determining who belongs where, " complains Myron Kramer, a private immigration attorney in Atlanta who is representing some of the Cubans.
So the Cubans wait, in a legal and human dilemma, in the massive, old facility the US Bureau of Prisons plans to close in 1984.
Federal court suits filed in behalf of some of the Cubans allege overcrowding , inadequate sanitation and medical facilities, and excessive use of force by guards.
According to prison spokesman William Noonan, several guards have been disciplined for actions taken against Cuban prisoners, including excessive use of force.
The uncertainty of their fate clearly is beginning to weigh heavily on some of the Cubans.
"We're destroying their spirits and their dignity," says one non-Cuban official who works closely with the prisoners.
Antonio Capote Julde, whose wife and daughter await him in Miami, was interviewed in the prison. Like many of the Cubans held here, he had finished his prison sentences (for assault and vehicular homicide. Now he finds himself back in a prison -- for the same crimes. Under INS regulations, his background makes him "excludable."
"I don't think I'm ever going to leave here," says Mr. Capote.
The problem is where to send him.
Some 300 Cubans here have been classified as security risks. They are allowed out of their cells only to eat, for recreation, and to shower.
De la Torre got word out alleging he was allegedly threatened by a prison doctor with force feeding. Prison officials declined comment on his condition and refused permission for him to be interviewed.
A sponsor had been found in Florida for de la Torre, but the sponsor was not a relative. A condition newly imposed on refugees seeking release to Florida is that they must be sponsored by relatives there.
"We just don't want people to go down to Florida," says task force spokesman Brill. "Miami is overloaded [with Cubans]."
Prison warden Jack Hanberry declined to be interviewed for this article.