Cuban detainees in limbo in US jails. Only avenue to freedom is government review of their files

Once a month or so, Alicia Lesteiro and her three-year-old daughter join another family or two for the 700-mile drive to the Atlanta Penitentiary. There, she spends visiting hours with her husband Ricardo, who waits indefinitely under no charge in the maximum-security prison.

The number of detained Cubans like Ricardo Lesteiro is growing month by month, while the avenues to freedom are growing fewer.

Their families wait in limbo, with nothing specific to wait for, except perhaps change.

Mr. Lesteiro, a plumber, joined the 1980 boatlift from Mariel, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, to join family.

He married and worked steadily for three years, but like the other Marielitos, his immigration status was similar to parole.

Three years ago, he was caught with marijuana bales in his boat that he says he found floating off the Florida coast. He finished serving his 15-month sentence a year ago.

But the crime also became grounds for the United States immigration service to bar him from the country as a ``danger to society.''

Now, like more than 1,800 other Mariel Cubans at the Atlanta federal prison, and several thousand elsewhere, Lesteiro is trapped between a country that rejects him and Castro's Cuba, which won't take him back.

The US Supreme Court refused last month to hear a case testing Immigration and Naturalization Service authority to detain the Cubans indefinitely. This shut down the last legal recourse available.

Negotiations with Cuba to take the rejected Cubans back broke down once again this summer when Americans refused to limit radio broadcasts that reach Cuba.

The only way out left for the Cubans, all of whom, like Lesteiro, have served whatever sentences they were meted, is to wait for the INS to review their files. The review is intended to weed out the Cubans who either need mental treatment or are not dangerous to American society.

Before Cuba cut off the flow in May 1985, 201 Cubans returned to Cuba. Another couple hundred have been sent to a mental hospital in Washington, D.C. And the INS says about 380 have been released through halfway houses.

As Cubans are released, however, the Atlanta Penitentiary remains full, as other Marielitos are sent in from detention centers and jails around the country. Rosemary Kittrell, director of a volunteer project of the Atlanta Bar Association, estimates that between 4,000 and 5,000 Cubans are detained or still serving sentences and bound for detention. Soon, some will be moved to a new INS detention center in Oakdale, Louisiana.

The INS case reviews are slow and somewhat cursory. The detainees' files are reviewed without interviewing the detainee, without aid of an attorney, and without gathering any information beyond the file. The INS is not obligated to explain its decisions.

Yet the service has already approved several hundred Cubans for release to halfway houses that are waiting for space to open up. Only 220 halfway-house beds are available.

The Atlanta Bar Association is working to improve the process for as many Cubans as possible and has become a sort of clearinghouse in their behalf. Some 400 volunteer attorneys have taken the cases of about 600 of the Cubans, petitioned the INS to review their cases, and dug up information and documentation that supports their clients' causes.

The volunteer project is not large enough to work for all the detainees, but it is enough, says Ms. Kittrell, ``to keep the pressure on Immigration'' to keep the review process moving. One of the project's goals, she explains, ``is to be sure the men are not forgotten as INS manpower is drawn elsewhere.''

As detainees are gradually released, a larger share of those who remain in the penitentiary are violent or dangerous. Those who had a role in a violent crime, or those involved in drug trafficking, are unlikely ever to be released.

``We're finding the Cubans who don't belong there,'' says Kittrell. ``And I'm convinced that there are people there who don't belong there.''

Meanwhile, the Cubans wait - for reviews, for halfway house space, for negotiations to resume with Castro.

Some have said the way to a halfway house berth is through $10,000 bribes to prison officials. Lesteiro says such an offer was made to him, but the price was well beyond his family's reach. The INS is investigating such charges internally, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation has questioned people as well.

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