Tales from the Big House

Jail officials had only one uniform that could fit de Cardenas's large frame, so he had to wear it every day. But it took more than three weeks for them to find underwear in his size. "The biggest industry in that town was a Fruit of the Loom factory, and yet they couldn't provide me with underwear," he says with a chuckle. "I can laugh about it now."

The food, however, was something he'll never look back on with humor. "The first day I was there," he says, "they served turkey neck. Turkey neck! I had never heard of that as a meal before. And everything they cooked was very spicy."

His section of the jail housed 23 other inmates, 20 of whom were Cubans placed there by the INS, many of them former mental patients or violent criminals. Some of the men had been detained for years, confined in extremely cramped quarters.

Within days of arriving in Louisiana, de Cardenas's health began to deteriorate. His blood pressure skyrocketed to such a dangerous level that on December 27 jailers took him to a hospital in Lafayette. He arrived shackled in his orange jumpsuit and looking scraggly, having not shaved or cut his hair in more than a year. His white beard stretched to his chest.

As he sat in the waiting area, armed guards by his side, he noticed that several children were staring at him. "One of the kids started crying, 'Mommy, Santa Claus is in jail,' and all the other kids started crying and screaming," he says. "They had to take me out of there. It was a horrible feeling."

One of de Cardenas's lawyers, Roger Bernstein, visited him at the Louisiana jail and was appalled by the conditions. "I had never seen anything like that place," he says. "It was demoralizing. I left there a changed man." Bernstein, along with fellow attorneys Linda Osberg-Braun and Keil Hackley, immediately began working to have de Cardenas transferred to the INS-run medical clinic at the Krome detention center.

Bernstein, Osberg-Braun, and Hackley knew the workings of the federal bureaucracy as well as anyone. Before launching their own Miami law firm this past November, all had worked for years as senior attorneys within the INS. Osberg-Braun, for instance, was deputy district counsel for the Miami regional branch of the INS, the second-highest-ranking attorney in the office. Eventually the attorneys persuaded INS to transfer de Cardenas to Krome.

On his final day in Louisiana, de Cardenas was once again placed in "the hole." Soon the jailers brought in one of the mental patients. The man, a Cuban, began yelling at de Cardenas. At times he would get to within a few inches of de Cardenas's face and scream obscenities. The barrage kept up all day and night, according to de Cardenas. "He didn't stop talking for 30 hours," he says. "I got really scared. I couldn't sleep because I didn't know what he might do. He didn't sleep; he just kept talking. I think they put him in there with me on purpose because I had caused them so many problems with my lawyers. I think they wanted to make my last night in Louisiana special so I wouldn't forget my stay there."

If that was their goal, they succeeded. "I spent a year in Kentucky and I don't think about Kentucky," he says. "I spent a month in Krome and I don't think about Krome. But every time I close my eyes to sleep, I think about Louisiana. I have nightmares about Louisiana. Years ago I used to go to New Orleans for vacation. No more. I hope I never have to go near the State of Louisiana again."

De Cardenas's lawyers were now working to have him released. Earlier they had asked a federal judge in Miami to reduce retroactively his prison sentence by one second. By knocking off a mere second, de Cardenas would have served less than a year in prison and therefore would not have fallen under the new INS law. They also began appealing for his release on humanitarian grounds. Both efforts failed. Some of de Cardenas's friends (including Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, former Miami mayor Maurice Ferre, Radio Unica president Jose Cancela, and former radio tycoon Herb Levin) wrote letters to Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham asking them to intercede on de Cardenas's behalf.

At one point de Cardenas's family sought help from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. De Cardenas's mother and son went to her office, but the congresswoman refused to see them. "I've known Ileana for many years," de Cardenas says, shaking his head. "I've helped her on her campaigns."

The family's reception was no better when they sought a meeting with Miami's other Cuban-American congressional representative, Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "His staff gave my family some forms to fill out," he says. They still haven't heard from the congressman. "My people, my Republican friends, my fellow Cubans couldn't be bothered," he says indignantly. "I'm not angry; I'm hurt."

Ironically for de Cardenas, relative strangers ended up being his biggest supporters. U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, during a tour of Krome, spotted de Cardenas and took an interest in his case. She also solicited help from fellow Congressman Alcee Hasting. "I don't know Carrie Meek that well and I've never met Alcee Hastings in my entire life," he says. "But they called every day to immigration here and in Washington, asking for a daily report on my health and to see what they could do."

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