St. Elizabeth Days

St. Elizabeth Days

by Dick Mauer

Back in the 70s Cuban escapees/asylum applicants began coming to the
U.S. in ramshackle boats, risking their lives in the 90 miles of open
ocean between Cuba and Florida. This flight to freedom finally grew into
the Cuban Boat lift which saw hundreds of private boats head to Cuba to
bring back refugees. In addition to allowing his citizens to flee, Fidel
Castro also took the opportunity to rid his country of criminals and
mentally insane persons. He emptied his prisons and asylums, such as
they were and forced them onto the boats.

The Border Patrol was called upon to detail manpower to Florida to meet
this influx and to separate the criminals and mental "patients" from
legitimate asylum applicants. The criminals, when identified, were
detained in camps across the country and eventually in our prisons to
protect our citizens and the Cuban emigres that they lived among. The
insane were identified and eventually isolated at St. Elizabeth Hospital
in southwest Washington, DC.

An aside to the story is needed here. St. Elizabeth Hospital is a Civil
War era complex that has additionally served as a mental hospital since
that time. It is a brick and stone monstrous building complex broken up
into large communal lounges where mental patients can be held and
observed. These lounges could hold 12 to 15 patients with their own
private sleeping niches. The doctors and attendants were locked up and
protected in a central pod protected by heavy screened windows. The
inmates could wander in the lounge and interact with each other. That's
where the trouble started.

The use of these facilities was organized by the State Department and
detailed Border Patrol Agents were used to provide interior and exterior
security. 3 shifts of approximately 15 Agents each provided the security
and these details in 60 day increments went on for over a year. I would
estimate that every Agent in Eastern and Northern region was detailed to
Washington multiple times during this period. I caught two 60 day
details there and it was an eye opening experience. The "unfortunates"
housed there raised hell almost every night with fights and other
destructive activities. They cut themselves and others, swallowed all
matter of things and did other self destructive actions. When the fights
started the Agents were called on to enter these locked lounges and
restore order. The doctors and attendants remained locked in their
protective pods until order was restored and only then ventured out to
administer shots of thorazine. After shots the rioters would retreat to
their mattresses for sleep. The beds and cots had been long torn apart
and used as weapons so they were gone. These events usually occurred
after dinner meals (and their 7pm snacks at night) and I often wondered
why they just didn't administer thorazine with the snacks and be done
with it. In particular I remember one huge Cuban we called King Kong who
started fights and riots every night. After control was returned he
would simply drop his drawers and meekly invite the shot, and go to bed.

Arriving from Cuba these individuals were in starved condition as their
incarceration in Cuba was in uncivilized and abusive conditions. We fed
them 3 meals a day plus nightly snacks of fruit, drinks and desserts.
This feeding schedule probably marked the first time in their lives that
they had sufficient food. I watched these men go from skinny desperate
beings on my first detail to the point where all had gained weight and
had big bellies from the food, the second time I was there.  Meal time
was for all hands on decks we took them all out of their lounges and led
them in single file to the cafeteria. They learned to be well behaved
during the meals as acting out got them returned to the lounges without
eating.They were given a metal tray and they went through a food line to
pick and choose the food they wanted. Experience taught the food
preparers that these people would prefer only Cuban food. Fish, pork,
beans, plantains, rice etc. were the foods of choice.

One memorable day the State Department had a dog and pony show going to
demonstrate to upper management and selected press how successful the
St. Elizabeth program was. Someone in State had the bright idea of have
steak that night. The Cubans were all given one steak and they took it
back to their table along with the beans and bananas to smell it before
tasting. It might have been the first time in their lives they had beef
steak and everyone of them dumped the steaks in the garbage uneaten.
What State apparently did not know is that beef was virtually unknown to
them in Cuba. It is a crime to kill a cow in Cuba and eating it is
against the law. We had an unhappy experience getting them back in the
lounges that day and extra treats were ordered for the 7pm snacks.

I have often wondered what became of those folks. They could not be
released into the public and must have died in asylums. Cuba refused to
accept back both criminals and insane, or at least we did not have the
fortitude to force the issue at the time. I can date the time of one
detail at St. E's by the memory of the assassination attempt on
President Reagan in downtown Washington while I was there. (March, 1981)

This section under construction.