Remembering the Oakdale Prison Riot

Retired and active employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons attend the ceremony to...
Retired and active employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons attend the ceremony to commemorate the Cuban prison riot's 30th year anniversary. KALB Photo: Sherman Desselle(KALB)
Published: Nov. 30, 2017 at 10:48 AM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

A small group of people attended a special reunion at the Best Western Convention Center in Alexandria in October, after years of not seeing each other.

They're all retired employees from the Bureau of Prisons, and once stationed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale. Those in attendance want to make sure the public is aware of what took place at that facility 30 years ago that changed their lives forever.

In 1987, nearly 1,000 Cuban prisoners were detained at the facility. The US and Cuban governments signed an agreement that would force many of the illegal immigrants to be repatriated to Cuba. Former correctional officer Tommy Rigmaiden says the Bureau of Prisons was given too short of a notice.

"The announcement was made on November 20…We weren't aware," Rigmaiden said. "We were in a special housing unit with no television. And that night, the Cubans were concerned about their release dates."

The inmates also made it clear they did not want to return to Cuba, which was still under the dictatorship of the late Fidel Castro. Just seven years before, Castro's regime announced a boat lift would be available at the Mariel port for all Cubans wanting to immigrate to the United States due to the country's unstable economy. Within hours, the prisoner's concerns turned violent.

On Saturday, November 21 the Cuban detainees, also known as the Marielitos, began their attempt to overtake the Oakdale prison. After not being able to breach the outer gates, they headed for the cafeteria, control tower and housing units while setting fires and attacking guards throughout the prison.

"The detainees were pretty articulate," Rigmaiden said. "They pre-planned a lot of it. They hand homemade weapons, machetes and Molotov cocktails that they threw at us."

Michael Grimes, an Army veteran, was also an officer on duty November 21 for extra security detail at Oakdale.

"I thought about getting out. I took a look at the inmates, that barbed-wire fence. I was fast…but if I don't make it, I'm going to die. I saw a few officers get hit in the head with fire extinguishers. The movement changed from ‘we're just tearing up the place' to ‘…and we will kill you too.' "

He and 28 other employees were seized by the inmates and then held hostage. "I had a knife to my throat, shotgun to my ear," Grimes said. "They were dispersing us to different housing units. They had their own superiority in the prison. They almost ran the prison like we (officers) did."

Their violence continued through the night of November 21. It captured the nation's attention on network television, while a similar incident occurred at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia in the days that followed.

"We could hear and see the television, Michael said. What was happening on the outside seriously impacted us on the inside. I really felt like this was it. But we would die fighting. It wasn't going to be a peaceful resolution."

On November 29, the Former US Senator of Louisiana John Breaux and other government officials announced to the press negotiations were underway with the prisoners. With the help of Cuban clergy from the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, all officers at the Oakdale facility were released. While there were no deaths reported in the incidents, many of the officers suffered injuries that resulted in early medical retirement. The inmates surrendered and accepted a deal with the US Government that included delayed deportations and special immigration hearings for selected inmates in court.

Hostages and other prison personnel were remembered at the staff reunion as participants prayed for those who have died since the incident. They also wanted to make sure people in Cenla will never forget about the tragedy. "When you go through an incident like that, it changes people," Rigmaiden said. "It changes us. We become a family. We experienced something in the BOP that had never been experienced before."

"The Bureau of Prisons would like to just erase it like it never happened, said Grimes. "That is something that you cannot erase."

After remaining with the Bureau of Prisons for numerous years after the riot, Tommy Rigmaiden and Michael Grimes both went on to have successful careers in security and law enforcement. Rigmaiden became a corporate investigator for companies like Lockheed Martin and an advisor for the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office in Dallas, Texas. He now enjoys his second retirement with his family in the Grand Prairie area.

Michael Grimes focused on offshore company safety and is now a criminal investigator for the public defender's office in Opelousas, Louisiana. They're also ordained ministers. Reverend Grimes is the senior pastor of Pleasant Green Baptist Church in Alexandria.

Rigmaiden tells us in the years that followed the riot, the Bureau of Prisons rebuilt the multi-million dollar facility in Oakdale, added some major security modifications, and later added an additional facility (FCI Oakdale II). We contacted the Oakdale facility for a comment on the riot, and they respectfully declined.

Click on the related links to see bonus interviews from Sherman Desselle.