New Mexico State Penitentiary riot

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New Mexico State Penitentiary riot
NM State Pen Unit 4.jpg
One side of cellblock 4, where isolated prisoners were held
Location Santa Fe County, New Mexico
Date February 2–3, 1980 (MDT)
Attack type
Rioting, hostage-taking
Deaths 33
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators Inmates

The New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, which took place on February 2 and 3, 1980, in the state's maximum security prison south of Santa Fe, was one of the most violent prison riots in the history of the American correctional system: 33 inmates died and more than 200 inmates were treated for injuries.[1] None of the 12 officers taken hostage were killed, but seven suffered serious injuries caused by beatings and rapes.[2]:192 This was the third major riot at the NM State Penitentiary, the first occurring on 19 July 1922[3] and the second on 15 June 1953.[4]

Author Roger Morris suggests the death toll may have been higher, as a number of bodies were incinerated or dismembered during the course of the mayhem.[5]


The causes of the New Mexico Penitentiary riot are well documented. Author R. Morris wrote that "the riot was a predictable incident based on an assessment of prison conditions".[1] Prison overcrowding and inferior prison services, common problems in many correctional facilities, were major causes of the disturbance.[1] On the night of the riot, there were 1,136 inmates in a prison designed for only 900.[6] Prisoners were not adequately separated. Many were housed in communal dormitories that were unsanitary and served poor-quality food.

  • Michael Briones (Albuquerque)
  • Lawrence C. Cardon (Las Cruces)
  • Nick Coca (Taos)
  • Richard J. Fierro (Carlsbad)
  • James C. Foley (Albuquerque)
  • Donald J. Gossens (Farmington)
  • Phillip C. Hernandez (Clovis)
  • Valentino E. Jaramillo (Albuquerque)
  • Kelly E. Johnson (Albuquerque)
  • Steven Lucero (Farmington)
  • Joe A. Madrid (Albuquerque)
  • Ramon Madrid (Las Cruces)
  • Archie M. Martinez (Chimayo)
  • Joseph A. Mirabal (Alamagordo)
  • Ben G. Moreno (Carlsbad)
  • Gilbert O. Moreno (Carlsbad)
  • Thomas O'Meara (Albuquerque)
  • Filiberto M. Ortega (Las Vegas, NM)
  • Frank J. Ortega (Las Vegas, NM)
  • Paulina Paul (Alamogordo)
  • James Perrin (Chaparral)
  • Robert F. Quintela (Carlsbad)
  • Robert L. Rivera (Albuquerque)
  • Vincent E. Romero (Albuquerque)
  • Herman D. Russell (Waterflow)
  • Juan M. Sanchez (Brownsville, Texas)
  • Frankie J. Sedillo (Santa Fe)
  • Larry W. Smith (Kirtland)
  • Leo J. Tenorio (Albuquerque)
  • Thomas C. Tenorio (Albuquerque)
  • Mario Urioste (Santa Fe)
  • Danny D. Waller (Lubbock, Texas)
  • Russell M. Werner (Albuquerque)

Another major cause of the riot was the cancellation of educational, recreational and other rehabilitative programs that had run from 1970 to 1975. In that five-year period, the prison had been described as relatively calm.[11] When the educational and recreational programs were stopped in 1975, prisoners had to be locked down for long periods. These conditions created strong feelings of deprivation and discontent in the inmate population that would later lead to violence and disorder.[12]

Inconsistent policies and poor communications meant relations between officers and inmates were always in decline. These patterns have been described as paralleling trends in other U.S. prisons from the 1960s and 1970s, and as a factor that moved inmates away from solidarity in the 1960s to violence and fragmentation in the 1970s.[11]

Following a change in prison leadership in the mid-1970s, the prison experienced a shortage of trained correctional staff. A subsequent investigation by the state attorney general's office found that prison officials began coercing prisoners to become informants in a strategy known as "the snitch game". The state's report said that retribution for snitching led to an increased incidence of violence at the prison in the late 1970s.[13]

Hostages taken[edit]

In the documentary, Behind Bars, after the inmates in E-2 were drunk on homemade liquor, former inmate Nelson from E-2 said he heard the plan to jump the guards if they did not lock the door to the dorm during the 1:00 am count. In the early morning of Saturday, February 2, 1980, two prisoners in south-side Dormitory E-2 overpowered an officer. Within minutes, four more of the 15 officers in the prison were also taken hostage. At this point the riot might have been contained; however, a fleeing officer was unable to lock the grill between the south and north wings of the prison. The path to the control center lay wide open for the inmates to attack.

Soon, E-2 dormitory was in the inmates' control. Inmates from E-2, using the captured keys from the belt of one officer, started releasing other inmates from their cells adjacent to dormitory E. Eventually, by smashing the supposedly bullet proof plate glass window of the control center with a heavy fire extinguisher, they were able to break into the prison's master-control center, giving them access to lock and door controls, weapons, and all the key sets. However, since they did not know how to open the cell doors automatically from the control center, some cells in the north block were still locked.[14]

Violence ensues[edit]

Even though they were filled in, the axe marks are still visible from where an inmate was decapitated.
Burn marks on the floor where an inmate was allegedly burned alive with an acetylene torch.

By mid-morning events had spiraled out of control within the cellblocks. Murder and violence had erupted. Gangs were fighting gangs, and a group of rioters led by some of the most dangerous inmates (who by this time had been released from solitary confinement) decided to break into cell block 4, which housed the protective-custody unit. This held the snitches and those labeled as informers. But it also housed inmates who were vulnerable, mentally ill or convicted of sex crimes. Initially, the plan was to take revenge on the snitches, but the violence soon became indiscriminate.

When the group reached cellblock 4, they found that they did not have the keys to enter these cells. The rioters found blowtorches that had been brought into the prison as part of an ongoing construction project. They used these to cut through the bars over the next five hours. Locked in their cells, the segregated prisoners called to the State Police pleading for them to save them. Waiting officers did nothing despite there being a back door to cellblock 4, which would have offered a way to free them.[1] State Police agreed not to enter the prison as long as the officers being held hostage were kept alive.

Meanwhile, the rioters began tormenting prison officials over the radio about what they would do to the men in cell block 4. But no action was taken. "It's their ass," said one official who was overheard speaking about the men in the segregation facility.[1] As dawn broke, an 'execution squad' finally cut through the grille and entered the cells. The security panel controlling the cell doors was burned off. Victims were pulled from their cells to be tortured, dismembered, decapitated, hanged, or burned alive.

During an edition of BBC's Timewatch program, an eyewitness described the carnage in cell block 4. They saw an inmate held up in front of a window; he was being tortured by using a blow torch on his face. They then started using the torch on his eyes, and then the inmate's head exploded. Another described the scene when he came across Mario Urioste, originally jailed for shoplifting, but was incarcerated in cell block 4 for his own protection after being gang-raped by seven inmates. Mario had filed a lawsuit against his rapists, so prison officials had housed him in cell block 4 for his protection. Urioste was found hanged with his throat cut, and his dismembered genitals stuffed into his mouth.[15]

Men were killed with piping, work tools, and knives. One man was partially decapitated after being thrown over the second tier balcony with a noose around his neck. The corpse was then dragged down and hacked up.[1] A fire had been set in the gymnasium and had gotten out of control, burning through the roof.[14]

Negotiations begin[edit]

Talks to end the riot were stalled by prison officials throughout the first 24 hours. This was because the inmates did not have a consistent spokesperson and there were contradictions between the governor's assurances and prison officials in charge. Eventually, inmates made 11 general demands concerned with basic prison conditions including overcrowding, use of solitary confinement, loss of educational services, and elimination of programs. The prisoners then demanded to speak with independent federal officials and members of the news media.

The officers who were held hostage were released after inmates met reporters. Some of the officers had been protected by inmates, but others had been brutally beaten and raped. Seven officers suffered severe injuries. "One was tied to a chair. Another lay naked on a stretcher, blood pouring from a head wound."[16]

Negotiations broke off again in the early hours of Sunday morning with state officials insisting no concessions would be made.

Order restored[edit]

By mid-afternoon, 36 hours after the riot had begun, heavily armed State Police officers accompanied by Santa Fe Police Department Officers entered the charred remains of the prison.

Official sources state that at least 33 inmates died. Some overdosed on drugs, but most were brutally murdered.[6] 23 of the victims had been housed in the protective-custody unit. More than 200 inmates were treated for injuries sustained during the riot.[17] After the surrender, it took days before order was maintained enough to ensure that inmates could occupy the prison. Over the next two nights, National Guardsman threw lumber scraps from Santa Fe Lumber yards over the two-layered fence into the prison yard to ensure inmates who escaped into the yard would not freeze in the near-zero temperatures.


The official death toll included 33 people. Of them, 24 were Hispanic, seven were White, one was African American, and one was Native American.[18]


A few inmates were prosecuted for crimes committed during the uprising, but according to author Roger Morris, most crimes went unpunished. The longest additional sentence given to any convict was nine years. Nationally known criminal defense lawyer William L. Summers led the defense team in defending dozens of inmates charged in the riot's aftermath. In 1982, Mr. Summers received the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Robert C. Heeney award, the highest award available to a criminal defense lawyer, for his work in defending the inmates prosecuted with regard to the riot.

Before and after the riots, Governor King's administration resisted attempts to reform the prison.[1] One federal lawsuit that had been filed handwritten by inmate Leo Duran. He lost an inmate friend he had known since childhood after being beaten by guards years before the riot. It was held up in the New Mexico court system for almost two decades. Actions were not settled until the administration of Governor Toney Anaya seven years later. Much of the evidence was lost or destroyed during and after the riot. However, systemic reforms after the riot were undertaken following the Duran v. King consent decree, which included implementation of the Bureau Classification System under Cabinet Secretary Joe Williams. This reform work has developed the modern correctional system in New Mexico. Situated within 20 ft of the main control center, the prison library and its law collection remained relatively untouched.[19]

In 1989, the Bay Area thrash band Exodus memorialized the riot in The Last Act of Defiance, the lead-off track of the album Fabulous Disaster.

The 2001 documentary Behind Bars: Riot in New Mexico covers the incident.[20]

By 2013 the state began conducting tours of the old prison.[21]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g R. Morris, Devil's Butcher Shop: The New Mexico Prison Uprising, University of New Mexico Press, 1983.
  2. ^ Mark Colvin The Penitentiary in Crisis: From Accommodation to Riot in New Mexico, SUNY Press (1992).
  3. ^ Johnson, Judith R. (1994) "A Mighty Fortress is the Pen: Development of the New Mexico Penitentiary" pp. 119–132 In DeMark, Judith Boycw (editor) (1994) Essays in Twentieth-Century New Mexico History University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, ISBN 0-8263-1359-0, page 124
  4. ^ Johnson, Judith R. (1994) "A Mighty Fortress is the Pen: Development of the New Mexico Penitentiary" pp. 119–132 In DeMark, Judith Boycw (editor) (1994) Essays in Twentieth-Century New Mexico History University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, ISBN 0-8263-1359-0, page 128
  5. ^ Morris, Roger (1983). The Devil's Butcher Shop: The New Mexico Prison Uprising. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.  page number needed
  6. ^ a b Schmalleger, Frank and Smikla, John Ortiz (2001) Corrections in the 21st Century McGraw Hill, New York, page 317, ISBN 978-0-02-802567-4
  7. ^ "Report of the Attorney General on the February 2 and 3, 1980 Riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico PART I The Penitentiary The Riot The Aftermath." (Archive) Attorney General of New Mexico. June 1980. p. J-1 (129/150). Retrieved on December 4, 2013.
  8. ^ "Report of the Attorney General on the February 2 and 3, 1980 Riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico PART I The Penitentiary The Riot The Aftermath." (Archive) Attorney General of New Mexico. June 1980. p. J-2 (130/150). Retrieved on December 4, 2013.
  9. ^ "Report of the Attorney General on the February 2 and 3, 1980 Riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico PART I The Penitentiary The Riot The Aftermath." (Archive) Attorney General of New Mexico. June 1980. p. J-3 (131/150). Retrieved on December 4, 2013.
  10. ^ "Report of the Attorney General on the February 2 and 3, 1980 Riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico PART I The Penitentiary The Riot The Aftermath." (Archive) Attorney General of New Mexico. June 1980. p. J-4 (132/150). Retrieved on December 4, 2013.
  11. ^ a b Mark Colvin, "The 1980 New Mexico Prison Riot", Social Problems, Vol. 29, No. 5, pp. 449–463, June 1982.
  12. ^ B. Useem, "Disorganization and the New Mexico Prison Riot of 1980", American Sociological Review, Vol. 50, No. 5, pp. 677-688, October 1985.
  13. ^ Feather, Bill (September 25, 1980). "'Snitching' system stirred prison riot". The Free Lance–Star. Retrieved March 21, 2015. 
  14. ^ a b The Devil's Butcher Shop
  15. ^
  16. ^ Journal reporter
  17. ^ Rolland, Mike (1997) Descent into Madness: An inmate’s experience of the New Mexico State Prison riot Anderson Publishing, Cincinnati, Ohio, page number ? ISBN 978-0-87084-748-6
  18. ^ Morris, p. 108.
  19. ^ Rhea Joyce Rubin and Daniel S. Suvak, Libraries Inside: A Practical Guide for Prison Librarians, (McFarland & Co., 1995), p.195.
  20. ^ "Behind Bars: Riot in New Mexico." (Archive) Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved on December 6, 2013.
  21. ^ Santos, Fernanda. "For Riot Site in New Mexico, a Gift Shop but No Ghost Stories." (Print title: "For Riot Site, a Gift Shop but No Ghost Stories") The New York Times. November 9, 2013. Print date: November 10, 2013. p. A22. Retrieved on December 6, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 35°33′52.85″N 106°3′38.60″W / 35.5646806°N 106.0607222°W / 35.5646806; -106.0607222