New Mexico State Penitentiary riot
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|New Mexico State Penitentiary riot|
One side of cellblock 4, where isolated prisoners were held
|Location||Santa Fe County, New Mexico|
|Date||February 2–3, 1980 (MDT)|
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 the most violent prison riot in American history: thirty-three inmates died and more than two hundred were treated for injuries. None of the twelve officers taken hostage were killed, but seven suffered serious injuries caused by beatings and rapes. There had been several disturbances at the prison prior to the riot. One major one was an organized work strike about prison conditions in 1976 under Deputy Warden Montoya. His response was to use tear gas and make the inmates run the length of the prison from the dormitories in the south end to the isolation cells and segregation cells in the north end. All along the main hallway as they ran, the correction officers hit them with batons and some staff participated using ax handles. The event was called "The night of the Ax Handles". After this violent response to prisoner's concerns, one inmate, Dwight Duran, was prompted to draft a 99 page hand written civil rights complaint to the U.S. District Court of New Mexico, called Duran v Apodaca, later to become the Duran Consent Decree. There was ample evidence from over 10 Grand Jury investigations about the conditions at the Penitentiary, but the PNM administration resisted the changes and the legislature refused to allocate the necessary funds to make changes. The last time the U.S. District Court Grand Jury ordered improvements was in November 1979, 2 months before the riot.
There have been conflicting reports about the inmate population at the time of the riot and the official capacity of the prison the weekend of the riot. According to the "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, Appendix C1" published in June after the riot, the design capacity of the penitentiary was 1,058, based on the "Phase II Technical Report: Facilities Inventory" of the 1977 New Mexico Corrections Master Plan. However, that number included the 60 beds in Cell bock 5 which was closed for renovations. It also included the 24 beds in the Annex and the 32 beds in the modular unit both on the outside of the main facility. Therefore the official number of beds available on the night of the riot was actually 974, but even that number is hardly fair since it includes the 11 solitary confinement cells in the basement of Cell block 3. The official population of the prison the night of the riot was determined to be 1,156.
The causes of the riot are well-documented. Author Roger Morris wrote that "the riot was a predictable incident based on an assessment of prison conditions". Prison overcrowding and inferior prison services, common problems in many correctional facilities, were major causes of the disturbance. On the night of the riot, there were 1,156 inmates in a prison that had beds for only 963. First-time non-violent prisoners were not adequately separated from repeat violent prisoners. Many were housed in crowded unsanitary dormitories. Not only did the prison serve poor-quality food, cockroaches and mouse droppings were prevalent. Intestinal diseases were common. A visiting warden reported PNM as the filthiest institution he'd ever seen.
Another cause was the cancellation of educational, recreational and other rehabilitative programs. 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 increasingly lead to violence and disorder.
Inconsistent policies and poor communications meant relations between officers and inmates were increasingly in decline. These patterns have been described as paralleling trends in other U.S. prisons as populations started to grow in the 1970s. The Attica prison riot was organized with solidarity among prisoners, demonstrated by their disinterest in attacking one another. Whereas the "snitch system" in the New Mexico Penitentiary, pitted inmate against inmate resulting in the distrust among inmates unless identified with a group.
Following a change in prison leadership in 1975, the penitentiary 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 report said that retribution for snitching led to an increased incidence of inmate-on-inmate violence at the prison in the late 1970s.
The riot began with many of the prisoners intoxicated, as they had brewed homemade liquor inside the prison. Former inmate Gary Nelson, stationed in Cellblock 2, heard the plan to jump the guards if they did not lock the door to the dorm during the 1:00 am count.
Essentially, the way the count was taken proceeded as such: two officers first went into the dormitory. A third officer was given all the keys of the other officers and locked the door to the dorm until the officers came out. The day room was 60 feet all the way down to the far side of the dorm. The TV needed to be turned off and the day room locked. Because of overcrowding, the two officers went down two sides of a center aisle of single beds the length of the dorm. As one officer looked down to the right between the rows of bunk beds, the other officer looked down to the left between the rows of bunks. Thus, the prisoners on the bunks by the door had to keep the door open. If they could not take control of the door, then all they would accomplish was the taking of two officers locked in their own dorm.
Just after midnight on Saturday morning at 1:40 am, February 2, 1980, two prisoners in south-side Dormitory E-2 overpowered the officer before he closed the door. On cue, the four officers in E2 were taken hostage. At this point the riot might have been contained if the grill to the south wing had been closed and locked. Officers Larry Mendoza and Antonio Vigil, who were eating breakfast in the officer's mess hall, heard men's voices in the main corridor. A prisoner in an officer's uniform was standing by the open grill, apparently guarding it. Approaching the grill was a hallway filled with prisoners. The officers soon realized the urgency of the grill being open as this meant the path lay wide open for the inmates to attack the control center. They both ran to the control center and warned the officer of the situation. The north grill beside the control center had also routinely been left open most nights. The two officers took refuge in the north wing of the prison. The control center closed and locked the north grill behind them.
By 2:05 AM the inmates had complete control of the prison by smashing the supposedly bullet-proof plate glass window of the control center with a heavy brass fire extinguisher. This gave them control over lock and door controls. However, since they did not know how to open the cell doors automatically from the control center, Cell Houses 1, 2, and 6 had to be opened manually.
By mid-morning events had spiraled out of control within the cell blocks, in large part due to the actions of two gangs. The first were the Chicanos, who protected each other and dished out targeted retribution for specific grudges. The other gang was loosely labeled Aryan Brotherhood and was led by some of the most dangerous inmates (who by this time had been released from segregation in Cellblock 3.) They decided to break into Cellblock 4, which held those labeled as informers. Cellblock 4 also housed inmates who were vulnerable, mentally ill or convicted of sex crimes, and held a total of ninety-six prisoners. Initially, after taking over the control center, the call was to immediately take revenge on the snitches at the far north of the prison. However, to get there, they had to pass the Psychology Wing. Multiple prisoners broke in to find stores of drugs purchased in bulk, then set a fire, destroying the psychology records.
The first to arrive at Cellblock 4 found they did not have the keys to enter the cellblock. The rioters found blowtorches in nearby Cellblock 5, which had been brought into the prison for construction purposes. They used the blowtorches to cut through the security grills into Cellblock 4 over the next five hours. During the process of cutting open the cells, several inmates left to raid the records office to look for files that would identify who the actual informers were. Rioters with walkie talkies began detailing their plans to harm those in Cellblock 4 to prison officials over the radio; however, no action was taken. One official stated "It's their ass" when overheard speaking about the men in the segregation facility. Locked in their cells, the segregated prisoners called to the State Police outside just beyond the fence, 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. As the door was intended only for emergency use, and therefore never opened, the keys were not readily available. State Police agreed with the prison negotiators not to enter the prison as long as the officers being held hostage were kept alive.
As dawn broke, an 'execution squad' finally cut through the grille and entered the rows of cells. The security panel controlling the cell doors just inside the grille was burned off, meaning each cell would have to be opened with blowtorches one at a time. When opened, victims were pulled from their cells to be tortured, dismembered, hanged, or burned alive.
During an edition of BBC's Timewatch program, an eyewitness described the carnage in Cellblock 4. They saw an inmate held up in front of a window; he was being tortured by using a blow torch on his face and eyes until his head exploded. Another story was about Mario Urioste, who was originally jailed for shoplifting. He was placed in a violent unit where he was gang-raped by seven inmates. Mario had filed a lawsuit against his rapists, so prison officials had housed him in Cellblock 4 for his own protection. Urioste was one of the targets for revenge. His body was found hanged, with his throat cut and his dismembered genitals stuffed into his mouth.
Men were killed with piping, work tools, and crude homemade knives called "shanks". 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. A fire had been set in the gymnasium to burn a pile of corpses, but it had gotten out of control and burned through the roof. Besides the fire that had been set in the Psychology Wing, a fire was also set in the Protestant Chapel. The protestant Chaplin had been nicknamed "Ax-Handle" for his participation in the night of the ax handles 4 years earlier. The Catholic Chapel next door was left untouched. Situated across the hall from the main control center, the prison library also was only touched by smoke. A third fire had been set in the records office, burning all records that could have been used as evidence related to the prisoners' civil rights claims in the Duran Consent Decree.
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The inmates had taken the officers' two-way radios as well as their keys. An inmate used a two-way radio to contact prison officials, stating that they had taken the shift commander hostage and demanding a meeting with the governor and the media, believing only the media would hold the prison administration accountable. About thirty minutes after the riot began, Warden Jerry Griffin joined Deputy Warden Robert Montoya and Superintendent of Correctional Security Emanuel Koroneos at the gatehouse beneath Tower 1. Griffin, Montoya and Koroneos decided to attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages. Montoya contacted inmates at about 2:30 am to initiate negotiations, first using a two-way radio in his car, then a hand set from the gate house. Montoya's earliest contact was with an inmate who had been involved with the initial takeover in Dorm E-2 and apparently had control of the shift captain throughout the riot. This inmate identified himself as "Chopper One." As Montoya established contact with one inmate, other inmates transmitted conflicting messages, contradicted other inmate "spokesmen," or argued among themselves over the airwaves.
Montoya had recently taken a course in San Francisco on "crisis intervention," and a diffident Griffin deferred to the aggressive deputy warden to negotiate with the inmates by radio for the time being until Rodriguez could be found. Griffin phoned Governor King at 3:00 am that negotiations are under way, and the governor agreed that they should talk rather than retake. He, too, had no choice. A little after 4:00 am a Corrections Department aide finally reached Rodriguez on the telephone. The acting secretary arrived at the penitentiary about 5:00 am and immediately took command.
From six to seven o'clock, the radio negotiators jockeyed. Inmates asked for a doctor to treat injured guards. Montoya refused and instead asked for the release of wounded hostages. He also denied demands for a media parley and for his resignation. At 8:30AM a field phone was installed to relieve the confusion of multiple walkie-talkies being used by unknown voices. The inmates' spokesperson was Lonnie Duran, who was in solitary. He had been one of the inmates (with Dwight Duran, no relation) who worked on the Duran Consent Decree since it was filed in New Mexico U.S. District Court in 1977 outlining a raft of prison grievances.
When Lonnie Duran was accepted by Rodriguez as one of the four inmate spokesmen, the inmates repeated eleven demands from the Duran Consent Decree concerned with basic prison conditions including overcrowding, use of solitary confinement, protesting the loss of educational services, and elimination of programs. The prisoners then demanded to speak with independent federal officials and members of the news media.
Some of the officers held hostage were protected and fed by inmates. Two officers, each disguised as an inmate, were escorted out of the prison by sympathetic inmates. Two officers that had been so brutally beaten and raped, were carried out on blanket stretchers because the prisoners did not want an officer to die while in their custody. Seven officers suffered severe injuries. "One was tied to a chair. Another lay was stripped and received a severe head wound.
Negotiations broke off Saturday evening and resumed in the early hours of Sunday morning. The negotiations were not recorded. The government negotiators' strategy was to win control of the prison by stalling.
By mid-afternoon, Sunday, thirty-six hours after the riot had begun, heavily armed State Police officers accompanied by officers from the Santa Fe Police Department entered the charred remains of the prison.
Official sources state that at least thirty-three inmates died. Some overdosed on drugs, others were brutally murdered. Twelve of the victims had been housed in the protective-custody unit. More than two hundred inmates were treated for injuries. An investigation by a citizens' panel concluded that the riot was initiated by a small number of inmates. Ray Powell of Albuquerque chaired a panel named by Gov. Bruce King and Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Attorney General, to assist in the investigation. He concluded that the majority of the inmates were trying to flee from the riot. Powell said the report was based on hundreds of interviews with those involved in the riot, and added, "There is one point that comes through time and again, and that is that the riot was started and conducted by a small number of inmates."
After the surrender, it took days before order was maintained enough to ensure that inmates could reoccupy the prison.
The official death toll included thirty-three people. Of them, twenty-four were Hispanic, seven were White, one was an African American, and one was Native American. The inmate population at the Penitentiary of New Mexico during this time was 49% Hispanic, 38% Anglo, 10% Black, and 3% Native American, for comparison. 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.
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 lawyer William L. Summers led the defense team in defending dozens of inmates charged in the aftermath. In 1982, Mr. Summers received the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Robert C. Heeney award 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. One federal lawsuit that had been filed handwritten by inmate Dwight Duran. He lost an inmate friend he had known since childhood after being beaten by guards four years before the riot. Even though his case was supported by the U.S. District Court, actual reforms were held up by negotiations for almost two decades. Actions were not settled until the administration of Governor Toney Anaya (former District Attorney) 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. The prison reform work from the Duran case, developed the modern correctional system in New Mexico.
The 2001 documentary Behind Bars: Riot in New Mexico covers the incident.
By 2013 the state began conducting tours of the old prison.
- New Mexico Corrections Department
- List of law enforcement agencies in New Mexico
- List of United States state correction agencies
- List of U.S. state prisons
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