New Mexico State Penitentiary riot
|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 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. All along the main hallway as they ran, the correction officer 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, prompted one inmate, Dwight Duran, to draft a 100 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 court ordered improvements was in November 1979, 2 months before the riot.
The causes 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 designed for only 900. 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.
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 demonstrated inmates away from organized solidarity among prisoners demonstrated by their disinterest in attacking one another. Whereas the snitch system pitted inmate against inmate resulting in the growth of fragmented gangs after the 1970s.
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.
In the documentary, Behind Bars, after the inmates in dormitory E-2 were drunk on eight gallons of 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.
Basically the way the count was taken went like this: 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, with the TV, 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 isle of single beds the length of the dorm. 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. This is why 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. Tonight, Lieutenant Anaya arrives seconds later after the door is shut to help close down Unit E2. He has just walked into hell, because this time the door does not close as quickly.
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. Two officers are eating their breakfast in the officer's mess hall. Officer Larry Mendoza and Antonio Vigil, 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. Immediately they can see the grill was open. This meant the path lay wide open for the inmates to attack the control center. They both run 50 feet to the control center and warn the officer what is coming and to close the north grill behind them which had routinely been left open every night.
By 2:05AM 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 cellblocks. Two gangs each had their own agenda. The Chicanos were one group who protected each other and dished out targeted retribution for specific grudges. The other gang was loosely labeled Aryan Brotherhood, led by some of the most dangerous inmates (who by this time had been released from segregation in Cell Block 3) They quickly decided to break into Cellblock 4 that held those labeled as informers. But Unit 4 had ninety-six prisoners because it also housed inmates who were vulnerable, mentally ill or convicted of sex crimes. Initially, the plan by the Arian Brotherhood was to take immediate revenge on the snitches at the far north of the prison. But to get there, they have to pass the Psychology Wing. Maybe their rage was inflamed against their treatment there, maybe others see an opportunity for free drugs. Regardless why, the prisoners broke in to find stores of drugs purchased in bulk. It was not long before they set 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. The blowtorches had been brought into the prison as part of a construction project. They used the blowtorches to cut through the security grills into Cellblock 4 over the next five hours. Meanwhile, the rioters began tormenting prison officials over the radio about what they would do to the men in Cellblock 4. But no action was taken. "It's their ass," said one official who was 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. No one could find the keys to that door since it was only for emergencies, and therefore never used. 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. That meant 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. They then started using the torch on his eyes. The inmate's head exploded. Another described the scene when he came across Mario Urioste, originally jailed for shoplifting, but was incarcerated in Cellblock 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 Cellblock 4 for his protection. Urioste was found hanged with his throat cut, and his dismembered genitals stuffed into his mouth.
Men were killed with piping, work tools, and crude 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. A fire had been set in the gymnasium to burn a pile of corpses but it had gotten out of control, burning through the roof. Another fire had been set in the despised Psychology Wing and the Protestant Chapel (the Catholic Chapel next door was left untouched). A third unfortunate fire had been set in the records office. Perhaps the prisoners thought they were burning their own records after they found the file naming the snitches. However, they also burned all records that could have been used as evidence related to their civil rights claims in the Duran Consent Decree.
The inmates have taken the officers' two-way radios as well as their keys. A strange voice, obviously an inmate's, suddenly crackled from one of the two-way radios. "We've got the shift commander hostage," the voice tells the unknown receiver. "There had better be a meeting with the governor, the news media, and Rodriguez." The inmate knew well that having the shift commander is the most important hostage. And it is King and Rodriguez who will decide the fate of any reform, and the prison administration a will be held accountable - if at all - only by the media. 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 they should attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages. Montoya contacted inmates by radio at about 2:30 am to initiate negotiations using a two-way radio in his car, then a hand set from the gate house, Montoya began a vague, broken dialogue with the voices on eight captured walkie-talkies. 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 just 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, at least until Rodriguez can 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 gets to the penitentiary about 5:00 am and immediately takes command.
From six to seven o'clock, the radio negotiators jockeyed. Inmates asked for a doctor to treat injured guards. Montoya refused, and asked for the release of wounded hostages. Ha 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. Also, the inmates did not have a consistent spokesperson until some of them thought of 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 naked on a stretcher, blood pouring from a head wound."
Negotiations broke off Saturday evening so everyone could sleep and resumed in the early hours of Sunday morning. The negotiations were not recorded. The strategy of the government negotiators 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, "Most inmates were trying to get out and get away from the riot." Powell said the report was based on literally hundreds of interviews with anyone who was involved," 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 occupy 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.. To put these numbers in perspective with the inmate population specifically at the Penitentiary of New Mexico during this time was "49% Hispanic, 38% Anglo, 10% Black, and 3% Native American" 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. 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.
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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