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Prison guard awarded medal for heroism in 1980 riot

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Former corrections officer Louis C de Baca talked to reporters with his wife, Dora C de Baca, after he received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 1980 New Mexico prison riot. The presentation ceremony took place Tuesday at the Embassy Suites in Albuquerque. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Former corrections officer Louis C de Baca talked to reporters with his wife, Dora C de Baca, after he received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 1980 New Mexico prison riot. The presentation ceremony took place Tuesday at the Embassy Suites in Albuquerque. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A former corrections officer was honored Tuesday for running from outside the fence into the state penitentiary to help a fellow officer escape becoming a hostage during the 1980 prison riot.

New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel presented Louis C de Baca, a former corrections officer, with the Medal of Honor, the department’s highest award, at a ceremony in Albuquerque.

In February 1980, prisoners overtook the Penitentiary of New Mexico, south of Santa Fe. In 36 hours, prisoners killed 33 inmates. In addition to the deaths, hundreds of other inmates and many guards were beaten or tortured. None of the 14 corrections officers taken hostage was killed.

C de Baca was safely outside the Penitentiary of New Mexico’s fence when he saw inmates storm the control center. He ran into the room and helped another guard to safety just as prisoners broke in, Marcantel said.

“As we exited, the prisoners were already in the control center hitting the switches,” C de Baca said in an interview Tuesday. “As we were running out they were throwing shanks at us.”

Marcantel said C de Baca is a hero.

“When we have those moments … when someone like Mr. C de Baca made the choices to subordinate his own health, his own life, safety for the sake of another human, I think that it’s important we honor those things,” Marcantel said.

He added that honoring and remembering the prison riot is important to the state’s culture, and it serves as a reminder of the issues that led to the riots, such as overcrowding.

The corrections department restored and opened the former penitentiary to the public for tours last year.

C de Baca was told in January 2013 that he had earned the Medal of Honor, but he declined to accept it and to participate in functions connected to the riot.

“I just thought I was doing my job,” C de Baca said.

He also was originally against turning the former penitentiary into a museum.

He said he changed his mind after speaking to corrections officials about why they felt it was important to restore the facility and honor the corrections officers involved in the riot. He now hopes the campaign to honor the guards involved and publicize the site of the former prison educates people about the dangers and importance of corrections work.

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