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N.M. Prison's 1980 Riot Still Haunts 25 Years Later

By Sue Major Holmes
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE— It has been a quarter-century, but Elisa Ortega still remembers her last talk with her son Frank, serving time for murder at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
    He wanted another lawyer, saying he was in New Mexico's only prison for something he didn't do. He also warned that "serious things were going on in there," his mother recalls.
    Elisa Ortega's voice chokes as she talks. Both Frank, 20, and his brother, 25-year-old Filiberto, who was in the same prison on a parole violation, were killed a few weeks later in a hellish 36-hour riot that left 33 inmates dead at the hands of fellow prisoners.
    The death toll from the Feb. 2-3, 1980, riot was second in U.S. history only to the 1971 uprising at New York's Attica prison in which 32 inmates and 11 employees died, most after police stormed in.
    Then-New Mexico Gov. Bruce King recalls the emergency phone beside his bed ringing about 2 a.m. on Feb. 2. It was State Police Chief Martin Vigil with a grim message: "We have lost contact at the prison."
    "I could just see in my mind," King said, "all those prisoners cutting through the fence and running all over Santa Fe."
    King, prison officials and others began negotiating with inmates even as King was getting advice from all over the country to storm the penitentiary.
    He was reluctant.
    Callers told him, ' "You're going to lose most of the guards that are in there anyway.' I said, 'What about the prisoners?' and they said, 'Well, you have to disregard them,' and I said, 'Oh, let's not disregard anybody.' ''
    The riot had begun when inmates, after drinking home brew on an icy night, overpowered four prison guards, grabbed their keys and broke into the long corridor connecting all eight prison buildings.
    It took no more than five minutes to seize the prison's control center, smashing its bullet-resistant glass with a fire extinguisher. Some 22 minutes later, inmates had control of the entire prison and held 12 guards hostage.
    Rampaging inmates grabbed whatever they found for weapons, including acetylene torches. They also broke into offices and read inmates' files— looking to settle grudges.
    "They knew who they were looking for, and they knew what cell they were in," said Rick La Monda, who joined the prison staff three years after the riot.
    Then the slaughter began. Inmates unlocked grilles that barred every part of the all-male prison, opening everything but a jammed grille to Cellblock 4. Killers eventually used a torch to cut into Cellblock 4, which included inmates identified— rightly or wrongly— as snitches.
    They went from cell to cell, skipping some but in others stabbing, beating, hacking or torturing their victims. Some were burned alive. One body was decapitated; another had a rod sticking ear to ear.
    About 3 a.m. guards being held hostage heard a man pleading: "No era yo" ("It wasn't me") and "No lo hice" ("I didn't do it"). Authorities believe that inmate, Archie Martinez, was the first to die.
    At one point, a prisoner's voice crackled over a two-way radio: "Attention, attention, all units. You stop killing each other."
    By daybreak, about 80 inmates who wanted no part of the uprising moved to a baseball field behind the prison, where they huddled in freezing temperatures, eventually joined by hundreds of others.
    Sen. Ben Altamirano of Silver City remembers two inmates from his hometown calling him over to the fence and telling him "they were really scared to death that they'd be the next victims."
    Authorities just outside the main gate knew early on that inmates were being murdered, but did not try to retake the prison, fearing for the lives of the hostages. The decision to move in was made only after inmates released most of them.
    State Police and National Guardsmen then stormed the prison, taking it back without firing a shot.
    Most of the hostages were beaten or stabbed, but all survived. None ever returned to the prison. Two corrections officers and a medical technician hid throughout the riot. Inmates never found them.
    Ninety inmates were hospitalized, some for drug overdoses after breaking into the prison pharmacy, others for abuse by fellow prisoners.
    The prison was a shambles, its gray concrete walls blackened by smoke. Two dormitories and the gymnasium were burned-out shells. The administrative offices, the psychiatric unit, the education wing and the Protestant chapel were demolished.
    In the aftermath, authorities sent hundreds of the penitentiary's 1,158 prisoners out of state. Forty-four inmates were charged with riot-related crimes. Fewer than a dozen were convicted. Twenty-eight others pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
    After Attica, Congress created the National Institute of Corrections, and prison systems nationwide had begun to change by developing ways to address inmate grievances, said Jennifer Drake, an information analyst with the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
    Sen. Jeff Bingaman, then state attorney general, was asked by lawmakers to determine the reasons for the violence. His report cited problems that included overcrowding, a lack of proper procedures and a failure to properly separate prisoners according to the risks they posed. It also blamed hard-line policies that undermined prisoners' incentives to keep order.
    Current Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, who started as a penitentiary guard two years after the riot, said the trouble stemmed not just from overcrowding and bad treatment but the prison's entire climate.
    "There's some degree of tension and pressure in all prisons by the nature of the business and the people who are in there," he said. "But if you're not governing that population and letting them govern themselves, you've got a problem."
    King, in his State of the State address to lawmakers only weeks before the riot, had recommended more money for the prison system.
    "As I tell them, it's kind of like the guy who was going to control the tea kettle by just putting Scotch tape and taping over the spout and the lid," he says. "And as he heated it up, well, it has to give. That's kind of where we were."
    In the decade after the riot, New Mexico spent $127.5 million building prisons statewide. Today, the state has a combination of state prisons and private prisons, with a classification system that decides who's housed where.
    The old penitentiary closed in 1997.
    Bingaman said the riot taught New Mexico to pay attention to prisons. But beyond that, "There's still controversy over the appropriate size of the prison system, the appropriate treatment of the prison population, the extent to which rehabilitation ought to be a priority."
    The state also faced numerous lawsuits from the uprising. Elisa Ortega says her husband, who died 14 years ago, and a daughter were among those who sued.
    She wanted no part of it: "I didn't want to go through more pain."