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Revisiting the nightmare: The 1980 prison riot and its legacy

Editor’s Note: Forty years after inmates seized control of the New Mexico State Penitentiary, the Journal revisits that deadly takeover and examines the chances of a repeat. Today is the first of a three-part series.

A New Mexico National Guard helicopter leaves the New Mexico State Penitentiary south of Santa Fe during the Feb. 2-3, 1980, riot, which claimed the lives of 33 prisoners. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On Feb. 2, 1980, New Mexicans and people across the country woke that Saturday morning to the news that inmates had seized the state penitentiary south of Santa Fe and were holding 12 corrections officers hostage.

As shocking as the news was, it didn’t really give a hint about the chaos, brutality, bloodshed and violence that would take place over the next 36 hours – a story so dark that it captivated the nation.

The uprising had started at about 1:40 a.m., when inmates overpowered corrections officers in Dormitory E-2, taking four officers hostage and seizing their keys. Within minutes, the prisoners began opening other dormitories, taking four more corrections officers hostage.

A little after 2 a.m., inmates smashed their way into the prison control center, gaining access to the entire prison and taking more officers hostage as they got control of the cellblocks.

Corrections officers outside the compound sounded the alarm, notifying law enforcement and state officials. State Police, sheriff’s deputies and National Guard troops arrived, taking up positions at the perimeter fence surrounding the prison.

A plaque commemorating the construction of the state prison in the 1950s was ripped from the wall in the administration building during the riot. (Journal)

Then, the horror story began to unfold.

By the time most New Mexicans were grabbing their first cup of coffee around 7 a.m., prisoners in Cell Block 4 – where protective custody inmates were housed – were being slaughtered.

Details seeped out slowly over the next hours, days and even weeks.

When it was all said and done, 33 inmates were dead. Corrections officers were brutally tortured, but none was killed. More than a hundred inmates were hospitalized with injuries and drug overdoses.

Portions of the facility were destroyed. The gymnasium was burned. Repairs cost more than $10 million.

Injured inmates were loaded onto National Guard helicopters for transport to St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe after the riot. (Richard pipes/Journal)

Amid the violence and chaos, there were acts of heroism – some inmates helping correction officers escape, others providing first aid to wounded inmates and officers.

But those acts were overshadowed by the sheer brutality of the inmate-on-inmate murders.

One man was beheaded; another’s face burned off with an acetylene torch. Others were beaten to death with pipes or killed with a tear gas gun. A piece of rebar was driven through one inmate’s head – ear to ear.

A badly injured inmate is led out of the state prison by a National Guard medic toward the end of the prison riot on Feb. 3, 1980.

Many inmates didn’t participate in the killings and sought any escape route they could out of the cellblocks and dormitories to the prison yard, where they found safety under the guns of National Guardsmen and law enforcement.

Outside the prison, families of inmates gathered along with the news media in the freezing cold, waiting for any information.

The families outnumbered the growing number of news reporters from local television, radio, newspapers and wire services. They were joined later by reporters from national news outlets, flying in from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

But facts that Saturday were scarce, with most of the information coming from the two-way radio transmissions between inmates and Deputy Warden Robert Montoya that the news media overheard on police scanners.

Officials promised regular news briefings, but they occurred infrequently. Local officials gave reporters bits and pieces as they came and went from the prison.

Rumors floated through the crowd all day Saturday and into Sunday morning that National Guardsmen were shooting inmates, that hundreds of inmates were dead. Not true.

Inmates awaiting medical treatment line the wall of a prison building after the riot at the state prison ended. (Tony O’Brien/Journal)

Throughout Saturday, mid-level state officials negotiated with an ever changing group of inmates to get the hostage officers released.

During that time, prisoners managed to escape the cellblocks and dormitories – at first a few, then in a flood.

Officers held hostage were turned over by inmates to state law enforcement and evacuated by National Guard helicopters to St. Vincent Hospital.

And, then, suddenly, on Sunday, as New Mexicans came home from church or prepared Sunday dinner, it was over. It just ended.

State Police SWAT teams entered the prison, and the recovery of the dead and the finger-pointing began.

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