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A chaotic rampage of torture and murder

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.

New Mexico National Guardsmen keep watch in front of the administration building at the New Mexico State Penitentiary during the deadly riot 40 years ago. (Bruce Campbell/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In the early morning hours of Feb. 2, 1980, the most dangerous section of the state prison south of Santa Fe, known as “The Main,” was Dormitory E-2.

The lighting inside was poor, and it was filled with double bunks, making it difficult for corrections officers to see each other in the dark while they made sure the 60 inmates were counted.

But the most dangerous working conditions in E-2 were the inmates.

Most were considered dangerous enough – high security risks, violent, escape-prone or troublesome – to be assigned to maximum security Cellblock 5. But Cellblock 5 was undergoing renovations, forcing prison officials to move those inmates from individual cells there to the open dormitory.

Rather than dispersing the problem inmates throughout medium security dormitories, most were clustered in E-2.

On the Friday night before the uprising, several of the inmates in E-2 were drunk on prison “hooch” – a home-brewed liquor made from raisins and yeast stolen from the prison kitchen and fermented in plastic garbage bags.

A trail of blood is left after inmates killed one of their own in Cellblock 4, the protective custody unit, during the February 1980 prison riot. (Richard Pipes/Journal)

During the drinking binge, the inmates came up with a plan that had no specific goals or leaders. They simply planned to take over “the place,” relying on the failure of corrections officers to follow basic security protocols. It was a simple plan.

New Mexico National Guardsmen watch over inmates sleeping outside the prison after the 1980 riot ended.

Inmates had noticed that when the officers came in for the shift count after midnight, the officer assigned to the main door of the dormitory seldom locked it – in violation of prison procedures.

In fact, officers kept the door a few inches ajar while they tried to keep their fellow officers in sight once they entered the dormitory.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m., the shift captain, a lieutenant and an officer entered the dormitory after giving their keys to an 18-year-old officer with four months on the job who would man the dormitory door.

After the officers entered and began checking on the inmates, two inmates occupying the bunks nearest the door – five feet away – rushed the door and overpowered the rookie guard. Other inmates jumped the three officers inside the dormitory.

The officers were stripped, bound and blindfolded.

The inmate takeover had begun.

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)

Warning signs

It wasn’t that state and prison officials had no warning the prison could explode. In fact, it had been in the headlines and evening newscasts for months.

Built in the 1950s, the prison was designed to hold 900 inmates. On the night the riot began, it held 1,157 inmates. One maximum security cellblock had been shut down for an overhaul, and those inmates were housed elsewhere.

The prison control room after the riot. (Brian Walski/Albuquerque Journal)

The prison was short of corrections officers – and still is – and many had received only on-the-job training.

On the night of the riot, 25 corrections employees were on duty, about half of whom were outside the prison buildings in guard towers and in vehicle perimeter patrols.

In the years prior to the riot, periodic inmate demonstrations – food and work strikes – had taken place. Turnover among corrections officers ranged from 60% to 70% a year.

In 1976, then-Attorney General Toney Anaya signed a state court agreement and court order with attorneys representing the inmates to improve living conditions and prison disciplinary practices – an agreement largely ignored by prison officials.

Thirteen grand jury reports in the years before the riot were critical of inmate living conditions and the prison’s disciplinary system.

Inmates were held in basement “strip” cells, based on “snitch” information or because they were mentally ill. In these cells, prisoners were stripped naked. They might or might not be fed. The toilet was a hole in the floor. Inmates were showered in their cells by guards with a hose.

Inmates complained they were beaten by corrections officers. Some claimed they were forced to run naked through a gantlet of officers wielding ax and pick handles.

Attorney Peter Cubra interviewed more than 200 inmates and prison employees after the riot for the prison defense project.

“The cultural norm at the prison demonstrated by the staff was brutality and abuse,” Cubra said. “The brutality exhibited by inmates during the riot was a learned behavior. They learned it from the guards.”

Looking into one of the least damaged areas, Cellblock 6, once inmates were cleared from the prison by SWAT teams after the 36-hour 1980 prison riot.

Crowded conditions

Overcrowding had been a problem off and on for years.

To cut down on having sometimes two or three inmates in a cell, double bunks had been added to the dormitories in the prison’s south wing.

But that created other problems.

In dormitories, vulnerable new inmates with low security classifications were mixed with veteran inmates who were considered sexual predators.

Attorneys for inmates argued that, by 1980, the prison design was obsolete, the dormitories too big to be properly supervised and the cellblock design prevented corrections officers from seeing inside unless they stood outside an individual cell.

There was also a pattern of corrections officers ignoring protocols on locking doors and hallway gates.

On Dec. 10, 1979 – just weeks before the riot – 11 inmates serving time for murder and other violent crimes escaped on a Sunday night by cutting through two prison fences within sight of one of the guard towers.

Later in the evening, an elderly Santa Fe man was stabbed when some of the escapees stole firearms and a pickup truck from his home.

For days, Santa Fe residents lived with low-flying helicopters searching for the escapees, most of whom were arrested within days. One eluded capture for years.

Prison officials blamed construction renovations, lack of corrections officers and prison overcrowding for the escapes.

Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli, who represented inmates for decades, said, “After the December escape, it became apparent, and people were saying it aloud, that if something wasn’t done soon there will be hell to pay.”

While law enforcement hunted for the escapees, prisoners were “locked down” (confined to their cells and dormitories).

Legislators who visited the prison in the weeks before the riot warned that the prison was a pressure cooker and could explode any moment.

In the days before the riot, inmates were seeking transfers out of Dormitory E-2 because it was “getting hot.”

Other inmates warned civilian staff there could be a riot.

A senior officer described the mood of the inmates as “quite ugly.”

In the hours before the riot began, prison officials were trying to track down the latest rumor of a threat to take a hostage.

Prison officials had a plan for responding to a riot, but only two staff members had read it in the week prior to the riot.

Hostage taking

Within minutes of gaining control of Dormitory E-2, inmates ran downstairs through an unlocked gate and an unused riot control grille. They attacked the four officers getting ready to check on inmates in Dormitory F-2.

They took three of the officers hostage, stabbing and beating one of them, while the fourth officer ran into the day room of Dormitory F-2, where he was protected by sympathetic inmates.

With keys obtained from the officers, inmates opened the rest of the dormitories, except for Dormitory E-1, a protective custody unit where inmates barricaded themselves in by pushing bunks against the entry door.

Now more than 500 inmates were free to roam the south end of the prison.

One inmate was on a prison two-way radio demanding to talk to Gov. Bruce King and Deputy Corrections Secretary Felix Rodriguez, a former warden.

Officers in portions of the prison not controlled by inmates began calling prison officials at their homes to tell them of the uprising.

The inmates headed for the Control Center, where they demanded that officers manning the center open the grilles to the administrative area of the prison. The officers refused.

The inmates began pounding on the center’s newly installed security glass, throwing a fire extinguisher at the glass three times before it began to crack. Officers in the Control Center fled, leaving the keys to the prison behind, reaching Tower One and safety next to the front entrance of the prison shortly after 2 a.m.

State Police and Santa Fe City police began arriving about 2:15 a.m., about the same time inmates started fires in the administrative area of the prison.

The inmates now controlled the south portion of the prison, the administrative area including the warden’s office, the kitchen, the prison pharmacy, gymnasium and the Control Center.

It was 2:15 a.m. and the chaos had just started.

Killing spree

The inmates who had taken control proceeded to free prisoners held in the cellblocks on the north side of the prison with the exception of protective custody Cellblock 4 – because they couldn’t find the keys.

Between the time Gov. King and National Guard Gen. Franklin Miles were notified and the first fire engines arrived at the prison at 2:45 a.m., the cells in maximum security Cellblock 3 were opened, releasing the most dangerous inmates in the system into the riot.

More fires were set. Inmates ripped out plumbing fixtures, flooding parts of the prison. Other inmates got into the infirmary and began taking drugs.

At some point in the morning, electricity flickered off in some parts of the prison and was later shut down because of the fires and flooding.

Inmates began hunting their enemies. And often found them.

The first inmate killed was in Cellblock 3. Two more inmates from that cellblock died during the riot.

More corrections officers were taken hostage.

Two officers managed to hide in the basement of the empty Cellblock 5 near the gas chamber.

Prison officials and police were made aware that at least two officers were in hiding and not hostages. But authorities were not sure where in the prison complex the hostages were being held – or even if they were held in one place.

Before dawn, one inmate with serious injuries was brought to the gate after being hit in the head with a meat cleaver.

Two corrections officers were released. One dressed as an inmate was escorted out of the prison by inmates.

Later, another officer, who had been badly beaten, was taken to the front gate.

More than 80 inmates from the protective custody Dormitory E-1 escaped one at a time by crawling through a window and finding refuge near the prison fence where National Guard troops and local police were getting organized.

Inmates from E-1 had managed to fight off attempts of other inmates to gain entry into the dormitory and avoided what inmate attorneys called a potential massacre.

Throughout Saturday and into Sunday morning, inmates continued to escape from the prison seeking the protection of troops and police in the prison yard.

Initially thwarted by not having keys, rioting inmates were now breaking into Cellblock 4, the primary protective custody unit, using acetylene torches left by workers who had been renovating Cellblock 5.

By 9:30 a.m., 12 inmates in Cellblock 4 had been brutally murdered by rioting prisoners who believed they were “snitches.”

One was hanged from the upper tier of the cellblock, another decapitated.

Another inmate’s face was burned off. A metal bar was shoved through the head of another inmate from ear to ear. Another was hanged and his body mutilated.

Cellblock 4 inmates who managed to escape ran through a gantlet of inmates wielding pipes.

The attorney general’s report on the riot took prison officials to task for putting Cellblock 4 inmates in danger through the use of a “snitch” system that failed to protect inmates who gave genuine information and placed a “snitch jacket” on inmates who simply failed to cooperate by giving information.

The murders of the “snitches” captured news media and public attention and accounted for 12 of the 33 inmate deaths.

Receiving less attention were the estimated 200 inmate rapes that occurred during the riot.

Other murders occurred throughout the prison. Some killings were motivated by old grudges that extended outside the prison.

Inmates from Las Vegas, N.M., for example, had ongoing “problems” with inmates from Carlsbad. Four inmates died as a result of the running battle between those two groups.

Radio chatter

Deputy Warden Robert Montoya began talking with inmates over two-way radios before sunrise on Saturday, asking inmates to release the hostages.

Different inmates in different parts of the prison were on two-way radios making different demands.

At various times they demanded a doctor, meetings with members of the news media, a firehose and meetings with Gov. King and Warden Jerry Griffin.

Some demanded Montoya resign, and others offered to exchange hostages for him and former warden Felix Rodriguez, who was then Corrections Department deputy secretary.

Others wanted amnesty. Some wanted transfers to out-of-state prisons.

Inmates wanted to talk with members of the news media, and that was allowed to happen several times.

There were threats to kill the hostages if an attempt was made to forcibly storm and retake the prison.

Plans were drawn up anyway to storm the prison at 4 a.m. Sunday, but those plans were canceled.

According to some state officials and the 1980 attorney general’s report on the riot, a consensus was reached by early Saturday morning that negotiations would continue and the safety of the hostages was paramount.

Authorities would not try to retake the prison by force, something Gov. King made clear to the media and inmate families at a press conference outside the prison’s entry gate.

Storming the prison complex would have been difficult in any case. Law enforcement SWAT teams from State Police and local agencies were unfamiliar with the layout of the prison; fires were burning inside the complex; the key collection to prison cellblocks and dormitories kept at Tower One was not complete; and officials didn’t know the exact locations of all the officer hostages.

Throughout the day on Saturday, inmates threatened to kill the hostage officers. Late in the day inmates started bringing dead prisoners out of the main entrance.

By 5 p.m. Saturday more than 200 inmates had surrendered and more were coming out in small groups. Twenty-five inmates had been hospitalized.

Nightmare ends

By sunrise Sunday, more than 800 inmates were outside the prison under guard and more than 60 had been taken to St. Vincent Hospital.

So many surrendering inmates were suffering from injuries and overdoses that the area around the front of the prison looked like a disaster zone as National Guard helicopters and ambulances picked up inmates and hostage officers and took them to the hospital.

Three inmates from Dormitory E-2 – Lonnie Duran, Vincent Candelaria and Kedrick Duran – met with a television crew and deputy secretary Rodriguez.

Four reporters, Bill Feather of the Associated Press, Bruce Campbell of the Albuquerque Journal, John Gillis of United Press International and John Robertson of the Santa Fe New Mexican – and later of the Journal – were summoned from the front entrance near the highway to take part in the session in the gatehouse at the prison’s interior gate.

The inmates expressed concerns about retaliation after the riot, and about where inmates would be kept after officials took back the prison, indicating the rebellion was ending.

The press conference moved outside into the prison yard where Candelaria and the Durans were joined by inmates Rudy Aldaz, Michael Colby and William Jack Stephens.

Stephens and Colby repeated the concerns about retribution by officials after the riot and complained of harassment by officers assigned to Cellblock 3.

Rodriguez assured Colby, the Durans, Candelaria and Stephens, on camera, that they would be transferred out of state once the inmates released the last of the hostages.

The news conference ended at a little after 10:30 a.m.

At about 12:30 p.m. Sunday, the beheaded body of inmate Paulina Paul was brought out on a stretcher by inmates. His head rested on his thighs, a sight many officials and members of the news media recalled for years as a testament to the brutality of the riot.

At 1:26 p.m. the last two hostages were released.

Approximately 100 inmates were still inside the prison.

When SWAT teams from State Police and local police agencies entered the prison, they didn’t retake the prison from rioting inmates so much as they occupied the charred shell after the riot had burned itself out.

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