Second in a three-part series.
Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The New Mexico prison riot of Feb. 2-3, 1980, “was a very dark chapter in the history of our state. It was a tragedy for the families of the inmates who had been killed and the corrections officers held hostage, beaten and traumatized.”
– Then-Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, in a recent interview
The carnage didn’t end when state and local police reclaimed the prison after 36 hours of unspeakable violence that left 33 inmates dead and much of the prison a smoldering ruin.
The cleanup effort and costs were staggering as legislators scrambled to approve a $38 million emergency appropriation. Hundreds of prisoners were shipped out of state.
Retired District Judge Mike Vigil of Santa Fe, who previously represented inmates, said in a recent Journal interview that the riot didn’t actually end Feb. 3. Instead, it continued “in slow motion” over the next 18 months – claiming the lives of two corrections officers and six inmates.
The first few months after the riot were relatively quiet, but legislators looking at costs were demanding that New Mexico inmates who had been scattered in prisons across the country be returned to New Mexico as soon as possible.
Getting the facility livable again was a huge undertaking, costing $10 million just for basic reconstruction and painting. The National Guard served meals for months because kitchen facilities had been destroyed.
But most of the New Mexico prisoners were back by late summer, and that’s when the violence started up again.
• Inmate George Saavedra was stabbed to death in his cell in Cellblock 6 on Sept. 12, 1980.
• Inmate Apolina Paul Moraga was stabbed to death in the Cellblock 3 recreation yard on Oct. 24, 1980.
• Inmate Ricardo Tafoya was killed in Cellblock 2 on Dec. 21, 1980.
• Corrections Officer Louis Jewett was stabbed on Feb. 26, 1981, while attempting to save the life of inmate Bobby Garcia, who died from his stab wounds. Jewett died of his wounds April 6, 1981.
• Inmate Danny Baca was stabbed to death in the Cellblock 3 recreation yard on Aug. 21, 1981.
• Corrections Officer Gerald Magee was killed during an attempted escape by five prisoners armed with two guns, but the suspects in Magee’s murder were three other inmates not involved in the escape on Aug. 30, 1981.
Some of those killings traced their roots directly to the deaths of 33 inmates in the 1980 riot.
But the motive for some killings, like that of Jesus Jose Antunez, 30, in the recreation yard of Cellblock 3 on April 16, 1981, had additional overtones.
Antunez was one of five inmates charged with the killing of Ramon Madrid, 40, of Las Cruces, who was found burned to death in his cell in the protective custody cellblock when police SWAT teams entered the prison at the end of the riot.
Antunez maintained his innocence in the Madrid murder and was awaiting trial.
There were no indications Antunez was going to become a witness against his fellow inmates, but suspicions and rumors of who might turn “snitch” were common.
Antunez had also gotten into an argument with another inmate about who was going to get the porter job cleaning the cellblock where they lived.
Corrections officers were warned to be careful taking Antunez to the recreation yard.
Antunez was taken to the recreation yard and was having his handcuffs removed when he was attacked by Lorenzo Chavez, 29, who was a co-defendant with Antunez in the Madrid murder, and Raymond Aragon, 21, the other inmate who wanted the porter job.
Antunez, a large man who was considered one of the strongest inmates in his cellblock, was stabbed more than 40 times, four times to the heart, and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Prosecutors maintained it was a planned prison gang “hit.”
Chavez’s attorney claimed his client was having mental problems, and Aragon’s attorney claimed his client feared for his life because Antunez had threatened him previously.
Chavez and Aragon each pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder.
In 1987, then warden George Sullivan told the Journal the beatings of officer hostages during the riot and the post-riot murders of officers Jewett and Magee had derailed the traditional relationship between officers and inmates.
“Because of the riot (and post-riot murders), a threat uttered in this institution is a threat inmates have a higher expectation will be carried out,” Sullivan said. “There is a very active element of fear here that you don’t find in other prisons in the country, and it affects all our prisons.”
In separate and recent interviews with the Journal, former Corrections secretaries Rob Perry and Gregg Marcantel said they were initially surprised when they took over the prison system – Perry in 1998 and Marcantel in 2011 – that the prison riot continued to have such a large impact on the daily operations of the prison system.
“The impact was profound,” Perry said.
Marcantel said, “What we had was a culture of containment – no escapes, no riots. For over 30 years before I took the job, our view of success was – we didn’t have another riot.”
As the nation watched, state officials responding to the chaotic scene often appeared confused or even bewildered, summed up by Gov. Bruce King’s infamous quote that some inmates were “smoke damaged.”
But they moved quickly in the aftermath, shipping more than 700 inmates to out-of-state prisons across the country at a cost of more than $30,000 a day.
The Legislature, led by conservative Democrats and Republicans known as the “Cowboy Coalition,” was in session during the riot. A year earlier, the Legislature appropriated less than $20 million for the Corrections Department. Just 20 days after the riot, legislators approved nearly twice that amount in emergency funding for rebuilding the prison, hiring more corrections officers, prosecuting and defending inmates charged with riot murders, paying the National Guard for riot-related expenses and paying other prison systems to hold New Mexico’s inmates.
Later in the same session, lawmakers approved $50 million for a new maximum security prison.
Legislators were concerned that inmates and their families were starting to file claims against the state, and by summer’s end more than 500 claims and civil lawsuits were filed.
But ultimately the financial cost to the state was less than expected – a little over $6 million for the legal claims – by two years later. Some families of dead inmates received as little as $10,000.
The Legislature also authorized $100,000 for Bingaman’s office to investigate and report on what happened during the riot and what caused it.
The first volume of the report detailed the riot minute by minute, drawing on more than 300 interviews with inmates and state officials and the many riot and post-riot stories published in the state’s newspapers.
The second volume looked at the causes of the riot. The prologue was titled: “A History of Neglect.”
One of the report’s themes was that the prison was quiet, even when overcrowded between 1970 and 1975, when there was an incentive-based program rewarding good behavior by inmates with access to education, prison jobs, and inmate organizations that had contact with community civic organizations.
But in the five years before the riot, prison officials did away with programs and the system relied more heavily on coercion – including solitary confinement and other punishments.
“I think there were useful lessons we can draw from the report,” Bingaman said. “I hope those lessons are being put into use today.”
The report also strongly suggested the state move to a greater reliance on community-based corrections programs, including state halfway houses and drug programs.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Legislature embarked on a $100 million prison building program that opened new prisons in Santa Fe, Grants and Las Cruces, and greatly expanded the prison in Los Lunas.
While the state avoided another uprising, as Marcantel pointed out, “success” remained elusive.
Inmates continued to escape and kill each other as the years passed.
And officers were also killed.
In April 1987, Corrections Officer Lt. Joe Silva was beaten to death at the Las Cruces medium security prison.
On July 4, 1987, two convicted murderers and five other inmates escaped from the state’s maximum security unit south of Santa Fe after inmate William Wayne Gilbert pulled a gun on a corrections officer while he was out of his cell mopping floors.
Gilbert then used the guard to enter the prison control center, where he shot the sole officer on duty and opened the cell doors of the six other inmates, including Jimmy Kinslow, who was in prison on three murder convictions.
The inmates went through an emergency door in the control center to the roof, where they reached a wall behind the prison, walking along its top before using a pole next to the wall to vault a barbed-wire fence.
The prison’s guard tower was unmanned after 8 p.m. because of staffing shortages.
Gilbert, convicted of four murders, was originally on death row until November 1986, when then-Gov. Toney Anaya commuted his death sentence along with four others.
Several of the escapees were arrested in the Santa Fe area. But it took weeks to track down the last three.
Gilbert, Kinslow and another escapee were arrested weeks later in Garden Grove, California.
By the time of the July 4, 1987, escapes, the state prison system was usually referred to as “troubled.”
The new state prisons built in the 1980s filled up as soon as they were completed.
To avoid a reoccurrence of the conditions that led to the riot, they were designed for each inmate to have his own cell. But when all the cells were occupied, inmates were assigned to sleep on cots in the day rooms. A cell had to be kept vacant so inmates sleeping in the day rooms would have access to a sink and toilet.
It created a dangerous situation for corrections officers who had to enter the cell areas to conduct nighttime inmate counts – the same setup that led to the riot of 1980.
In the 1990s, the Legislature approved and King signed a bill that allowed the state Corrections Department to use private prisons and also approved a financing scheme that allowed local governments to finance the construction of private facilities.
The private prisons built near Santa Rosa and Hobbs were designed to have two inmates per cell.
While the private prisons reduced overcrowding in state prisons, there were problems from the day they opened.
At the outset, the transfer of inmates from state to private prisons didn’t go smoothly.
The state didn’t properly screen inmates being transferred, so prisoners with long-standing grudges or from rival gangs were assigned to the same living units. That resulted in multiple stabbings and murders.
In 1999, Officer Ralph Garcia was beaten and killed during a mini-riot in the Santa Rosa private prison.
After Garcia’s death, the state shipped more than 100 inmates to a prison in Virginia.
State officials blamed the violence on lack of staff training at the private prisons and the state’s classification system, which failed in its attempt to identify the inmates by what level threat they posed to the institutions and other inmates.
The classification system was revised but problems continued.
Rise of gangs
The post-riot era also saw the rise of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico – SNM – one of two home-grown New Mexico gangs.
The other – Los Carnales – was formed before the riot and tended to be smaller but extremely violent.
Since its creation, SNM has expanded through the state’s prison system and into federal prisons.
The gang seeks to control drug distribution and other illegal activities within the state prisons as well as criminal activities “outside.”
The FBI recently estimated the gang has more than 500 members, with half of them in the state prison system at any one time.
Despite being in prison – including administrative segregation – SNM leaders manage to send their orders to gang members and associates throughout the system through contraband cellular phones, secret notes called “kites” or “welas,” coded letters and messages given to visiting family members.
In addition to exerting its control of drug trafficking and other criminal activity within the prisons, SNM also operates on the streets of New Mexico, intimidating and influencing smaller local gangs.
If a gang resists, SNM kills its members inside and outside the prison system.
In the past, the gang engaged in violence with rival prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, Los Carnales, Barrio Azteca and Burqueños.
It currently has treaties with the Aryan Brotherhood and Los Carnales.
But it is in conflict with Texas-based prison gangs, like Barrio Azteca and the Texas Syndicate, that shows up in prison beatings and stabbings over control of drug distribution within the prison.
Syndicato is a “blood in, blood out gang:” A prospective member has to assault or kill to become a member and the only way out is death.
In 2015, the FBI and the Department of Corrections began an investigation of SNM after Marcantel and other department officials uncovered a plot to kill them.
After the gang leaders were prosecuted in Las Cruces for the death plot and racketeering charges, Syndicato members were found to be plotting to kill prosecutors and FBI agents who worked on those cases.
Over the years, the FBI identified four law enforcement officers shot and killed by SNM members, although the killings appear to have little to do with the gang’s activities.
The officers are Mesilla Marshal’s Office Sgt. Thomas Richmond in 1988, APD Sgt. Cheryl Tiller in 1998, BCSO Deputy James McGrane in 2006, and Rio Rancho Officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner in 2015.