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Sunday, September 19, 1999
1980 prison riot a black mark on state's history
JOURNAL FILE Then-Gov. Bruce King called in the National Guard during the murderous rioting in February 1980 at the Main unit of the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
By Mike Gallagher
Journal Investigative Reporter
It was an inmate rebellion without a plan, without leadership and without goals. There were few heroes, plenty of villains and many victims.
When State Police marched into the Penitentiary of New Mexico on Feb. 3, 1980, they didn't retake the prison from rioting inmates so much as they occupied the charred shell after the riot had burned itself out.
Thirty-three inmates were found dead inside -- some of them horribly butchered by their fellow prisoners.
The emergency room at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe was overwhelmed with more than 100 inmates -- some beaten, others suffering from drug overdoses.
Eight of the 12 guards who had been taken hostage were treated for injuries. Surprisingly, none of the guards was killed.
It was a black mark on New Mexico history as the nation was captivated by the horror stories that dribbled out of Santa Fe.
The riot began in the early-morning hours of Saturday, Feb. 2, when guards entered dormitory E-2 on the south side of the prison.
The door to the dormitory wasn't locked, in violation of prison security procedures. Neither was a hallway gate that led to the prison control room.
Four guards were taken hostage during the first few minutes of the riot.
In all, there were 15 guards on duty inside the prison that night, supervising more than 1,100 inmates.
Inmates rushed down the main corridor and broke the shatterproof glass at the control center. The guard on duty fled, leaving behind keys that could open most of the prison gates and doors.
The inside of the prison became a nightmare of violence. One Associated Press reporter later described it in a story distributed worldwide as a "merry-go-round gone crazy."
Fires were set. Inmates ripped out plumbing fixtures, flooding parts of the prison. Other inmates got into the infirmary and began taking drugs.
Others began hunting their enemies. And found them.
Sometime around 8 a.m. that Saturday morning, inmates began using tools from the prison to gain access to cellblock 4, which housed the "snitches" and inmates in protective segregation.
The "snitches" met a horrible end.
One was hung from the upper tier of the cellblock, another decapitated. Most of the 33 inmates killed were from the segregation unit.
Early Saturday morning, fitful negotiations began with some inmate leaders. Ambulances shuttled the dead and injured to St. Vincent. Smoke poured out of the prison gymnasium.
It became clear later that neither the inmates nor the state had a single spokesman during the negotiations.
Eventually, inmates made 11 basic demands. Some concerned basic prison conditions like overcrowding, inmate discipline, educational services and improving food. They also wanted outside witnesses -- federal officials and the news media.
Hostage guards were released. Some of the guards had been protected by inmates; others were brutally beaten.
"One was tied to a chair. Another lay naked on a stretcher, blood pouring from a head wound," a Journal reporter wrote.
Negotiations broke off about 1 a.m. Sunday and state officials insisted no concessions had been made.
But the riot, fueled by drugs and hate, was running out of gas.
Later Sunday morning, inmates began to trickle out of the prison, seeking refuge at the fence where National Guardsmen stood with their M-16s.
Black inmates led the exodus from the smoldering cellblocks, staying in groups large enough to defend themselves from other inmates.
It was over.
The Attorney General's Office spent months investigating the 36 hours the riot spanned on Feb. 2-3.
There were few surprises.
The overcrowded prison was mismanaged and run by too few guards, who were poorly paid and poorly trained.
Prison security policies were inconsistently enforced. Prison discipline depended on an informant system, where rumor replaced fact. Inmates were physically abused.
Predatory inmates were mixed with minimum-security prisoners. Incentives for inmates to behave, like education programs, had been cut to a minimum.
Some changes occurred due to an inmate lawsuit filed prior to the riot, which forced federal oversight of New Mexico prisons for two decades under what was known as the Duran consent decree.