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New A&E TV series focuses on NM penitentiary

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Penitentiary of New Mexico houses 850 inmates, 75 percent of whom are incarcerated for violent crimes.

For eight months, camera crews followed nine rookie corrections officers as they learned how to keep these men – and themselves – safe, and sometimes wondered if the job is worth it.

“It is a scary profession,” says Greg Henry, executive producer of a new A&E TV series, “Behind Bars: Rookie Year,” which debuts Thursday. The eight-show series gives a behind-the-scenes look inside the prison and what it takes to become a guard.

“We wanted to bring the viewers into this world because this is one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in America,” he said. “Some of the rookies often ask themselves if it’s worth it.”

Henry said his production reached out to a number of states and chose New Mexico for several reasons.

“There’s a secretary who’s devoted to changing the system,” he says. “New Mexico is also very strong in training its rookies. And we get to see the challenges of this job. The state has a tough inmate population and it’s reform minded.”

Henry said nearly half of all rookie corrections officers don’t make it past the first year. Every day, the officers come face to face with rapists, murderers and gang members who take pleasure in preying on weakness.

At the penitentiary, every new recruit hoping to join the department goes through a rigorous eight-week training program designed to test his or her fortitude, and give the recruits the tools needed to survive in an unpredictable and dangerous working environment.

Some of the training includes being hit with pepper spray, taking down an inmate and calling for help without being able to see because of the pepper spray.

The Penitentiary of New Mexico had one of the deadliest riots in United States history on Feb. 2, 1980. Thirty-three inmates were killed and more than 200 injuries were reported, including 14 officers who were held hostage and brutalized.

“To prevent this from happening again, the state created a classification system ranging from level one to level six,” said Gregg Marcantel, secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department. “One being the minimum risk to level six housing the worst of the worst.”

Marcantel said the penitentiary houses levels two, five and six.

He said 96 percent of the inmates will get out and be part of the community, which is why there’s a huge push to make sure the inmates are better when they get out than when they came in.

“We’ve done away with solitary confinement, and emphasized job skills and vocational program,” Marcantel said.

“We give the prisoners more freedom. … Does it make the officers’ job more dangerous? Yes, it does.”

The nine rookie correctional officers in the series are Cohen Mangin, Ariel Montoya, Keith Pallesen, Carlos Rivera, Bruce Rounds, Francisco Villacana, Tyler Yaryan, Andrew Cordova and Zach Chavez.

Henry said a corrections officer usually moves beyond the rookie status after the first year.

“But I met a lot of officers who are still learning something new after five years,” Henry said. “It’s different for each officer.”

The penitentiary comprises three facilities and Henry had two crews following the rookies. From enduring 12-hour shifts to witnessing confrontations between inmates and corrections officers, crews had access to many parts of the prison system that most have never seen.

“One of the things that people don’t understand about corrections is that it’s mundane, but you can’t get comfortable,” Henry says. “There’s always a threat. If you fall into complacency, then that’s when things happen. Anytime you take 45-70 people and they have committed a crime, it gets interesting.”

Henry credits the unprecedented access to the prison as the main reason the series is raw and full of emotion.