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At the Roundhouse: A Prison Riot Tour

At The RoundhouseIt’s nothing to be proud of  — that gray hulk of the old state penitentiary south of Santa Fe, where 33 inmates were murdered and hundreds of other violent offenses were committed against corrections officers and prisoners over 36 hours in February 1980.

The prison remains a symbol of New Mexico’s neglect.

Those are words I didn’t find in the state’s announcement that it will begin public tours of “Old Main” on Feb. 2 “as part of the Centennial celebrations.” I just want to remind you bluntly of what state public relations people might not.

The very thorough and thoughtful riot investigation report prepared under then-Attorney General Jeff Bingaman is hard to find these days.  It shouldn’t be.  It should be required reading for every New Mexico lawmaker, governor and cabinet member.

It begins with a prologue titled, “A History of Neglect.”

That same prologue to that report, written more than 30 years ago by Bingaman’s staff, ends with these words:

“Now the prison once again is the subject of attention. The question is whether the 1980 riot will be just another episode in the history of neglect or an opportunity for meaningful, lasting reform.”

The accompanying volume of post-riot recommendations for reform, prepared by a citizen’s advisory panel chaired by Ray Powell Sr., also should be revisited. Nor should we forget that it was a prisoner lawsuit against the state that forced a consent decree and redress of some of the issues contributing to tensions at the prison.

Raw statistics from the riot: 33 inmates killed by fellow prisoners; 12 corrections officers held hostage, some brutalized, in a severely understaffed prison holding 1,157 inmates; at least 90 more prisoners severely injured; much of the prison ruined; the state of New Mexico’s main prisoner lockup out of control for 36 hours.

The state already was facing a lawsuit over prison conditions when prisoners took control of the penitentiary in 22 minutes, according to the AG’s investigation, early in the morning of Feb. 2, 1980.

Dating back to at least 1975, there had been public warnings even from some prison administrators about overcrowding, understaffing and aging equipment.

Starting in 1975, it also was clear that the state’s prison system management was in some kind of upheaval.

The first internal memo conveying intelligence about possible prisoner hostage-taking came on Jan. 11, 1980, according to the attorney general’s investigation.

Two months before the riot, in December 1979, 11 prisoners broke out of the joint, some of them fleeing into Santa Fe. For days, the city seemed like a war zone, with helicopters overhead and everyone from prison mangers to regular police officers busting through trees and arroyos, day and night, looking for escapees.

Two weeks before the February 2-3 riot, I toured the prison with a lone state senator, Ron Olguin.

Olguin had stood on the Senate floor and said there were indications of trouble brewing out at the pen and that there would be a tour of the prison the next day.  Perhaps others went before and after, but for that tour only Olguin and I showed up. (We were joined by his brother-in-law, Al Valdez,  who was working in a prisoner rehabilitation program and later would become a state legislator).

Tension was palpable inside the dim and stinking prison.

We saw dorms that were jungles of stacked bunks, reflecting overcrowding and what the attorney general later would later identify as barriers to monitoring what prisoners were up to.

We walked gingerly down the catwalk of Cellblock 3 — a maximum security area used for discplinary segregation –where two prisoners were caged in 9-by-6-foot cells intended for one.

As we walked out afterward, into the grassy stretch between the  prison entrance and the front gate, I asked Olguin what he thought.

He said it looked like inmates could take over the prison anytime they wanted.

Ten days later, they did.

For most of the next 36 hours, I stood helplessly outside the smoldering prison,  along with other reporters, prison managers and the rest of the state of New Mexico, effectively held hostage by rioting prisoners.

We listened and watched as an inmate calling himself Chopper 1 made threats and demands over a captured radio, as bodies were delivered out on stretchers, as released but brutalized corrections officers staggered to the front gate, as smoke rose from the burning gym, as families gathered at the fences and worried about relatives inside, as rioters displayed in the dark the blow torches that were among the weapons of their mayhem.

Management and control of state prisons is the responsibility of our elected officials. And I think immediate issues of neglect lie mostly there. But, in the long run, I think we all are responsible. At least for paying attention, at least for holding accountable the people we employ to do the job.

Driving by the prison at night, I know I still look away.