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Riot at the Penitentary: New Mexico 1980
by Suzanne Stamatov
In the early morning hours on Saturday, 2 February 1980, inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe overwhelmed four correctional officers during a routine inspection in one of the dormitories. These inmates immediately took the officers hostage and then ran to another dormitory where they attacked four more guards. Thus began a thirty-six-hour riot during which the rioting inmates held twelve officers hostage, thirty-three inmates lost their lives, and at least ninety inmates suffered serious injuries including beatings, stabbings, rapes and overdoses. Throughout the weekend, prison and state officials communicated with the inmates trying to work for the release of the hostages and the surrender of the inmates. By 1:30 p.m., Sunday, most inmates had surrendered and the police and National guardsmen retook the penitentiary without resistance. Security breaches, lack of training for guards, prisoners’ anger and frustration, and disregard of warning signs all led to the outbreak and contributed to the brutal violence.
Logistical factors created a difficult-to-control condition for guards. The prisoners who began the riot were normally housed in Cellblock 5. This cellblock was a maximum security unit that housed inmates classified as high security risks, violent, escape-prone, or difficult. Before the riot the cellblock was under renovation, so prison officials had moved the inmates to Dormitory E-2, a medium-security unit in the South Wing of the penitentiary. In the dormitories, bunk beds lined the walls. The layout of the bunks, of which thirty were unoccupied, provided hiding places for the inmates. Moreover, when the four guards went to inspect the sixty-two inmates of Dormitory E-2 on 2 February, the lights in the dorm were out and the nightlights were not working. Although the guards had requested that the problem be fixed, on the night of the riot the nightlights were out.
During the riot, inmates easily gained access to the Control Center. In the Control Center, the central security area inside the prison, guards electronically operated five grill gates and kept keys to every area of the institution. Before the riot, officials had installed bullet-proof glass, which provided the guards with more visibility. Officers felt, however, that they were vulnerable and that the glass was breakable. They expressed concerns to the warden who had asked that a section of the glass be tested. By 2 February, the test had not been done. Moreover, officers had been unable to shut the grill gates electronically due to an incomplete renovation. Although the grills could be closed manually, the procedure was cumbersome. Ideally, the grill gates denied inmates access from one wing to the whole institution.
Of the guards working on 2 February, 60 percent of them had worked for the penitentiary for less than three years. Low pay and the high stress caused high turnover rates among the guards. Officer Ronnie Martinez who was on duty that night was responsible for the care, custody and control of 233 inmates in three separate dormitories, B-1, B-2, and E-2. His starting salary was $765 per month, and he had been working at the prison for only four months. Unlike 71 percent of the correctional staff, Officer Martinez had obtained formal classroom training. The lack of experience was compounded by the fact that officers did not receive updated, relevant post orders explaining the security equipment operation and security procedures. Guards, for example, were supposed to lock the grill gates at night, but the administration had not added this procedure to the post orders. Although a “Riot Control Plan” existed, the administration had not delivered it to all the correctional staff. In general, the officers felt ill-at-ease about the security at the penitentiary, and on the night of 2 February 1980 while twenty-five officers watched over 1157 inmates, they were justifiably worried.
Prisoners also felt unsafe. One inmate wrote to Governor Bruce King explaining some of the ordeals he had suffered in prison. On 19 November 1978, as he returned to Dormitory E-2, another prisoner stabbed him four times. As a result, the prisoner lost his left kidney. Prison officials removed him from the general population, but at the time he wrote to the governor in March of 1979, they wanted to release him from protective custody. He felt that his life was in jeopardy. He also complained how guards jeered at him. He pleaded for the governor to aid him in obtaining an out-of-state transfer: “What else can I do sir? I don’t give anyone trouble. I am so scared that something will happen to me here.” In another letter, dated 13 December 1979, a mother wrote the governor of her son’s situation: “Our son was sent to the Pen last feburary [sic]. they put him in population and a few days afterwards he was attacked by 7 inmates and nothing was done about it. they moved him out of the dormitory and they put him in Cell Block #4 on protection….But even though my son is in protection, my sons life is still in danger there cause some inmates are still threatening him…..there is an inmate there that calls him a rat and a lot of names.” The sobriquet, rat, referred to an inmate who was providing information to guards. Ideally, officers were supposed to conceal the identity of the informer (also known as the snitch), but inmates complained that some guards failed to do so. The anger aroused by this snitch system among the inmate population proved deadly.
In addition to feeling unsafe, prisoners also grew bored in the overcrowded penitentiary. State officials did not give a high priority to rehabilitation. Prior to the riot, inmates found out that the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation program (D.V.R.) was to be terminated due to a lack of funding. Prisoners wrote to Governor Bruce King pleading that the program not be cut. One prisoner wrote: “If the program (D.V.R.) is terminated that will mean at least sixty more inmates will be put on idle status, and add to already existing tension, and overcrowding of units during day time hours.” Two-thirds of the prisoners participated in educational programs, but these programs only engaged the inmates for a couple of hours a day. The remaining third of the men stayed idle all day.
Finally, a prison psychologist, Dr. Marc Orner, heard that inmates were planning to take hostages and that they were hiding ammunition and homemade firearms in Dormitory E-2. He informed Superintendent of Correctional Security Manuel Koroneos on 11 January 1980. Koroneos ordered a shakedown inspection, but the guards found nothing. Other officers also heard rumors about a takeover. During the week prior to the takeover, a number of inmates requested to be transferred out of Dormitory E-2. One man reported that, “E-2 is getting hot.” Even though Orner had mentioned specific inmates who were involved in the takeover scheme, prison officials did not transfer these men out of E-2.
On the night of the riot, after the early evening count at about 8:30 p.m., inmates in Dormitory E-2 began drinking a “home brew” that they had made from yeast and raisins, items they had smuggled from the kitchen. After drinking for a couple of hours, they became drunk and angry and decided to attack the guards when they came for the early morning inspection. When the four officers arrived for the inspection, the inmates quickly overpowered them. One officer who had remained at the door struggled to close the door, but was unable to do so. The prisoners then took the four guards to the dayroom where they stripped, bound, and blindfolded them.
One inmate, dressed in a guard’s uniform, led the other inmates down the stairs between E-2 and E-1. They ran, unchallenged, to another dormitory, F-2, where they attacked four other officers. One officer offered resistance, but the inmates stabbed and beat him, successfully subduing him. Meanwhile other inmates had taken the guards’ keys and unlocked the doors to other dormitories. Within minutes more than 500 inmates had free access to the corridor.
Not all inmates wanted to participate in the riot, immediately recognizing that a riot could be dangerous. Prisoners in Dormitory E-1 heard the riot begin above them in Dormitory E-2. They quickly barricaded themselves in their unit with their bunks and mattresses. Although rioters tried to cajole them into opening the door, the inmates refused to open. Rioters then unsuccessfully attempted to gain access by igniting the mattresses and throwing in tear gas. Using a three-foot wrench, the inmates of E-1 forced open a window and escaped around dawn.
More than seventy-five inmates continued on to the Control Center and demanded entry from the two guards within. Refusing, the guards stood and watched as the inmates took a fire extinguisher and began to smash it against the glass. On the third attempt, the glass cracked, and the two guards quickly escaped, failing to secure any keys on the keyboard. Believing themselves safe, the guards did not try to use the tear gas canisters located in the Control Center.
Once the rioters had gained control of the Control Center, they had access to the whole institution. Some inmates broke into the pharmacy and took a variety of drugs, mostly barbiturates, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and sedatives. Others entered the paint shop and shoe repair shop where they found paint, paint thinner and glue which they inhaled. Known as “sniff,” these inhalants can induce violent behavior. By the end of the riot, many of the inmates suffered drug-overdoses.
With the keys obtained in the Control Center, inmates entered the plumbing shop where they found a heavy-duty acetylene cutting torch. They also found two more torches in Cellblock 5 where renovations were underway. With these tools in hand, the rioters made their way over to Cellblock 4. This cellblock housed a number of inmates, protected from the general population because they were snitches or believed to be snitches. For several hours, the rioters could not gain access to the cellblock, and the inmates of Cellblock 4 sent SOS messages to the police outside the prison. Officials later said that they thought that the rioters held the entire institution and did not see the messages from the desperate inmates. Finally, just after dawn, the rioters cut through the grill at Cellblock 4, yelling “kill the snitches.” These violent rioters, later known as “execution squads,” shouted out the names of their intended victims. Some of these men locked themselves in their cells, but the execution squads were able to burn through the bars with the torches. Some executioners, unable to wait, threw flammable liquids into the cells onto their victims and then ignited them. Once they did open the cells, they dragged out the men, stabbing, torturing, bludgeoning, burning, hanging them, and chopping them apart. Some executioners threw their victims from the upstairs tiers to the basement floor, where officials later found many bodies.
Guards notified prison officials almost immediately about the burgeoning riot. Deputy Warden Robert Montoya and Superintendent of Correctional Security, Manuel Koroneos, arrived first. The officials quickly informed the State police of the situation, and State police units arrived around 2:15 a.m. and secured the perimeter of the institution. When Governor King found out about the riot, he mobilized the National Guard. The first contingent arrived at 7:30 a.m.
Negotiations with the prisoners soon began. Robert Montoya, who had recently attended a law enforcement course in crisis intervention, acted as the chief negotiator. Inmates with walkie-talkies threatened to kill the hostages if the police stormed the prison. They also demanded to be allowed to speak with Governor King, Warden Griffin, Deputy Secretary Rodriguez, and members of the news media. Prison officials took the threats of the inmates seriously and decided not to storm the prison. Even when they learned of the killing of inmates and the torture of some guards, they decided to stick with the original plan and not try to retake the prison. The negotiators did meet some of the inmates’ demands. They placed a field telephone near one of the entrances, and an inmate who acted as a chief negotiator spoke with Governor King. A member of the news media, cameraman Michael Shugrue, entered the prison and interviewed a number of prisoners. Finally, thirty-four hours after the takeover, inmates participated in a televised news conference. For their part, the inmates let badly injured guards leave the prison.
For thirty-six hours, prison officials negotiated for the release of the hostages and the surrender of the rioters. By 1:30 p.m., Sunday, 3 February 1980, the riot had, for the most part, ended. After the inmates of Dormitory E-1 had escaped, a steady trickle of men followed, and by the end of the riot most inmates stood outside the penitentiary. Finally, the police and National guardsmen retook the penitentiary without resistance. So ended one of the most violent prison riots in New Mexico history.
“Report of the Attorney General on the February 2 and 3, 1980 Riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico: Part I The Penitentiary, The Riot, The Aftermath,” Report Mandated By Section 9, Chapter 24, Laws of 1980. Attorney General: Jeff Bingaman
Personal Letters from Prisoners found in the Governor Bruce King Collection, Penal Correspondence.
All materials can be found in the New Mexico State Record and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico.