SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - 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 cost - in money and how lives were changed forever - would take years tally and continues to this day, the Albuquerque Journal reports.
On Feb. 2, 1980, New Mexico residents and people across the country woke that Saturday morning to the news that inmates had seized the state penitentiary south of Santa Fe and were holding 12 corrections officers hostage.
The uprising had started at about 1:40 a.m., when inmates overpowered corrections officers in Dormitory E-2, taking four officers hostage and seizing their keys. Within minutes, the prisoners began opening other dormitories, taking four more corrections officers hostage.
In the end, 33 inmates were dead. Corrections officers were brutally tortured, but none were killed. More than a hundred inmates were hospitalized with injuries and drug overdoses.
Portions of the facility were destroyed. The gymnasium was burned. Repairs cost more than $10 million.
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 New Mexico prison riot of February 1980 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.
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.
“What we had was a culture of containment - no escapes, no riots,” Marcantel said. “For over 30 years before I took the job, our view of success was we didn’t have another riot.”
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.
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