The old state penitentiary, site of the devastating riot in February 1980. Constructed in 1956 but in a state of neglect by the early ’80s, it had a capacity of about 900. On the night the riot started, it was teeming with 1,157 men.

Forty years ago today, the eyes of the nation and world were turned to New Mexico as its main penitentiary became the scene of one of the worst prison riots in U.S. history. When it was over, 33 inmates were dead, the prison was in ruins and New Mexicans were left wondering how such horror had visited their state.

The brutality inside the walls — torture of the guards held hostage, the decapitation of one inmate and widespread destruction and cruelty — has set the tone for how prisons in New Mexico have been managed since. It is counted as success that since that day, widespread violence has not occurred.

However, prisons in New Mexico remain troubled, even though the state spends some $386 million a year to run the system.

Solitary confinement — widely considered a form of torture — is used too broadly as a means of control, damaging the mental health of inmates. A 2018 Legislative Finance Committee report discovered that violence among prison inmates had jumped to the highest level in a decade. Alarmingly, staff vacancies ranged from 25 percent to more than 40 percent at the 11 prison facilities across New Mexico. Overtime to cover essential positions itself costs $18 million.

Along with those issues, there is recognition that the emphasis on security has affected what happens in other areas — especially the need for education and training so that inmates have a chance for a more peaceful life once free. More than 30 percent of inmates are enrolled in education programs, but that means almost 70 percent are not.

The reliance on private prisons to handle incarceration of criminals has given New Mexico less control over what happens to inmates. Other duties have been outsourced to private companies, including contracting with private companies to provide prisoner health care. In 2016, The New Mexican detailed widespread shortcomings in that care.

It is clear that after the riot, the state of New Mexico and its prison officials retrenched, so determined that such violence would not occur again, that the state missed implementing important reforms to the system.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Bingaman was charged with investigating conditions leading to the 1980 riot, and his six-month investigation found a prison ripe for upheaval. The food was bad, often spoiled. A system of snitches used to control inmates caused relations among prisoners to disintegrate. Guards lacked training. Prisoners, Bingaman found, had no reason not to riot: “There were no carrots. It was all sticks.”

Bingaman asked in his report that the state establish and fund an incentive-based inmate corrections policy to encourage better behavior, using the carrots of education, programs and compassionate treatment. He also wanted trained and more accountable staff, with professional management in place to ensure the prisons were run consistently.

State prison officials point to eight weeks of training for guards before they start work, emphasis on communication and a classification system that sorts prisoners more appropriately — the truly violent inmates are not housed next to those who have lesser crimes for which to pay. That was not true before 1980.

Inmate advocate and attorney Mark Donatelli, however, warns that the new prison system has failed to address enough of the issues behind the riot. He has more insight than most, since for 30-plus years Donatelli has worked as inmate representative on the Duran Consent Decree, fueled by prisoner Dwight Duran’s 1977 lawsuit designed to force New Mexico to do a better job of its treatment of inmates in prisons.

Rather than simply building more walls and bars behind which people would be incarcerated, Donatelli believes the state should have spent money hiring and training a more professional staff, building halfway houses and creating paths from prison to life in the outside world where people with crimes in their pasts truly could begin anew.

New Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero begs to differ and believes today’s correction system is much improved over the one that sparked the riot in 1980. There definitely are more security measures in place — not so many keys available for inmates to grab and use to overrun the prison — at least. And we are encouraged that a federal judge recently approved preliminary settlement of that longstanding Duran decree.

In that agreement, the state promises to stop double celling of inmates and otherwise relieve overcrowding — long considered one of the chief causes of the prison riots. Final approval could allow the state more freedom in setting prison policy, perhaps leading to much-needed improvements, including the will to greatly limit the use of solitary confinement.

More broadly, though, New Mexico and its citizens — who rightly want to live in safe, secure communities — need to examine who should go to prison and whether all the people in the system need to be there. If they deserve to be behind bars, how can we ensure as a society that we are safe once those inmates are released? A system of strictly punishment and severity does little to help inmates prepare for a return to the outside world. Such draconian measures in prisons make us less safe as a society.

And if prison conditions deteriorate too much, the scene could be set once more for mass violence and harm. That lesson of the riot — that prisons must be a place of rehabilitation and not just punishment — is one we apparently still need to learn.

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(2) comments

Chris Mechels

I have recently looking into the corrections system, after working 6 years on police training reforms, mostly at the NM Law Enforcement Academy Board. I find the Corrections Department, and the SF County Detentions Center, very secretive and dishonest. Both are "Accredited"; by the ACA and NM Assn of Counties respectively, but that means little, its a sham. Lacking at both is meaningful oversight. The "response" of the SF County BCC to the 2014 death of Desiree Gonzales, of heroin overdose, was to eliminate BCC oversight of the Detention Center. This is morally and ethically bankrupt. Both the Corrections Department and the SF Detention Center need serious, continuing, oversight AND Openness, such as making their "progress reports" public. Lacking that, New Mexico can look forward to more problems at the prisons, continuing their long, tragic history. It seems we never learn. Giving prisons absolute power over inmates, without effective oversight and openness, invites abuse, esp with the poorly trained, poorly educated, poorly paid, guards and the abuse is there, being covered up. MLG needs to address it. Corrections is a mess.

Kay Matthews

There have been dozens of tort and civil complaints filed against the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility for inmates who have died while in custody or severely mistreated by guards and lack of medical care. The family of Carmela DeVargas, who died in November of 2019 because of malfeasance at the facility, have obtained copies of these cases through a public records request and will continue to demand justice for these inmates.

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