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The New Mexico Prison Riot of 1980: Hell Comes To Santa Fe

The New Mexico Prison Riot of 1980: Hell Comes To Santa Fe


14.07.15  /  Words: John Mullin  /  Images: Richard Pipes

The desert night was cold.  A dead wind blew over the cell blocks of New Mexico state penitentiary as the riot of feb 1st 1980 raged beneath the sky. It would change the face of the American penal system forever.

Although the details of the 1980 New Mexico riot were extraordinary in the lengths and depths of their brutality, the events which led up to them where a mundane mix of incompetence, bad governance and penny pinching. That and a relaxed attitude to humanity amongst the men of the jail, proving the perfect storm for the hatred that later prevailed.

A storm that left thirty six men dead in some of the most savage and grotesque fashions imaginable.

The prison had opened  in 1954 and had been a relatively secure institution up until the mid 1970’s, when in response to the growing prison numbers- a product of President Ford’s ‘Tough on Crime’ approach- it replaced standard cells with large dormitories.

This allowed prisoners to fraternise unchecked almost 24/7 from the dorms introduction in ’75, up until the riot five years later.

‘Those dorms were designed for fifty men but when I arrived there was over one hundred and twenty in there’ remembers Prisoner Dwight Duran. ‘Some sleeping on the floors, some sharing bunks.

The officers would just stay in the guards office and leave us to it for the night. You had to fend for yourself.’

By late 1978 a combination of overcrowding and understaffing made the dorms no-go areas for the guards.

Home made beer, fights and rape where constants of prison life.

Larry Mendoza, an officer, says 'I was a nervous wreck. There were so many prisoners and I’d had pretty much no training. They just threw me in there.’

A decision was made to separate the prison between the south dorms and the north cells; the latter for the most dangerous inmates. The less volatile men were housed in cell block 3, which by early 1979 had over two-hundred inmates in a facility designed for eighty-six. The guards supplemented this new segregation with systematic brutality.

‘They brought a prisoner into segregation one morning and set upon him' said Larry Mendoza. 'They told me to join in but I wouldn’t. There was ten of them beating on this one guy. Wasn't right’.

Prison psychologist Dr Marc Orner described the mentality inside the prison.

‘If you tried to do your time, didn't participate and did not belong to anybody then they were gonna get you, gonna use you and gonna hurt you. And they were gonna enjoy it’'

 The prison population by late 1978 had rose to 1271. The officers, overrun and undertrained, had resorted to a new control tactic: ‘the snitch jacket’.

All ‘snitches’- either real or imagined by the guards as an act of revenge- were kept in cell block 4. The labelling of inmates as snitches created an Orwellian climate of fear and mistrust that permeated the prison psychology.

As some actual ‘snitches’ had added life sentences to mens time not three blocks away, the tinderbox was ready.

'What the snitch system did was deflect the resentment and hatred the inmates felt for the authorities towards the inmates held in cell block 4’, said parole officer Mark Colvin.

 On February 1st 1980 1278 inmates were being watched by twelve guards. The previous week- with repair work being done to the more secure cell block 5- a vast majority had been moved into the dormitories.

Gary Nelson, another inmate at the time remembers ‘twenty-five percent of this dorm now consisted of a hardcore element from 5, which made the remaining seventy-five percent subservient to the hardcore’.

At 1.06am, as Larry Mendoza and Juan Gusto made the last nights count on the dormitory, they were jumped. 

As guards regularly ignored safety procedures such as locking adjoining doors behind them, as the count was seen as a scary and hated job, to be done as quick as possible, the men soon made their way to the control panel, which held the keys to every cell in the facility.

‘We held the control panel as long as possible, but it was impossible’ says Mendoza. ‘They embedded a fire extinguisher in the bulletproof glass, then prized the hole bigger with pipes. I knew we were in trouble then.

We had some dangerous men in that prison and now they owned it’.

Within minutes the cells had been opened and the pharmacy raided. Liquid valium and demerol were added to the home made beer, which the prisoners had been drinking throughout the night. The guards that escaped alerted the state police who now congregated outside the prison at 2.15am.

Inside word was spreading of execution squads forming and moving towards cell block 4.

‘The first death was a snitch who was smashed in the head with a pipe, his body left twitching on the floor’ said alleged execution squad member Michael Colby. ‘At that point I realised the potential for serious violence was big. Fear swept through the place fast’.

 

Gone on drugs, booze and hate the execution squads made their way to cellblock 4, the home of the snitches. Although the inmates had the keys to the cells and dorms of the prison they did not have the means to open individual cells, as these had been disabled by the guards before fleeing the control center.

The men of cell block 4 thought they were safe, protected behind the twelve inch metal bars between them and their hunters. They were wrong.

Carotene torches had been obtained from the building site of block 5. Leroy Reveal- an admitted execution squad member- concedes that ‘yeah I killed a few people. No names but yeah I killed a few’.

Pictures later shown by the DA’s office of the victims of cell block 4 showed that death was not enough. Torture and mutilation were the order of the day.

One had been killed by a molten lead pipe being pushed through his face; another was blowtorched through the eyes until the gas built up in his head and exploded. In all, sixteen inmates were murdered on cell block 4 over a three hour period. Each victim the last living testament to the death before him.

As long as no officer was tossed out dead, the state police agreed to remain on the sidelines. Subsequently the riot lasted over two days. On day three a fire started in the gymnasium forcing the swat team to move in. Correction Officer Larry Flood later went through Cell Block 4 after the riot was finished and described the scene.

‘Complete destruction, water up to your knees, smell of smoke, faeces, fire and death.

I knew all the men on cell block 4 and I could only recognise one of their bodies from two feet away.

The rest had been so horribly brutalised and mutilated, it was as if the forces of hell had been unleashed. I can't really describe it any other way’.

The one person Larry could recognise was Mario Utenerize. Mario was a twenty-one year old shoplifter who had been sent to New Mexico state penitentiary two weeks previous. An early recipient of Gerald Ford’s election pledge to get tough on crime, Mario had been gang raped by seven inmates on his arrival a week before the riot had begun.

 

Instead of accepting his initiation to the prison he decided to testify against the men who had raped him. Correction officer Larry Flood moved Mario to cell block 4 voluntarily for his own protection. 'He should never have been there in that place, at the time’, Flood would later testify.

Mario had been strung up with his throat cut, his genitals removed and stuffed in his mouth.

Leroy Deval, an admitted execution squad member speaking after the riots said,

‘that’s what they did to us, treated us like dogs. Well treat us like dogs and we’ll act like dogs’.

In all thirty-four men were killed during the New Mexico penitentiary prison riots.

The Attorney General’s report stated the cause of the riots being ‘forms of control in the prison that made already brutal men more brutal, which had dehumanised the keepers and the kept alike’

The prison was kept open as an infirmity but finally closed its doors in November 1998, unable to forget the horrors of 1980.  Now it’s a ghost town; testament to the worst that humanity can do to itself when its humanity itself is forgotten.

Larry Mendoza, the prison guard who was kept naked, beaten and threatened with decapitation and rape for the duration of the riot has the final word.

‘Those thirty-eight hours were like twenty years. Even now, thirty-odd years later, I still wake up screaming, thinking I’m back in New Mexico State pen.’

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