New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot
Part One: Powder Keg
In the final days of 1979, rumors of a vicious uprising began to spread through New Mexico’s State Penitentiary. Prison officials thought nothing of it at the time, but in the early morning hours of February 2nd, 1980... the powder keg could no longer be contained.
In unincorporated Santa Fe county - roughly fifteen miles south of New Mexico's capital city - sits a large facility. Today, it is mostly abandoned, but was once a state-of-the-art facility constructed to house New Mexico's worst, and most violent, prisoners.
You may know this set from famous films or TV productions. Most notably, the film was used as the primary filming location for the mid-2000's Adam Sandler football comedy "The Longest Yard," where it was rented for $1,000 a day by the production company. That is a pretty regular cost, as the facility has also been used to film films such as "All the Pretty Horses" and "The Hunt for Bin Laden," where - funnily enough - it acted as a stand-in for Pakistan.
In most of these productions, the filming crews have made note of odd, unexplained phenomenon during their stay there. Doors closing mysterious... loud, disturbing noises... stuff like that. This has even led some to claim that the facility is haunted.
Surprisingly enough, they have a reason to believe so. You see, the facility - which was closed in November of 1998 - was the site of a violent uprising, which resulted in hundreds being hospitalized and dozens dead in its wake.
In particular spots, hatchet marks can be found on the ground - marks which were unable to be worked out of the flooring. These are the spots where one inmate had his head severed from his body... and another is where a one-armed man nearly lost his remaining arm to a berserk biker.
These are just two such examples of the violence that continue to haunt these halls... reminders of a prison riot that was nearly as deadly as the infamous Attica uprising, but noticeably more cruel and heartless. It is a story so inhuman and monstrous that it has taken me months to get around to it.
This is the story of the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot.
W.G. Stone is the alias used by a prisoner, who arrived at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1962.
At the time, Stone was just 22 years old - and terrified. He had recently been convicted of armed robbery, and given a prison bid lasting anywhere between ten and fifty years.
Upon arriving at the state pen, Stone was sent to "The Hole," a section of the prison located underneath Cellblock 3. There, life consisted of a simple six-foot-by-nine-foot cell, which had close to nothing in it. Each prisoner was stripped naked before entering "The Hole," and were given a thin blanket, a metal cup, and a toothbrush. Between the hours of 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, each prisoner was given a thin, gross mattress, which had likely not been cleaned in several months - if not years.
Inside "The Hole," each prisoner was given a hot meal every three days. In-between those three days, each prisoner was given six slices of bread to subsist on. No protein, vegetables, or anything like that... just the bread.
Each prisoner received a minute or two of water access, which came via a water faucet being turned on what seemed like randomly. In that limited period of time - which, again, was just around a minute in length - prisoners had to fill up their metal cup, attempt to wash and or bathe themselves, brush their teeth, etc.
Oh, and did I mention? The "toilet," if you can call it that, was just a little hole in the ground, which - just like the water access - would only flush randomly. Sometimes, it wouldn't flush for days, and no prisoner in "The Hole" had access to toilet paper, so... yeah. You can use your imagination to fill in the rest, such as how these cells must have smelled.
When W.G. Stone was finally sent to "Segregation" in Cellblock 3, it almost seemed like a godsend. There, he had regular access to meals, toilets, etc. But it was definitely not perfect, and boredom ran amok. The prisoners had no access to television, radio, reading materials, or anything like that. Their only possibly activity was writing letters to outside correspondents - if they had any, that is. More than half of the prisoners in the New Mexico State Pen had no correspondence with anyone, so they were left to their own devices inside Segregation.
Finally, after two weeks in Segregation, W.G. Stone was sent to general population. There, he began to learn how Gen-Pop operated, and was soon sucked into a world of violence.
Inside general population, "Fish" were locked up alongside "Lifers." "Fish" were prisoners that were incarcerated for a short period-of-time - usually on nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession, theft, etc. - while "Lifers" were the long-tenured prisoners, who were usually locked up for violent crimes or repeat offenses.
Tensions were often high between the "Fish" and the "Lifers," and W.G. Stone - who was stuck in the middle, his fate lasting anywhere between a decade and a lifetime - learned that in order for him to survive his sentence, he needed to fight.
Because the "Lifers" were locked up for a large portion of their lives - sometimes, the rest of their life - they had little to lose. The "Fish," on the other hand, were still hopeful for parole, but would have to begin battling if they didn't want to suffer for the duration of their stay inside.
In an early stage of his prison life, W.G. Stone got into a fight in the penitentiary kitchen - a fight that resulted in another man dying. However, because of the prison staff not caring enough about evidence collection, he faced no charges or consequences. However, he received a reputation that allowed him to spend the duration of his sentence unimpeded.
Regretfully, that reputation resulted in him being denied parole at the first opportunity. And following that decision, when his fate was looking less certain, he was sent to Cellblock 5, which hosted the worst of the worst.
Inside the New Mexico State Prison, Cellblock 5 housed the toughest and most violent inmates. These were mostly white and Hispanic inmates, who were locked up on violent offenses - such as assault, sexual assault, and murder. According to W.G. Stone, the cellblock was rife with weapons, which survived multiple shakedowns - weapons such as pipes, razors, and knives.
The prisoners inside Cellblock 5 would often bully and harass other cellblocks and dormitories, even going as far as regularly stealing and extorting other prisoners if they felt like it. In essence, they pilfered other convicts, and faced close to no consequences - if anyone felt like resisting, they would face a merciless assault from the facility's worst inmates.
Inside Cellblock 5, they also regularly made what was called "home brew." That's what the convicts called it, at least - you or I may consider it "prison swill." This consisted of some combination of potatoes, tomato puree, raisins, water, yeast, and sugar - which would ferment for days or weeks, inside plastic containers. These containers would be hidden inside the cell block, and would be consumed regularly by those in the lawless Cellblock 5.
Throughout the 1970's, as more and more members of biker gangs began to get arrested for drug-dealing and drug-running, prison chapters of the Aryan Brotherhood began to grow in prominence. This was very noticeable inside Cellblock 5, and during W.G. Stone's tenure inside Cellblock 5, he soon found himself sharing a cell with a predominant Aryan Brotherhood population.
The original State Penitentiary had been constructed in 1885, standing as New Mexico state's first public building. After all, the state wouldn't even reach statehood until 1912, but the facility - constructed just outside of Santa Fe - would feature a long history of violence and bloodshed.
The institution was constantly overcrowded, especially in the time period following World War Two. Violent riots erupted over food and deplorable conditions in 1948, 1950, 1952 - in an incident preceded by an escape attempt and followed by a general strike and a forced resignation of the warden.
Another violent uprising would occur in 1953, in which thirty-one guards and staff members were taken hostage by convicts. This riot was only quelled when the deputy warden - one of the aforementioned hostages - managed to obtain a smuggled-in pistol and shoot two of the riot leaders. This riot sparked massive overhauls and triggered the construction of a new facility - which would end up becoming the state's new penitentiary.
This new state pen would be commissioned on April 20th, 1956, and New Mexico Governor John Simms - having expensed its budget at around $8 million - proclaimed it was "among the most advanced correctional institutions in the world."
The layout of this new facility featured a center-square-shaped building which served as the main portion of the prison. The administrative wing was featured up-front, and then there was a large courtyard in the middle of this squared structure. On the other sides of the building were the gymnasium, the kitchen, and the dining area - among a number of offices and hallways.
On one side, in a series of buildings resembling two connected letter H's, were some of the dormitories and cellhouses: including Dormitories A, B, C, D, E, and F. Dormitory C was later turned into the Education Unit. This side of the prison also included Cellhouses 1 and 2.
On the other side, in a similar-shaped structure, where four cell blocks: Cellblocks 3, 4, 5, and 6. Included, as well, were the hospital and psychology units.
At the time of its construction, the New Mexico State Penitentiary was among the best in the nation. However, as the facility began to receive inmates well beyond its capacity - and state funding began to decrease - the facility aged very quickly. Within two decades, the institution was worn-down, out-of-date, and in desperate need of new leadership.
The first warden of the New Mexico State Penitentiary, J.E. Baker, was a well-respected veteran of the Department of Corrections. His tenure was marked with a near-excess of federal funding, which was put towards incentivizing good behavior: including things like educational programs, work study, and much more. Warden Baker had a reputation for being fair, and was relatively well-liked by his staff and inmates.
However, among his ranks was a young man named Felix Rodriguez, who would quickly become one of the most infamous figures in New Mexico prison history.
Rodriguez had served in the United States Army during the Korean War, then returned stateside and applied for a job as a prison guard. There, he became known as part of a clique called the "Santa Fe Eleven" - a group of prison guards and officials that would later rise in the ranks and end up joining and leading various components of the state's Corrections Department.
Rodriguez worked for the original New Mexico State Pen as a guard, and was then promoted - in quick succession - from guard to lieutenant, from lieutenant to captain, then captain to associate warden, and then from associate warden to deputy warden in 1957.
A little over a decade later, in 1970, Felix Rodriguez succeeded J.E. Baker as the state penitentiary's warden, having earned himself a reputation as an official that was fair to inmates, but also known to hold grudges.
One of his major overhauls came with the implementation of a snitch network, which gave rewards - such as access to the aforementioned educational programs - to those that snitched on other inmates. However, those that refused to cooperate - such as those that wanted to serve out their sentence, avoid prison drama, and go home - were punished. They were often labeled "snitches" and held in solitary confinement for a time - "The Hole," as it was known - before being transferred to Cellblock 5. There, they would often have to endure vicious beatings and sexual assaults, at the hands of the violent "Lifers."
A criminal investigation was launched into the tenure of Warden Felix Rodriguez in 1975, ultimately highlighting the rampant drug use found inside the prison, as well as the countless safety issues presented with his network of snitches.
Following this investigation, Rodriguez was removed as warden... but what followed was string of sycophants that followed his direction, and aspiring visionaries that lacked the necessary conviction to enact wholesale change.
Ralph Aaron was a lifelong federal warden, who wasn't used to the distinct personalities of the New Mexico prison system - in particular, Felix Rodriguez, the charismatic ex-warden that had been removed from his position and then failed upwards into the Department of Corrections, supervising the prison system from his office at the state capital.
Ralph Aaron had none of Rodriguez's charm, and tried to clamp down on the security issues inside the state pen. In particular, he did away with any incentive programs: such as the educational and work programs, which offered inmates a hope of a better future and a temporary escape from their day-to-day survival. This was a colossal failure, and Aaron resigned from his position after only six months... but not before being able to hand-pick his successor.
In came Clyde Malley, an acquaintance of Aaron's that continued his established hard-nosed response. The educational and work programs were permanently discontinued, and all prisons were removed from administrative positions. This meant that prisoners were now just that: prisoners. They had nothing to preoccupy their time, and - as you can imagine, this led to a lot of dissent.
Malley's tenure as warden saw more than a dozen escapes, due to existing security procedures, and Malley himself became critical of the prison staff he had inherited. He openly critiqued the lax security measures, at one point calling an escape attempt:
"... a complete breakdown of security, established procedures, misinformation, lack of responsible leadership, and general chaos. In 30 years of corrections, I have never witnessed such a total breakdown of prison practices."
In June of 1976, Warden Clyde Malley oversaw a sit-in, in which prisoners refused to go to work - where they earned pennies on the dollar for a days' work - as well as to meals. They typed out a list of grievances with the prison system, which included an oppressive administration, an infestation of rats and cockroaches throughout the facility, rotten food being served, and broken toilets.
In response to the sit-in, a total lock-down of the prison was ordered, and - inside their dormitories - inmates proceeded to completely tear apart the dorms themselves. 500 inmates participated in the act of rebellion, and ultimately, four out of five dormitories were completely trashed - requiring extensive repairs.
Prisoners were then forced out of their cells and dorms with pepper-spray and tear-gas. Then, the five-to-six-hundred participating inmates were forced to strip naked, before being marched twenty to thirty at a time through a corridor for interrogation. This was done in an effort to find the organizers of the strike - presumably, for punishment - and when the participants refused to talk, they were then marched naked down to the gymnasium, where they had to walk through a gauntlet of guards and staff members, that beat them with ax handles. It was noted that even the prison chaplain participated, eventually earning the nickname "Ax Handle" from prisoners.
Clyde Malley refused to hear out the list of grievances listed by his inmates, instead choosing to clamp down on the organizers of the sit-in. When he found out who had organized the protest, he stuck them in Segregation cells for months at a time - an act that is now deemed cruel and unusual by the federal justice system.
Ultimately, Malley would resign in 1978, less than three years after his appointment. He was succeeded by a man named Jerry Griffin, who had previously been the warden of a minimum security prison in Roswell, New Mexico.
Griffin worked alongside his newly-appointed Deputy Warden Robert Montoya, who was actually one of the original "Santa Fe Eleven," alongside former-warden Felix Rodriguez. He and Rodriguez were actually close friends, and it soon became public knowledge that Montoya was running the day-to-day operations of the prison while Jerry Griffin served as a more ceremonial warden to appease the state's congressional leaders.
Under this administration, the snitching network of Felix Rodriguez was re-instituted. Warden Griffin and Deputy Warden Montoya began cracking down on prisoners that didn't play ball, labeling unpliable convicts as "snitches" - even if they had not informed. These men would then be put into Cellblock 4 - where the snitches, child molesters, and the "weak" were kept in isolation for their protection. Here, they wore distinct uniforms that made them stand out among the rest of the prison population.
In essence: if an inmate went to Cellblock 4, they quickly became a dead man walking. If they were ever returned to general population - let alone to the fearsome Cellblock 5 - they were targeted for a short, miserable life of violence and sexual assault. Thus, making them more likely to talk and cooperate.
Warden Jerry Griffin became known for refusing to take suggestions from the prison's psychologist - whose concerns I'll get to in a bit - and for locking up mentally ill inmates in "The Hole," where they were left to anguish, or keeping them in Gen Pop, where they often met a swift, brutal end.
However, I should state that it remains unknown just how many of Warden Griffin's decisions as an administrator were his own, or - rather - were implemented by his Deputy Warden, Robert Montoya. Montoya was close with Felix Rodriguez, the former-warden that had become a high-ranking member of the various committees that controlled the New Mexico Department of Corrections, and many think that he was still in control of the overarching decisions made through the facility... despite being removed as warden nearly five years prior.
In a letter dated July 6th, 1979, a prison guard at the New Mexico State Penitentiary - named Bob Runyan - wrote a prophetic letter to Felix Rodriguez.
Runyan, a former Air Force intelligence operative with a degree in criminology, was appealing to Rodriguez - the former warden-turned-Deputy Secretary of Corrections. In this letter, he claimed that he had recommended changes to the penitentiary's senior officials, but his concerns had fallen on deaf ears; as such, he was appealing to a higher power, concerned that danger was imminent.
It is also worth noting that a short time after this letter was written, Runyan resigned from his post, not wanting to become a casualty of a system he viewed as broken.
In this letter to Felix Rodriguez, Runyan proposed a new intelligence system which could replace the snitch network that had been ineffectively running the prison for close to a decade. In his proposal, he warned:
"Lacking this system, I anticipate serious incidents in the near future of corruption, the introduction of contraband, escapes, riots, hostage-taking, and ruthless killing of inmates."
Later that year - 1979 - a report was published, calling the New Mexico State Penitentiary "one of the most poorly-administered" prisons in all of America.
This report, which became highly-touted in the months after the eventual riot, cited the cells as being both unsanitary and cruelly-constructed. Each of the cells were a pretty uniform size - roughly six feet by nine feet - but were unventilated and not-insulated: they became frigid cold in the winter months, and then stifling hot throughout the summer.
In addition, a much-too-late series of repairs being done to Cellblock 5 had resulted in those inmates - who were among the most violent in the entire prison - being housed in other dormitories and cell blocks. This resulted in not only an extreme case of overcrowding - with multiple inmates having to sleep on the floor, sans any blankets or pillows - but a rampant spread of violence, sexual assault, and overall tension.
To make matters worse, the prison itself was becoming run-down and downright disgusting. Many of the inmates' toilets had been broken for weeks, if not months, and would not flush. In addition to making each cell a nightmarish mix of overcrowded inmates stuck with the aroma of feces, rats and cockroaches had infested the cells.
In perhaps the most aggravating incident for inmates, Thanksgiving of 1979, inmates were served turkey described as "smelling, green, [and] rotten." Even the inmates that ate around the turkey described food poisoning in the days afterward, which added to their complaints.
Perhaps the most pressing concern on the mind of most inmates, though, were the prison guards themselves. If you were to ask an inmate incarcerated at the turn of 1980, most would tell you that the guards allow violence to happen, as long as it didn't involve them personally. They were alleged to let the escalating violence go unchecked, as it allowed them keep some semblance of "order" within the penitentiary.
And, for the record, I'm not including this because I think all prison guards are dirty or anything like that. Corruption is definitely a topic I'll broach throughout this series, but most of the guards employed at the New Mexico State Pen were inexperienced, having worked at the facility - statistically - for less than two years. A large percentage of these guards were high school dropouts, who earned significantly less than counterparts from neighboring states... of course they didn't have much incentive to put their life on the line for an inmate.
Those that did want to change the system for the better - like guard Bob Runyan, who wrote a letter in July of 1979, asking to overhaul the intelligence system and warning of imminent danger - were often ostracized or let go from the staff.
However, despite me stating that not all of the guards were corrupt or cruel, there were definitely incidents that pointed to some of the guards being one or the other... if not a large contingent of the guards.
Throughout the 1970's, multiple events had been staged involving the beating of inmates via ax handles - the likes of which you've already heard of, where prisoners had to run a naked gauntlet through the hallways, as guards and staff hit them with ax handles. In other cases, there was more overt signs of cruelty, such as a prison guard sticking his finger into an inmate's eye socket... stuff like that.
In other cases, guards were known to utilize psychological torture upon the inmates, such as reading and discarding their mail in front of them - which was often their one escape from the horrors of prison life. In other cases, guards were known to flirt and taunt the visiting wives and girlfriends of inmates, sometimes openly, in front of the inmates themselves. And it's not like the inmates could call them on it, risking putting a target on their backs via a trip to Cellblock 4 and being labelled a "snitch."
In other cases, inmates recalled, guards would taunt prisoners with details about calling, dating, and even sleeping with their loved ones outside of prison. This included wives and girlfriends - whose contact info they were able to easily obtain from their prisoner files.
One inmate later recalled:
"A convicts code of honor is to tend to business and not to lie, steal, cheat, or screw another's woman. The officials at that pen did it all."
Dr. Marc Orner was the head of the psychology wing at the New Mexico State Pen, who was tasked with providing counselling and therapy for the inmates in the facility.
Starting in November of 1979 - the same month that inmates were fed rotten turkey - Dr. Orner began to receive multiple tips warning him of a pending riot. He was one of the few people that tried to encourage the inmates to move on to bigger and better things, and one of the few inside with the resources and willpower to actually help inmates in-need. This endeared him to many of the prisoners, who often fed him information regarding the inner-workings of the facility. Later, when speaking to state police, he would state:
"I get good information whenever there is going to be heavy shit."
On November 30th, he actually reported these warnings to prison officials. He stated that he - and other staff members - were being theorized as possible targets for the uprising, and would likely be taken captive as hostages. After all, the psych wing - in addition to the education wing and the infirmary - were attached to the dormitories and cell blocks. They were all three easy targets, if an uprising were to occur.
After warning senior officials about this possible threat, Dr. Orner would later tell state investigators that he was brazenly mocked. During a January interview, he would even state about this reaction and his concerns:
"I'm not going to be in this fucking place with twenty officers on a weekend. And [when I warned them,] they laughed... they thought it was funny."
In the final half of 1979, a major section of the prison was undergoing renovation.
Cellblock 5, the most dangerous cell block in the state pen, was closed to long-awaited upgrades and repairs, and many of those inmates were transferred to other dormitories and cell blocks.
However, taking advantage of the weak security placed on the construction zones near Cellblock 5, some prisoners had managed to sneak in during the day and smuggle out an entire hacksaw - which they then took back to their dormitory.
On December 8th, 1979 - a Saturday - eleven inmates took advantage of a sleeping guard to make good on an escape plan. It was the second major escape in two years, and was especially dangerous because five out of the eleven were convicted killers.
Thankfully, all of the escaped inmates would be recovered in the ensuing days and weeks, but the only people to face any punishment for the escape were two tower guards that were fired. Of course, they were partially at-fault, but that ignored a wide-range of security issues that led to the prisoners obtaining a fucking hacksaw, hiding said hacksaw in their dormitory for several days, and then being afforded enough time to escape.
This escape hinted at just some of the major concerns investigators and legislators had with the New Mexico State Penitentiary, which was beginning to reach a head. In the coming weeks, a report was published, which critiqued the prison's security regulations and standards - or, rather, the lack of them - but ultimately changed nothing. A quote from this report read as follows:
"We cannot afford to wait for another major incident and hope again that our resources and planning will come together before the situation becomes critical."
Following the December escape attempt, paranoia was at an all-time high from the prison staff. The escape attempt had put an embarrassing blemish on the track record of both Warden Jerry Griffin and his Deputy Warden, Robert Montoya.
A search of the dormitories and cell blocks produced no further tools or weapons, and - as days turned into weeks - the state pen began to slip back into normality. And by normality I mean the same uncomfortable, tense environment that had been festering for years, aided by overcrowding, unsanitary and unsafe conditions left untreated, and a building monitored by a staff that was paid too little to care.
As the shock of the escape began to wear off, a number of preventative measures were not take - if not forgotten entirely. By later estimates, the riot control grilles separating each dormitory from the main corridor were left unlocked for anywhere between five and seven months; a time period that seemed to precede the escape attempt. This points to a lackadaisical effort by guards, who simply couldn't be bothered to lock the doors behind them when they did their regular security checks.
In addition, two of the penitentiary's riot control gates were left unlocked, which was made all the more dangerous when the central control booth - the part of the prison that acts, essentially, as the brain of the prison complex - was given blind spots. New shatterproof glass left blind spots for prisoners to exploit, and - perhaps most horrifying of all - it was found that the shatterproof glass was actually not shatterproof.
I'm not joking, either. When the glass arrived, staff tested the glass and found that it was easily broken by brute force... a fact they would simply try to hide while they waited for the originally-ordered glass to arrive at the facility.
These conditions would point to a facility in disarray, but this was surprisingly business-as-usual in the New Mexico State Penitentiary. Least of the prison's concerns was a work order submitted for the night lights in Dormitory E-2, which would illuminate the dorm during the evening hours, when guards had to make their rounds and collect a head-count. This just-so-happened to be a section of the prison where many of the dangerous, violent prisoners from Cellblock 5 had been temporarily moved, while construction in that section took place.
The absence of this night-light would make night checks a nightmarish endeavor for prison guards, but the work order would go unfulfilled for months on-end, as prison officials tried to focus on more pressing concerns. Needless to say, this would go on to play a part in the later prison riot.
W.G. Stone, the prisoner whose story I detailed earlier in this podcast, remained at the New Mexico State Prison from 1962 to 1979.
In 1979, after spending more than fifteen years behind bars, Stone was finally released on-parole. Following his release, he was able to obtain employment at a halfway house, where he worked as a maintenance man.
For a time, he continued on the straight-and-narrow, but a few months after he was released, he was arrested on charges of rape. It is worth noting that these charges were later rescinded, but this allegation resulted in Stone later being charged with "association with a felon" - due to his work at the halfway home, where he often encountered felons because of his job. Ultimately, his parole was revoked, and he was sent back into the New Mexico State Penitentiary awaiting an appeal.
This was in December of 1979 - the same month that the ill-fated escape attempt went through. When he came back, he was sent to Dormitory C-1 - which had been nicknamed the "Old Man's Dormitory," because it consisted of veteran prisoners that could not cope with General Population. In this dormitory, he was the 48th of 40 planned prisoners, meaning that he again became a victim of the penitentiary's widespread overcrowding.
Following his re-incarceration, W.G. Stone began to hear rumors of a long-planned riot - something he had heard rumors of before his parole earlier that year. This time, though, the whispers had grown in volume and intensity, due to the Aryan Brother now conspiring with the Hispanic cliques - an alliance that would include a majority of the prison population.
As the rumors began to increase in intensity, Stone knew that he would have to make a decision between joining in with the riot... or earn the ire of other violent inmates if he decided to abstain. It was a dilemma that many in the facility found themselves in - having to choose between the devil on your left or right shoulders... you could either partake in harming others, or find harm cast upon you.
These rumors continued through January, when the psychology and security departments warned senior officials of "imminent danger." They knew things were growing out-of-hand when several inmates in Dormitory E-2 began requesting transfers to other dorms or cell blocks... an action that is usually a precursor to mass violence.
On Friday, February 1st, 1980, a full moon cast its glow over the New Mexico State Penitentiary.
Throughout the daytime hours, the mood in prison was described as both "palpable" and "raw" by both inmates and staff, who could feel the tension in the air, as thick as fog. Guards would later recall large groups of inmates conspiring in hushed tones, as if they were conspiring. A female secretary for the prison even called in sick on the day-in-question, later stating that she had feared some kind of "disturbance" that morning.
Nothing happened in the daytime hours, and business proceeded as-usual. Paperwork was shuffled around, with some of the prison employees pushing off the last of their Friday work to the following Monday. This included the new intake paperwork, which included prisoners that had just arrived to the institution. These documents were kept in the office of the associate warden, and the staff members that handled this paperwork would later disagree on the total number of prisoners in the prison.
After all, when they left the prison that Friday afternoon, they had no idea that they wouldn't be able to return as they usually did the following week. To them, everything was just as it normally was.
Things didn't start getting rowdy until that evening, when a dozen or so inmates sat around a table in the day-room of Dormitory E-2. These inmates, a mix of white and Hispanic inmates, were largely transplants from Cellblock 5: the worst that New Mexico State had to offer. And as they sat around this table, conversing and joking and "conspiring" - as paranoid guards would later recall - they were drinking some "home-brew."
This home-brew, which had been made by an inmate nicknamed Blabbers, had been created by him putting water, fruit, yeast, and sugar in a Hefty bag and letting it sit in a shower pipe chase for a little under a week. That Friday night, they decided to crack it open, and were partaking in a longtime prison tradition of getting drunk on prison swill.
Danny Macias, one of the inmates in E-2, described what this home-brew was like:
"We had a lot of sugar and a lot of yeast, and that creates a lot of alcohol, and when I went up there to get it, I brought it down and I opened it... Oh, it's powerful stuff.
"How they didn't smell that stuff is beyond me. It smelled like a brewery in there."
This particular inmate was speaking, of course, about the guards, who had gone through their dormitory at around 8:30 that evening, doing a head-count before lights out. Ever since that head-count, the inmates had been sitting around the table, drinking and getting drunk like they weren't even incarcerated. However, their conversation always brought a reminder back to their current status as prisoners. After all, they were hatching a plan to kick off a long-awaited riot, and were hoping to take control of the prison by sunrise.
As their confidence swelled and their inhibitions lowered, these inmates decided on a plan-of-action: they would wait for the guards to perform their check just after 1:00 AM; at which point, the inmates would attack them from the shadows. From there, they just had to hope that the rest of the inmates would back them up and participate in the riot - thus, encouraging a snowball effect that would ultimately result in the prisoner's grievances being heard by the press.
These inmates decided, just before midnight, that those who didn't participate would face the brunt of their aggression.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, February 2nd, 1980, Shift Captain Gregoria Roybal joined Correction Officers Michael Schmitt and Ronnie Martinez as they closed the dayroom of Dormitory E-2 and took head-count for the night.
Earlier that evening, the men had heard talk of drinking in the day-room, so they were somewhat cautious and anxious. This had been what inspired Captain Roybal, a twenty-plus year veteran of the state pen, to join them. Because of that same concern, they were then joined by Lieutenant Jose Anaya, who himself had more than twenty years on the job, doubling the usual guard used to close down a day-room.
Captain Roybal was especially wary of Dormitory E-2, because of not only the increasingly urgent rumors of a pending riot, but because the unit was now filled with inmates from Cellblock 5. This made E-2 perhaps the deadliest part of the prison, especially when you considered some of the violent prisoners might be drunk.
Because of this risk, an unfortunate oversight was made. The four guards, combined, had with them keys to the entire south wing of the facility. This was especially dangerous because, if these keys were to end up in the hands of inmates, they would then control half of the prison, and it would only require an overthrow of four men - two of which that were in their early 50's.
As the four men begin to enter Dormitory E-2, one of the men - Ronnie Martinez - remains outside. He is in essence the lookout, who is supposed to guard the door as the other guards make their rounds through the dorm. However, as the other three men walk through the gate into Dormitory E-2, Martinez makes the crucial mistake of not fully closing the door, which would automatically lock.
Schmitt, Roybal, and Anaya enter the dormitory, and immediately grow concerned when they remember that the night-lights in E-2 have yet to be replaced. This left large portions of the day-room and the housing unit in pitch-black, and as the three men entered the dorm, they are soon enveloped by darkness.
It is in this short period of time - mere seconds, at around 1:30 AM - that the riot begins. Utilizing makeshift shivs, anywhere between a dozen and two-dozen inmates attack the three men - stabbing, punching, kicking, and trying to overpower in any way possible. Some of the inmates are emboldened by the home-brew they had been consuming for hours, feeling drunk or dizzy enough to feel no fear.
Captain Roybal and Lieutenant Anaya, both middle-aged men of small stature, are easily overpowered. As is Michael Schmitt, a Corrections Officer of youth and stature, who is just overcome by multiple men that take him down.
The overlook by Ronnie Martinez to close the door ends up immediately blowing up in his face, as he is stormed simultaneously by multiple inmates, who open the door and physically drag him into the day-room.
Within a matter of moments, the inmates of Dormitory E-2 have taken four prison guards hostage, and the riot has officially begun.
Following their capture, the four prison guards taken captive are stripped naked, bound with torn bedsheets, and then blindfolded. What would follow would be a seemingly-endless period of time, in which the four are beaten, stabbed, spit on, tormented, sexually assaulted, and even urinated upon.
One of the prisoners decides to put on Captain Roybal's uniform, and begins leading approximately ten of his fellow inmates through the prison's hallways. They were tasked with trying to find another batch of guards that were working on the south side of the penitentiary, whose capture would result in the prisoners having total control of that half.
Because of the ignored security protocols, this wondering batch of inmates were easily able to make it through unlocked doors and security grilles. They had taken the security guards' keys following their capture, but for the most part, they didn't even need them - the guards had left the path behind them mostly-unlocked.
In just a minute or two, this roaming band of inmates - led by a prisoner wearing Captain Roybal's uniform - encounter the other collection of security guards. Correction Officers Juan Bustos and Victor Gallegos are both easily subdued by the dozen or so attackers, while Elton Curry - nicknamed "Bigfoot" - puts up a bit of a fight. In the end, he is stabbed in the side and then subdued, becoming another hostage for the prisoners to barter with.
Unbeknownst to the inmates, another security guard had been with these three men. Herman Gallegas - of no relation to Victor - heard the commotion building up in a nearby hallway, and was able to duck into the day-room of another prison dormitory. There, sympathetic inmates would take him in and hide him during the subsequent riot, shielding him from any harm.
The three security guards are brought back to the E-2 day-room, joining the other four already taken hostage. There, the beatings continue, as the prisoners begin to take out their aggression from years of perceived mistreatment.
Three guards, in particular, receive a brunt of the sadistic sexual assaults from the inmates. These are guards that had earned reputations for being cruel to prisoners, and the prisoners themselves tried to remind them of past mistreatment.
As this horror show unfolded in the day-room, a riot leader led a procession of convicts to begin unlocking other dormitories on the prison's south side.
Within fifteen minutes, more than five-hundred inmates had been let loose - inmates that began arming themselves with anything they could find and grab ahold of.
Within half an hour - just thirty minutes after ambushing the guards in the E-2 day-room - the riot would be spread throughout the entire facility. Prisoners had control of every cell block and dormitory, with the exception of just two: Dormitory D, which the hostage guards had no keys for; and Dormitory E-1, a protection unit for convicts that had already been violently beaten and sexually assaulted by other inmates.
Upon hearing that a riot had started, the inmates inside Dormitory E-1 began barricading themselves inside their cells and housing units, for fear of losing their lives.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on November 25th, 2018
Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves