The riot

Mabry, Mark



THE RIOT On February 2, 1980, the most gruesome prison riot in US history occurred at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, 36- hours later, 33-inmates were dead, hundreds injured, and 11-hostage guards were traumatized for life. I was there , this what happened and why. Be advised, what you are about to read is brutal and horrific in content. I apologize, but there is no other way to adequately tell the story. BACKGROUND AND CAUSES Constructed in the 1950s, the Penitentiary of New Mexico (PNM) was built to hold 750- inmates in 6-cellblocks and 10-open bay dormitories. At the time of the riot, PNM housed 1156-inmates. A ticking bomb waiting to explode. In 1980, PNM was the only medium to high-security prison in the state. There were three small minimum-security facilities elsewhere in the state, but the majority if NM inmates were housed at PNM, even if they should have been at a lower security level and facility. It was not unusual for a young, first-time inmate with a short sentence for a non-violent crime to be housed at PNM with the most dangerous inmates in NM. Classification and appropriate housing of inmates based on crime, sentence, age, race, conduct and needs was nearly non-existent back then. In those days, the NM Dept. of Corrections and most of the prison systems in the US were underfunded, untrained, and ignored state agencies. Government and society did not care about prisons. (1) In 1978, the starting salary for a NM prison guard was less than $700 a month. Even then, that was low wages, so many of the staff at PNM were people who couldn't get work elsewhere. Like the inmates, many of the staff and guards were social outcasts. Brutal and sadistic men, who took pleasure in having total control over other men. They played the inmates against each other, like a child who catches flies to throw into a spider's web hoping to see the spider suck the life out of its victim. That was especially true of a clique of guards who grew-up together in Santa Fe. Through extortion, coercion, or promise of reward they created a "snitch system", in which they forced or encouraged inmates to snitch or tell on each other. Afterwards, the guards would tell on the snitches, then watch the inmates beat or stab each other. For the guards, this was entertainment. Living conditions at PNM were abhorrent. It was overcrowded, filthy, the food was awful, there were few inmate jobs, and inmate violence was commonplace. I lived in a 90-man open dormitory and had to ally myself with other inmates to survive. We slept in shifts, armed with prison knives (shanks) watching- out for each other during the night. Fights were daily occurrence at PNM. Inmate on inmate, guard on inmate, inmate on guard. You had to be ready to fight all the time. You had to be super-vigilant; or you could become a victim. Hatred, anger, fear, and hopelessness prevailed. Actually, we were all victims. Prior to the riot, one of the most notable incidents of staff brutality occurred after a minor disturbance (2) in a dorm. The guards had the inmates strip-down and forced them to run through a gauntlet of staff members who beat them with axe handles. One of the staff members was the protestant chaplain. His chapel burned-down during the riot. The guards and staff also took sadistic pleasure in putting an inmate of one race into a housing unit that was exclusively another race. They knew he would be beat-up or raped, that's why they did it. Remember, the "spider and fly" analogy? If you angered the guards or staff back then, they would have you "fucked off" by "putting a jacket" on you. Meaning, they would lie to other inmates labelling you a snitch or child molester when you were not. That sort of "jacket" could get you stabbed or even killed. The rape, subjugation, and prostitution of young, weak inmates was a nightly event the guards laughed at and turned a blind-eye to. Prior to the riot, I remember a night, in my dorm when five inmate sexual predators (booty bandits) surrounded the bunk of a new, young inmate. They chanted, "sweet meat, sweet meat" as they circled the bunk while rubbing their crotches. The young inmate was terrified. They threatened to stab him if he didn't "put-out" and "give-up his ass". "Blood on my knife or shit on my dick, it your choice", they told him. He tearfully complied and they tied him face-down on a table in the dayroom and gang-raped him turning him into a prison "punk" (sex slave). These are but a few examples of what it was like at PNM before the riot. Suffice it to say, it was hell on earth. (3) I could write volumes on the different causes of riot, but in this limited forum I will limit the causes to overcrowding, lack of an inmate classification system with appropriate housing, inmate idleness, lack of adequate funding due to government and social apathy, lack of training for staff, guard brutality and sadism, the use of a "snitch system", and awful living conditions. These and other causes resulted in an inmate takeover and riot in 1980 that was unfathomable in its brutality, inhumanity, and ugliness. THE TAKEOVER On February 2, 1980 at 1:30 in the morning, the guards entered dormitory E-2 at PNM to count the inmates. Another guard improperly stood in the open doorway watching. It was dark except for some blue night lights and the guards' flashlights. As the guard walked down the aisles between the bunks, most of the E-2 inmates appeared to be asleep. Then in the blink of an eye, inmates who had been drinking homemade wine (hooch) jumped-up from their bunks and attacked the guards. The guards were quickly overwhelmed by the drunk inmates. They stripped the guards naked, gagged and cuffed them behind their backs. Wearing guard uniforms and using their keys, rioters were able to capture most of the guards on the southside of the prison. They unlocked 8-dorms and 2-cellblocks, thereby freeing over half of the inmate population. (4) The hostage guards were placed in different dorms and cellblocks to discourage and thwart rescue attempts. I lived in dormitory A-1 on a center-row bunk near the front door. I was awake and heard commotion causing me to look toward the corridor door. Standing on the other side, looking through a window was an inmate I knew. He was wearing a bandana around his face like a train robber in an old western movie. He said, "Wake everybody up. We've got the guards and as soon as we find the right keys, we'll let you all out". I looked past him and saw inmates carrying a cuffed, naked, and bleeding guard down the corridor. A toilet brush was shoved-up his ass and the white brush part was all that was visible. The children's song, "Peter Cottontail" came to mind. Forgive me. I walked down the aisle between the bunks tapping sleeping inmates on the feet yelling, "Get up! Everybody up! The riot has started". I said it like that because rumours of a riot had been occurring had been talked about for months. No one was surprised, but none of us imagined what was about to happen and none of us would ever be the same. It should be noted, even though there were over 1100 -inmates in the prison, only one to two- hundred were rioters. The rest of us were bystanders caught-up in the middle of the madness, just trying to survive. The rioters in guard uniforms continued down the main corridor of the prison unimpeded by the corridor's crash gates which were improperly left open. (5) In the middle of the prison was the Control Center. The rioters taunted the guards inside who thought they were safe behind an "unbreakable" plexiglass window. The rioters repeatedly hit the window with a heavy metal mop wringer until it shattered. The panicked guards ran out the back door of the Control Center, into the prison's administrative area and front offices. They continued out the prison's front door, through the fences and into the parking lot, thus avoiding being taken hostage. By now, the riot had been going on for about an hour. The prison was being surrounded by police. The Warden and other staff members who lived nearby in the staff housing area had been awakened and were in the parking lot trying to figure-out what to do. There was no comprehensive riot plan. There was no contingency for inmates seizing the Control Center and having access to tear gas guns, riot gear, and gas masks. Having seized the southside of the prison, the rioters now concentrated on the northside which consisted of cellblocks 3,4,5,6, Psych. Services offices, the prison hospital, and a dorm. CB-3 was the prison's high-security disciplinary cellblock housing the most dangerous inmates and troublemakers. CB-4 was the prison's high-security protective custody unit housing inmates with crimes against children, sex offences, known snitches, and the mentally ill. These were the most inmates in the prison. CB-5 was a general population cellblock in the process of being remodelled. It was vacant and the inmates were moved to dorm E-2. They were the ones who started the riot. Inside CB-5 were tools and equipment for the remodelling, including torches. (6) CB-6 was a general population cellblock that was easily taken over by rioters. Rioters also took over the prison hospital and ransacked the pharmacy. It wasn't long before there were drugs everywhere and inmates were high or passed out. Before the sun came-up, rioters had taken most of the prison including : admin, offices, warden's office, visiting area, classrooms, library, kitchen, chowhall, commissary, chapels, gymnasium, and the basement areas where maintenance shops, laundry and the loading dock below the kitchen was located. All that was left, was getting into CB-3 and 4. This was difficult. They were high-security blocks whose main corridor gates were properly kept locked by the guards inside who knew an inmate takeover was occurring, so they fled through a door into the basement corridor where they hid in a secure area near the gas chamber under CB-5. The rioter's answer to getting into CB-3 and 4 was an acetylene cutting torch stored in CB-5, the cellblock being remodeled. They used the torch to cut their way into CB-3, so they could free their friends and other inmate leaders. Then, they cut their way into CB-4 the Protective Custody (PC) block and opened the gates to hell. THE BLOODBATH Before I go on, let me make some observations on human nature based on what I have seen and experienced in my 30-plus years in prison. (7) This is what I have learned: * Human beings who are continually abused will eventually either explode or give-up. * Human beings who are oppressed for a long time will turn on each other in rage. * Human beings in a group will do heinous acts they would not do alone. * Human beings cannot respect life if their own lives not worth living. * When hope is lost, so is humanity. What you are about to read is awful and in no way do I condone it, but I do understand it. As I said, CB-4 housed the most hated inmates in the prison: child molesters, child killers, rapists, snitches, and the mentally ill. The rioters wanted into CB-4, so they could vent their pent-up rage on people they hated. CB-4 was an old-style barred cellblock three-tiers tall on two opposing sides with 15-cells per tier for a total of 90-one man cells. Once the rioters cut their way into the cellblock with the torch, they started terrorizing the PC inmates who were locked in their cells. "We're coming to get you!" The PC inmates were in a panic. Their worst nightmare was coming true. Some tried to tie their locked sliding cell doors with sheets, so they wouldn't open, or barricade the front of their cells with the bunks. Others just fell to their knees and prayed, but sheets, and barricades, and prayers couldn't stop the torch. (8) The rioters could have killed every PC inmate in CB-4, but for a variety or reasons they didn't. They let most of them go and concentrated on one-tier of 15 cells. In the first cell was a mentally ill black man. The rioters cut-off his head and later ran down the main corridor of the prison with the head on a stick. The next cell housed a known snitch. The rioters cut-off the top of his head, turned his skull cap upside down and used it as an ashtray. The inmate in the next cell had a metal rod driven through his head from ear-to-ear. In the next two cells were two brothers. The rioters put a noose around one brother's neck and then tortured the other brother with the torch until he pushed his brother off the guard rail and hung him. The rioters then threw the remaining brother over the rail to his death. The rioters methodically went from cell-to-cell torturing and killing the PC inmates in the most hideous ways possible. Try to imagine what it was like to be one of the inmates further down the tier waiting your turn to die. Hearing screams, smelling the burning flesh, and listening to the maniacal laughter of the rioters as they taunted and terrorized the doomed inmates. Imagine looking-up and seeing a crazed, blood covered rioter standing in front of your cell with a decapitated head on a stick. "You're next!" (9) I did not personally see all this happen. It was told to me by the guys who did it and is a matter of public record. However, while searching for a way out of the riot, I did go into CB-4 and saw the bodies of the five-victims I just described, then I stopped. I had seen enough. Too much. The images of those bodies still haunt me today, nearly four-decades later. Over a dozen inmates were murdered in CB-4. The most of any cellblock or dorm. When I left CB-4, I went across the corridor to CB-5. Rioters had tied some young inmates to a handrail naked and were taking turns raping them. They asked me if I wanted a turn? I declined and continued on my way. The carnage didn't stop in CB-4. Everyone had weapons from the kitchen and maintenance shops. Death squads prowled the prison looking for victims. There was no laws, no rules, and no one to turn to. It was survival of the fittest. A true predator/prey environment. In CB-3 I found a friend of mine dead. His throat was cut from ear-to-ear. His body had been put in a sitting position against the wall at the front of the block. An ominous warning to all who entered. He was doing a two-year sentence for writing bad checks, it turned into a death sentence. Back in my dorm, I personally saw two-men murdered by a death squad. One was a 19-year old youngster who had been in prison for only four-months. They used a meat cleaver on him. The other was killed as he laid unconscious on the floor from a drug overdose. He was a easy kill. He was due to get out of prison within a month, instead he got a "pinebox parole". (10) The madness and inhumanity was everywhere. Down the corridor from my dorm, I saw the lifeless body of an inmate known as the "King of Snitches". He had been beaten to death. Two-rioters who happened upon the body decided they wanted the king's head, so they tried to behead him using a large pane of 1/2 inch thick plexiglass. It wasn't sharp. They tried sawing with it, then tried chopping with it, but the king would not give-up his head. The two-rioters became so frustrated they gave-up and started kicking and cussing the dead king. I watched with morbid fascination. It was insane. It it hadn't been so macabre, it would have have been comical. Forgive me again. In the afternoon, I went searching for friends and allies in CB-1, the prison's "honor unit". It housed the best behaved inmates in the prison. It also had the only working television. It was surreal watching the TV news coverage on the riot while being in the middle of it. I could see the front parking lot from the CB-1 dayroom. It was full of police cars and satellite vans from the local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates. Reporters were interviewing the governor, warden, and concerned family and friends of inmates and hostages. One reporter from the local CBS affiliate actually came into the prison and met the rioters. Police were everywhere and helicopters from the State Police, National Guard, and TV stations circled the prison. Soldiers from the National Guard now surrounded the prison. Inside, fires raged in the gymnasium, kitchen, education wing, a dorm, the psych. unit, admin. offices, and even the protestant chapel of Reverend "Axehandle". (11) Smoke was so thick in places you couldn't see a foot in front of you. You had to feel your way down the corridor, wading through bloody water from broken water lines and mutilated bodies. Some of the dead were dragged into the burning gym which became an impromptu crematorium. After the riot, archaeologists from the University of New Mexico were brought in to recover bone fragments of the cremated victims for burial. Inmates who weren't rioters were trying to find ways out of the prison, so they could surrender to authorities and escape the madness. They cut- out barred windows, knocked holes through walls, or fought their way past death squads who guarded the exits. I, and seven other inmates made our way to the kitchen and crawled down an elevator shaft and dropped into the basement loading dock area where we knocked the padlock off the door and escaped from the building. When we got to the perimeter fence, guards on the other side directed us to the prison's exercise yard. We spent the night in sub-freezing temperatures with hundreds of other inmate refugees and rioters. We still weren't safe. At times, we had to venture back into the prison for find firewood, blankets, food, and weapons to protect ourselves again from the increasing number of rioters on the yard. As more and more inmates and rioters occupied the yard, the potential for more violence increased. Everyone cliqued-up by race seeking safety in numbers. We were all on edge having witnessed the bloody slaughter inside the prison. (12) Arguments and threats were traded back and forth. Tensions escalated, the the yard exploded in violence. White and hispanic inmates attacked the black inmates and chased them into a back corner of the yard. BANG! A guard in a guntower fired a rifle shot over our heads. The rioters charged the guntower yelling, "Shoot! Go ahead and shoot! You gonna kill us all?" At this point many of us didn't care. Death would put us out of our misery. In the back of our minds, we all remembered the 1971 prison riot in Attica, New York where inmates and hostage guards were both gunned-down in the exercise yard by police. That didn't happen at PNM. No doubt, the governor and prison officials remembered the political and social uproar caused by the sanctioned Attica murders. Despite how this sounds, the 1980 NM prison riot was not a race riot. The white inmates started the riot and racial hatred was a factor, but the fact is, only one black inmate was murdered. The 1980 NM prison riot was about rage, hatred, and hopelessness all of which was fuelled and nurtured by the brutal, sadistic, and oppressive conditions within the prison. After about 36-hours, the riot had run its course. The state of New Mexico says it took back the prison, but the truth is, the inmates gave it back. Everyone was exhausted, in shock, traumatized, and many of us were bloody and beaten. (13) Before the fires were out, the U.S. Federal Court stepped-in and granted the Duran Consent Decree which set federal guidelines and provided oversight in all phases of the operation of N.M. prisons until the late 1990s. Due to injuries I suffered in the riot, I was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP) in Springfield, Missouri. Three months later, I was transferred back to PNM where I remained until I made parole in 1993. PNM ruined me. I have never managed to stay out of prison. I am currently an inmate in Texas. All total, I have spent 34 of last 40-years in prison. In no way have I told you the whole story of what happened that bloody weekend in 1980. There was much more. Realize, as horrific as this writing may seem, everything that happened in the riot was worse. I have only written about 9 of the 33 murders and I have not written about the unspeakable injuries suffered by some survivors and hostages. If you want to learn more, about the 1980 riot, try to find the following books, articles, and reports. The Devil's Butcher Shop, by Roger Morris. Publisher unknown. Morris was a former White House staffer who became a political reporter for the PBS station in Albuquerque. He also wrote a very good article about the riot in February 1981 issue of Playboy magazine. The Hate Factory, by a former PNM inmate writing under the pseudonym, W.G. Stone. It was published by Easyrider magazine. Politics and the Prison Riot, was written by a former NM Corrections Secretary name Adolph Saenz. Publisher unknown. (14) Death in a Southwest Prison was an ABC-TV documentary aired in 1980. The New Mexico Attorney General's Report on the Riot is a public record that might be accessible under FOIA. YouTube used to have videos about the riot on the internet. Also, every newspaper and news magazine in the nation ran stories and follow-ups about the riot for days and weeks, so check their archives. Finally, in one of the most disgusting examples of a state making money off inmate lives, you can now take a guided tour of the old, now vacant, riot prison for $16.50 a person. You can even stop at the gift shop and have the kiddies photographed for a personal mug shot. I kid you not. See, Prison Legal News, April 2017. You may think, being the NM prison riot occurred nearly 40-years ago, it's now insignificant, but you'd be wrong. There are now over 2-million people in prison in the U.S. today. That's almost ten-times the number there were in 1980. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and has turned prisons into businesses and inmates into commodities. What happened in New Mexico in 1980 and in Attica in 1971 can still happen today and does to some extent. Prisons don't work. Do you feel safer than you did forty-years ago? I doubt it. Wise-up America. Learn from the past and don't continue doing the same things expecting different results. Thank you for reading this. Mark Mabry Polunsky Unit Livingston, TX (15)

Author: Mabry, Mark

Author Location: Texas

Date: August 9, 2018

Genre: Essay

Extent: 15 pages

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