The New Mexico Prison Riot

Answers to Your Questions By Professor Colvin

Suggested Readings

Mike Rolland DESCENT INTO MADNESS (Anderson, 1997).

" These are all very good questions. I am glad I had a little time to think over my answers."

12:30 Class

1. If 20 years from the New Mexico Prison Riot another one were to occur, what differences would there be as far as the administration gaining back control to end the riot? In addition, what aspects of the details leading up to the riot would have been different? Ex: How would overcrowding be dealt with, and how would the issue of some prisoners having such hatred towards each other be handled? Finally, again 20 years later (today) would it be possible for something like this to occur again?

I do not think that a riot today at the Penitentiary of New Mexico would play itself out the way it did then. For one thing, the protective custody unit (where the most brutal killings occurred) is now in a building completely separated from the main prison, as is the disciplinary unit. So physically, it would be harder for the most violent inmates to have contact with the most vulnerable inmates. Also, staff training, better security measures, and a cap on the number of inmates that could be held in the prison were ordered in 1982 by the federal courts, and these orders still stand. It should be noted, however, that even after these changes were in place, violence among inmates and attacks on staff (though no riots) remained at rates higher than before the riot. So while no riots have occurred, there was still a lot of violence despite the lack of overcrowding, better staff training, and better security.

2. If the administrative controls were not as lenient during the first five years in contrast to the following five, do you think the riot would have still taken place?

That is difficult to know. It is possible that the sudden change from leniency (which was actually a form of control based on incentives) to coercion set the stage for the riot. If it had always been coercive, then you would not have had the sudden change, so the inmates might have "gotten used to" the coercive atmosphere and not expected anything else. So perhaps they would not have rebelled. The contrast between the first five and the second five years may have led inmates to expect better treatment, and when this did not occur in the second five years, they rebelled.

3. What were your personal experiences, emotions, and thoughts while researching and writing this report? Also, what are your personal thoughts on the cause of the riot?

Working on the investigation and research about the riot is still the most exciting thing I have ever done, and also the scariest. I had nightmares almost every night while investigating the riot (and for several years after). I felt that I was looking into the "heart of darkness" of the human soul, seeing what human beings were capable of, and trying to make sense of what on the surface was really senseless. I should also say that I also encountered great acts of heroism, the best side of human nature, among many inmates, including several that saved prison guards from harm, saved other inmates from harm, and a few who lost their lives in the process of trying to save others. So I guess I saw the full range of what human's are capable of. So emotionally, it was the most exhausting, exhilarating, enlightening, and frightening thing I have ever been involved in. As far as my personal thoughts on the causes of the riot, they are the same as in the article and in the film. The administration attempted to control inmates through a "divide and conquer" strategy that created hate and animosity among inmates and eventually backfired on the administration by producing the most violent prison riot in US history.

4. How did the administration specifically use cohesive and power relationships within the inmate social structure to secure compliance from inmates?

If you are talking about the early 1970s when there was a low level of violence in the prison, the administration used strong inmates as administrators of programs. This gave these inmates a nonviolent source of power since they could influence the selection of other inmates into programs. It also put these inmates into a leadership role among inmates. It was in these inmates' self-interest to help maintain order non-violently since they did not want to lose their positions of power in these programs. This helped add to the cohesiveness among inmates who were connected to the programs, which in the early 1970s was the majority of inmates.

5. Have the guards been compensated for the pain and suffering experienced during the riot?

Yes. The state paid out millions of dollars as a result of lawsuits to compensate the victims of the riot. I do not know the exact amount, but it was a whole lot of money. The courts agreed that the state was responsible for allowing the conditions at the prison to exist that led to the riot. So the guards were compensated.

6. How exactly did the riot end?

It was a very undramatic ending to a very dramatic event. 36 hours after the riot started, only about 100 of the more than 1100 inmates were still in the prison. Only 3 of the 12 hostage-guards were still being held. Inmates had been exiting the prison building and surrendering to authorities at the prison fence since about 8 hours after the riot started. Most just wanted to get out of mayhem, smoke, and violence and to get to safety. Different groups of inmates held different guards, and these groups acting on their own released hostages throughout the 36 hours of the riot. Some were released in exchange for allowing reporters to interview inmates. Others were released by inmates who were actually trying to protect some of the guards from harm. Other guards were released for no apparent reason. This really reflected the lack of leadership among inmates; no inmate group was "in charge" of the rioting inmates. So the ending occurred at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Three hostage guards were brought out to the front door of the prison (including the one who is featured in the film, Larry Mendoza). They were under the control of two very violent inmates, Michael Colby and William Jack Stephens. These two inmates negotiated a transfer to federal prison for themselves and when the Deputy Secretary of Corrections, Felix Rodriguez, told them to "go get your things so you can be transferred" he ordered the other inmates holding the three hostages to release them immediately after Colby and Stephens went into the prison to "get their things." Upon the release of these final three hostages, the National Guard and State Police rushed into the prison and retook it with no opposition or resistance from the 100 or so inmates still inside. So that is how it ended.

7. How did the prison system let the administration become so slack, by not locking the doors, letting beer be made, and by drug use happening among prisoners? Didn't they realize that these hardcore criminals could get away with a situation like the riot?

From about 1976 until after the 1980 riot, the administration of the Department of Corrections was in complete disarray. Lines of authority were unclear after the department went through a series of very confusing reorganizations. So many people in the administration thought that they were in charge that in reality no one was in charge. There was a complete lack of accountability and oversight of operations at the prison. The chief of security at the prison told us that he had not inspected the night watch (which was the shift in which the riot started) for security lapses in over 4 years before the riot, because he thought that the Captain of the guards (his subordinate) was doing this, which in fact he was not. So it was a case in which the "right hand never knew what the left hand was doing." Also, the guard force itself was very demoralized (the turnover rate was 80 percent, meaning that 80 percent of the guards quit during the year). So many of the guards, with some exceptions, like Larry Mendoza who did care (he is featured in the film), really could care less what happened. They just wanted to get through their shift as best as possible and go home.

8. Since the New Mexico Riot until the closing in 1998, how has the social structure changed and how did the officers maintain authority and power over the inmates so another riot could not occur?

A couple of things occurred that prevented another riot. First, inmates needing protection were completely removed from the prison to a separate facility. Second, the violent, disciplinary cases were placed in a new super-maximum security facility. This separated the most violent from the most vulnerable. Third, overcrowding was eliminated by court order. Fourth, a series of programs and other incentives were re-instituted at the prison, which gave many inmates something to lose by rebelling. Fifth, a more stable structure of prison gangs emerged at the prison, replacing the small cliques who had engaged in infighting for years. With stable gangs, the competition between several small groups, which had led to violence, was reduced. This also meant that there emerged a monopoly over the drug trade in the prison. Apparently, drugs began to be smuggled into the prison on a fairly regular basis again after about 1986 (which had not been the case since 1975). This meant that these gangs had a vested interest in keeping order, since they did not want their drug connections disrupted. It is sad to say that prison order is often created by these types of stable smuggling operations. The only way to prevent this would be to replace the illegal incentives associated with the drug trade with an array of legal incentives associated with enhanced rehabilitation programs.

9. Why didn't the Attorney General provide more support for the security to help prevent the riot?

The Attorney General of New Mexico has no authority over the prison. This is the job of the Governor and the Legislature. (The Attorney General is an elected office, separate from the governor's office.) So the question should be why did the Governor and the Legislature fail to provide support for security at the prison? Public officials notoriously neglect prisons until the prisons make headlines, which usually means having a riot. In fact, during the two years prior to the riot, the American Civil Liberties Union had been suing the prison (and the Governor) for prison conditions, including lax security. The Governor had been fighting the lawsuit, and the Legislature was not providing increased spending for the prison. The lawsuit was finally settled a few weeks AFTER the riot, in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union. The court order (which is still in place) called for increased security, among other things to improve conditions at the prison. So it was the federal courts, and the American Civil Liberties Union, that made the state officials provide support for the prison. I do not understand why the State of New Mexico fought this lawsuit as hard as it did. It called for sound management of the prison. I guess they just did not like outsiders (ACLU and the Federal Courts) telling them what to do. But after the riot, they had to anyway.

2:00 Class


1. Our group came to the conclusions that the prison mentalities are somewhat like the mentalities of some of the students that attend high school today. We where wondering if the administration where to change drastically in the high school environment as much as it did in the prison and along with the drastic over crowding would the same type of riot breakout? However, we believe the riots would not have any of the blood shed that the New Mexico Riot did have. So all in all we thought that this type of unorganized rioting could happen giving the right kind of conditions. So, do you think this kind of unruly behavior will come out in any group of people give the 'wrong' type of conditions.

Yes, I think that is very possible. Prisons are a little different, since inmates are forced to live with each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for years. So this probably makes them much more volatile than other settings. But yes, the same types of conditions in other settings could create problems of disorder.

2. Would you say that inmate uprisings of an organized nature (solidarity among inmates) are worse in terms of settling than uprisings of a disorganized nature (anarchy)? And, in the case of organized uprisings, do you think prisoners could ever gain what they organized for, or, because of the "fragmented underclass (through mutual fear and victimization)" would they eventually turn into a disorganized mob of rioters, such as the one in New Mexico? In other words, could prisoners not torture and harm one another in an effort to gain respect long enough to obtain a common, structured goal?

Good question, which does not have an easy answer. I think organized uprisings would be harder to settle because they would last longer, and if the demands of the inmates were seen as unreasonable by the administration, then this would make it even harder to settle. But if the demands are seen as reasonable, then it is possible to end the uprising by coming to an agreement fairly quickly. If the organized uprising was not settled and the inmates held the prison for a long time, it is possible that conflicts among inmates might emerge and the situation would begin to become disorganized. In disorganized riots, the "negotiations" are useless, since no one can speak for the rioters to negotiate anything. However, the riot is not likely to last as long as the organized uprising. In a situation like New Mexico, there is no common goal; every one is out for himself. Torturing and harming was to gain "respect" for the individual or small group, which would not obtain any common goal among inmates. So it is not likely that this would ever turn into a structured event organized around a common goal.

3. Since there were so many outbreaks before the riot, why were there only 12 guards in the building? If there would have been more guards, do you think that the riots could have been under control sooner or maybe not escalated as much as it did?
Did they have security cameras anywhere? If not, why didn't they?

What is interesting is that even back in the years (early 1970s) when the prison was non-violent, there were very few guards in the prison, especially on the night shift, in fact back then even less, usually 9. What changed was the level of violence. Had there been more guards on duty the night of the riot, I suspect that there would have been more hostages. The problem was not the number of guards, but their training, morale, and supervision. Guards were pretty much doing what ever they wanted, including leaving gates and doors open, etc. There were a few security cameras. But not any that would have looked into the dorms or cellblocks. The rioters got to the control center and took it over so quickly (less than 15 minutes after the first hostage was taken) that I doubt that cameras would have made much of a difference. Anyway, inmates could have easily covered these up with blankets, so nothing could have been seen. The prison was undergoing renovations at the time of the riot, and cameras were being installed.

4. How did the officers expect to keep order in the dormitories with such an over population of inmates?

Good question. I think for the most part, they didn't expect to keep order in the dormitories. The general attitude among guards was: "Who cares? As long as they are attacking each other and not us, then what difference does it make?" Part of the "snitch game" was an attempt to get information about inmate activities in the dorms. But other than this very ineffective method, inmates were pretty much left to do as they pleased in the dorms.

5. Many of the prisoners stated that the administration turned them into animals therefore, they acted like animals. How can the prison system punish people without making them feel like animals? Do you feel that the prison systems have gotten better?

Prisons do not have to make inmates feel like animals. There are several prisons (such as the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc California, as reported by Mark Fleisher in his book Warehousing Violence) were inmates' sense of human dignity is upheld. This is done by an array of programs and incentives and by a guard staff that treats inmates with respect and fairness, while being firm and in charge at the same time. Have prison systems gotten better? We have gotten better at security, but with the general decline of rehabilitation programs in American prisons, I think that "being treated like an animal" is probably felt by more inmates today than it was at the time of the New Mexico riot. It is just that we lock them up and separate them better than before. But beware, because the vast majority of them will be coming back into the community with little in the way of rehabilitation, and possibly with a whole lot more anger than before they went in.

6. Prisoner relations caused the initial riots, but do you agree with us that the violence may have continued because of other prisoners fought back in self-defense?

Many of he killings that took place in the early part of the riot did involve a lot of inmates fighting back in self-defense. But killings that took place in the protective custody unit (which actually happened a little later) did not involve any self-defense. They were just cold-blooded murders.

7. How did you screen the inmates for interviews? Did you set up a system to screen out the liars? Did the local government provide incentives for inmates to go to the interviews?

We selected inmates for interviews using a random sample of inmates. We did not take at face value anything that was told to us by inmates (or guards for that matter). We only used information from the interviews that could be substantiated by other witnesses. So this is how we screened out information that was not credible. There were no incentives offered to inmates for the interviews. But only a couple of inmates did not want to talk to us. Most were very willing to talk. We did our interviews at a very important time, shortly after the riot. Inmates at that time were more than willing to tell what happened to them since the event was so traumatic and recent. If we had waited another few months to do the interviews, it is likely that many inmates would not have been as willing to cooperate. Our investigation (with the Attorney General) was not a criminal investigation, but a "fact finding" investigation. (The criminal investigation was done by the local district attorney). This gave us the advantage of promising confidentiality and anonymity to the people we interviewed. Anything they said to us could not be used against them. This ensured better cooperation and honesty.

8. What happened to the New Mexico Penitentiary after the riot? If it remained open, how did the administration address the policies that supposedly caused the riot?

The prison remained open for another 18 years after the riot. A few weeks after the riot, the federal courts ordered dramatic changes in the operation of the prison. New security procedures and disciplinary procedures were put in place. Guard training was enhanced and their pay and incentives were improved. Programs for inmates were enhanced and overcrowding was eliminated. In addition two new secure buildings were constructed that were physically disconnected from the main prison: a new protective custody unit and a new disciplinary unit. This meant that violent inmates could not have easy access to more vulnerable inmates. So a riot like the one that occurred in 1980 could not happen again. But even with these changes, the violent incidents among inmates and attacks on guards continued for several years after the riot. (This finally died down about 8 years after the riot.)

9. In your article you said that the "new breed" was not the total but partial cause of the riot that broke out February 2nd, 1980. Do you feel that the riot would have still broken out if the "new breed" was not there at all?

Let me be clear on this. The "new breed" was largely the creation of the prison environment, which had become more and more violent and left the average inmate with the horrible dilemma of being violent or being victimized. It was truly becoming a jungle in which only the strong survived. So the "new breed" did not come into the prison being violent, they were made violent by the environment of the prison. There would not have been a riot if the new breed had not been produced. But this is the same as saying that there would not have been a riot if the environment of the prison had not been so violent. Given that the prison was violent, then the type of violent inmate that came to be called "the new breed" was an inevitable product. Whether these violent inmates would have pushed the prison into the riot we witnessed in 1980 is another question. Many things could have occurred that by chance could have kept this particular riot from happening the way it did. The guard at the door of Dormitory E-2 could have locked the door (as he was suppose to do) when the other correctional officers went into the dorm for the routine check. That might have contained the "riot" to this one dormitory, where the violent Dorm E-2 ("new breed") inmates were housed. (Three hostages, one dorm, instead of 12 hostages, entire prison). Or someone in the administration could have said, "You know it might not be a good idea to take the violent prisoners out of Cellblock 5 (which had to be closed for renovation) and place them into Dorm E-2 (where the riot started). Maybe we could find someplace else to house them? Maybe we could contact the federal prison system and see if we could have a contract with them to temporarily house these guys?" But the administration was in such disarray (with no one clearly in charge) that this question was never asked. So the violent inmates were placed in a situation that gave them the opportunity to riot, not just be violent and generally disruptive.