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The New Mexico Penitentiary Riot, which took place on February 2 and February 3 1980, in the state's maximum security prisonmarker south of Santa Femarker, was one of the most violent prison riots in the history of the American correctional system: 33 inmates died and more than 200 inmates were treated for injuries. None of the 12 officers taken hostage were killed, but seven were treated for injuries caused by beatings and rapes.

Author Roger Morris in The Devil's Butcher Shop: The New Mexico Prison Uprising (University of New Mexico Press, 1988) suggests the death toll may have been higher, as a number of bodies were incinerated or dismembered during the course of the mayhem.


One side of cellblock 4, where isolated prisoners were held.
The causes of the New Mexico Penitentiary riot are well documented. Author R. Morris wrote that "the riot was a predictable incident based on an assessment of prison conditions".

Prison overcrowding and inferior prison services, common problems in many correctional facilities of the era, were major causes of the disturbance. On the night of the riot, there were 1,136 inmates in a prison designed for only 900. Prisoners were not adequately separated. Many were housed in communal dormitories that were unsanitary and served poor-quality food.

Another major cause of the riot was the cancellation of educational, recreational and other rehabilitative programs that had run from 1970 to 1975. In that five-year period, the prison had been described as relatively calm. When the educational and recreational programs were stopped in 1975, prisoners had to be locked down for long periods. These conditions created strong feelings of deprivation and discontent in the inmate population that would later lead to violence and disorder.

Inconsistent policies and poor communications meant relations between officers and inmates were always in decline. These patterns have been described as paralleling trends in other U.S. prisons from the 1960s and 1970s, and as a factor that moved inmates away from solidarity in the 1960s to violence and fragmentation in the 1970s.

Snitch Game

Due to a shortage of trained correctional staff, officers used a form of social manipulation called the "snitch game" to control uncooperative prisoners. Officers would simply label inmates who would not behave as informers.

This tactic meant the "named" inmate would start being abused by fellow convicts. Often, prisoners would choose to become a "snitch" to get away from their tormentors. However, the practice hampered attempts to get accurate information from inmates. It also increased tensions within the prison, as inmates became even more suspicious of the officers and each other.

Nevertheless, conditions were tolerated by New Mexico's state Governor Bruce King, Director of Prisons Felix Rodriguez and prison officials Robert Montoya and Manuel Koroneos. Warnings of an imminent riot were not heeded.

Hostages taken

In the early morning of Saturday, February 2 1980, two prisoners in south-side Dormitory E-2 overpowered an officer who had caught them drinking homemade liquor. Within minutes, four more of the 15 officers in the dormitory were also taken hostage. At this point the riot might have been contained; however, a fleeing officer left a set of keys behind.

Soon, E-2 cell block was in the inmates' control. Prisoners using the captured keys now seized more officers as hostages, before releasing other inmates from their cells. Eventually, they were able to break into the prison's master-control center, giving them access to lock and door controls, weapons, and more key sets.

Violence ensues

Even though they were filled in, the axe marks are still visible from where an inmate was decapitated.

By mid-morning events had spiraled out of control within the cellblocks. Murder and violence had erupted. Gangs were fighting gangs, and a group of rioters led by some of the most dangerous inmates (who by now had been released from solitary confinement) decided to break into cell block 4, which housed the protective-custody unit. This held the informers (snitches), but it also housed inmates who were vulnerable, mentally ill or convicted of sex crimes. Initially, the plan was to take revenge on the snitches, but the violence soon became indiscriminate.

When the group reached cellblock 4, they found that they did not have keys to enter these cells. Unfortunately for the prisoners in protective custody, the rioters found blowtorches that had been brought into the prison as part of an ongoing construction project. They used these to cut through the bars over the next five hours. Locked in their cells, the segregated prisoners called to the State Police pleading for them to save them, but to no avail. Waiting officers decided to do nothing despite there being a backdoor to the cellblock 4, which might have offered a way to free them.

The burn marks on the floor outside cellblock 4 where a prisoner was set on fire.

When the rioters finally got in, victims were pulled from their cells to be tortured, dismembered, decapitated, or burned alive.

During an edition of BBC's Timewatch program, a former State Police marksman described the carnage in cell block 4:

I was sighting on the guard tower opposite the custody unit. They lay this guy out on one of the cell doors. One of the prisoners then took a blowtorch and began cutting this guy apart. He was screaming all the time until they put the torch through his head.

Fires that had been deliberately started were now raging unchecked throughout several parts of the prison.

Negotiations begin

Talks to end the riot stalled throughout the first 24 hours. This was because neither the inmates nor the state had a single spokesperson. Eventually, inmates made 11 general demands concerned with basic prison conditions like overcrowding, inmate discipline, educational services and improving food. The prisoners also demanded to talk to independent federal officials and members of the news media.

The officers that were held hostage were released after inmates met reporters. Some of the officers had been protected by inmates, but others had been brutally beaten and raped. Seven officers suffered severe injuries.

One was tied to a chair. Another lay naked on a stretcher, blood pouring from a head wound. (Journal reporter)

Negotiations broke off again in the early hours of Sunday morning. State officials insisting no concessions had been made.

Inmates flee

By now, eighty prisoners, wanting no further part in the disturbances, fled to the baseball field seeking refuge at the fence where the National Guard had assembled.

On Sunday morning, more inmates began to trickle out of the prison seeking refuge. Black inmates led the exodus from the smoldering cellblocks. These groups, large enough to defend themselves from other inmates, huddled together as smoke from the burned-out prison continued to drift across the recreation yard.

Order restored

By mid-afternoon, 36 hours after the riot had begun, heavily armed State Police officers accompanied by National Guard servicemen entered the charred remains of the prison.

Official sources state that at least 33 inmates died. Some overdosed on drugs, but most were brutally murdered. (Some sources cite a higher death toll.) Twenty-three of the victims had been housed in the protective-custody unit. More than 200 inmates were treated for injuries sustained during the riot.


A few inmates were prosecuted for crimes committed during the uprising, but according to author Roger Morris, most crimes went unpunished. The longest additional sentence given to any convict was nine years.

Instead, Governor King's administration resisted attempts to reform the prison. Actions were not settled until the administration of Governor Toney Anaya seven years later.

Much of the evidence was lost or destroyed during and after the riot. One federal lawsuit that had been filed by an inmate was held up in the New Mexico prison system for almost two decades.

However, systemic reforms after the riot were undertaken following the Duran v. King consent decree, which included implementation of the Bureau Classification System under Cabinet Secretary Joe Williams. This reform work has developed the modern correctional system in New Mexico.

Other references

Thrash metal band Exodus refers to this riot in their song "The Last Act of Defiance" from their 1989 album Fabulous Disaster.

Extreme Paranormal, a show airing on A&E Television, featured an episode on the prison. Despite claims of authenticity, there is no factual evidence of paranormal life in the prison.


  1. Mark Colvin The Penitentiary in Crisis: From Accommodation to Riot in New Mexico, SUNY Press (1992).
  2. R. Morris, Devil's Butcher Shop: The New Mexico Prison Uprising, University of New Mexico Press, 1983.
  3. Frank Schmalleger and John Ortiz Smikla, Corrections in the 21st Century, McGraw Hill, 2001, p317
  4. Mark Colvin, "The 1980 New Mexico Prison Riot", Social Problems, Vol. 29, No. 5, pp. 449–463, June 1982.
  5. B. Useem, "Disorganization and the New Mexico Prison Riot of 1980", American Sociological Review, Vol. 50, No. 5, pp. 677-688, October 1985.
  6. (Schmallger, p317)
  7. Mark Colvin and Mike Rolland, Descent into Madness (Anderson Publishing, 1997)
8. Adolph Saenz, Politics Of A Prison Riot, 1986.

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