Some events must never be forgotten. They must remain in our living memory so we never make the same mistakes again.
Such an event is the 1980 New Mexico prison riot. If you were here, it is burned in your memory. It certainly is in mine.
And yet we still have not resolved all the issues that arose from that horrible event.
Forty years ago, on February 2, 1980, prisoners seized control of the state penitentiary outside Santa Fe. The mayhem that followed included fire, flood, and the horrific murders of 33 other prisoners.
A discussion about the riot took place a few days ago, hosted by the Albuquerque Journal and radio station KANW. Present were journalists and others who had studied the riot itself, the prison conditions that led to it, and the aftermath. Also present were the current and recent secretaries of the New Mexico Corrections Department and the head of the correction officers union.
I remember it as a time when our policymakers didn’t give much thought to the well-being of criminals. Prison was for punishment, not for rehabilitation. Inmates were regarded as disposable, even though, then as now, most of them would someday be released. Public officials paid very little attention to what was going on inside the prison.
The riot was started following careless actions by a few officials that enabled determined inmates to grab the keys that would unlock many parts of the prison.
It ended with negotiation, not an invasion, largely to save the lives of the guards who had been held hostage. After it was over and the bodies brought out, New Mexico’s prison continued to have the reputation as the most violent in the country. Then came the legal decision known as Duran consent decree, establishing minimum standards for prison conditions and requiring supervision by a federal judge for decades.
Our newer prisons were designed for safety, arranged with “pods” rather than the large dormitories of the previous generation. The pods house fewer inmates and are therefore easy to control. If a problem occurs in one pod, it can be isolated. Other safety measures, such as use of electronic switches instead of keys, were introduced. Corrections officers now receive several weeks of training.
But we’re still not meeting the standards that a correction system should maintain. At minimum, that would be safety for both officers and inmates.
At its best, the system would be sending inmates back into the world motivated to live a crime-free life and equipped with necessary skills, ultimately getting the number of repeat offenders down to near zero.
Officers are still not safe, said Dirk Lee, president of the Correctional Officers Association. There is still overcrowding and an inadequate system of classifying prisoners – and occasionally guards are still assaulted..
And we’re still measuring success by the narrow goal of preventing another riot, said former Corrections Secretary Greg Marcantel. We should be aiming higher. .
Those pods, Marcantel said, were designed for containment, not for programming. They don’t have adequate space for educational activities.
Marcantel said 70% of violent crimes are committed by 10% of inmates. That means the other 90% should be protected and given a chance to turn their lives around.
Supporting the corrections budget has never been a popular cause. It’s too easy to make the glib argument that spending money on rehabilitation or education in prison is “soft on crime.” We have higher priorities.
And yet there’s no greater waste of taxpayer money as well as human potential than locking people up with no hope of redemption, especially when we know they will be back on our streets some day.
Conscience demands that New Mexicans remember not only the riot, but also the inhumane conditions that led to it, and never let that happen again. Every now and then, we must retell the story.
Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2020