Proposal would compensate guards in deadly 1980 prison riot

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Posted: Feb 20, 2015 1:01 PM
Proposal would compensate guards in deadly 1980 prison riot

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A dozen guards were held hostage 35 years ago during one of the nation's deadliest prison riots. Some were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted as rioting prisoners killed 33 fellow inmates during a clash that included beheadings, amputations and burned bodies.

Now, New Mexico lawmakers are considering compensation for those correctional officers who are still alive and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee heard the emotional account of Lawrence Lucero, one of only two officers who managed to escape in the opening hours as inmates rushed the control center at the Penitentiary of New Mexico on Feb. 2, 1980.

Lucero recalled seeing one man being dragged away with a belt around his neck. Another had his head bashed in while Lucero and another correctional officer watched helplessly from behind bullet-proof glass that the inmates eventually shattered with metal pipes.

"The fire, the screams, the torturing of people, it's just something not even a movie could prepare you for. It's just something beyond this world," said Lucero, who was 25 at the time.

Now nearly 60, Lucero has nightmares of inmates coming to attack him, and he can't forget the smell of burning flesh. His wife, Isabel, testified that she, too, has had to deal with the effects the riot had on her husband.

The trouble started with a group of inmates who overpowered four guards during a routine inspection. Some 20 minutes later, inmates had seized the prison's control center and taken 12 guards hostage.

They freed fellow inmates and grabbed whatever they found for weapons, including acetylene torches. Some broke into offices and read inmates' files, looking to settle grudges.

Then the killing started. Some prisoners were burned alive. One body was decapitated; another had a rod sticking ear to ear.

Authorities feared for the hostages' lives and did not immediately try to retake the penitentiary, which held about 1,160 prisoners. The decision to move in was made 36 hours later — after inmates had released most of the hostages.

State police and National Guardsmen then stormed the prison, taking it back without firing a shot. Most of the hostages were beaten or stabbed, but all survived.

Besides the 33 inmates killed, about 90 were seriously injured in the riot, which led to extensive reforms within the state's prison system.

It was just three years before that a federal lawsuit was filed that warned about the potential for a riot at the lockup because of overcrowding and poor conditions. That suit resulted in a consent decree under which the federal government had oversight of New Mexico's prisons for two decades.

The state also faced numerous lawsuits stemming from the inmates' deaths.

Democratic Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon said the correctional officers who were swept up in the violence should have been compensated years ago. He and other lawmakers apologized to Lucero and said the officers should have never had to experience something like that.

Alcon estimated only five or six of the former correctional officers are still living.

The House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill after making several changes to simplify the compensation process. The measure calls for setting aside $1.5 million for the effort.

Last year, the Senate unanimously passed a memorial recognizing the tragedy and expressing a commitment to criminal justice reform.

The state Corrections Department also has offered tours of the old prison in hopes of providing a record and an accounting by the officers and inmates who were there.

When people ask what happened that night, Lucero answers with a Spanish phrase that when translated means "The devil was set loose."

"That's exactly what happened," he said, "and I see this bill as an opportunity where we can put the cork back into that bottle, close that gate and put a final end to this terrible chapter in New Mexico history."

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM