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Wackenhut's Woes: Guard Killed in New Mexico Riot; Prisoners Exiled to Virginia Supermax

Previously, PLN has reported problems at the Lea County Corr. Facility in Hobbs, New Mexico, one of two prisons in the state operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corp. Violent incidents at the Hobbs facility have included at least 9 stabbings, two of them fatal [PLN, June 1999], and an April 6, 1999 riot in which 13 guards and a prisoner were injured [PLN, Sep 1999]. The prison experienced another murder on June 17, 1999 when Richard Garcia, 47, was stabbed to death in his cell.

Last August the violence spilled over to Wackenhut's other New Mexico prison, the Guadalupe County Corr. Facility in Santa Rosa, 110 miles east of Albuquerque. Wackenhut receives $25 million a year to house 1,500 prisoners -­about 30 percent of the state's prison population -- in the Hobbs and Santa Rosa facilities.

"An All-Out Riot"

Orlando Gabaldon, 51, serving a life sentence, was killed by another prisoner at the Santa Rosa facility on August 22, 1999; he was beaten to death with a bag of rocks. Gabaldon's murder was the fourth in 9 months at the Wackenhut facilities -- the highest number of deaths in New Mexico prisons since the 1980 Santa Fe uprising that claimed 33 lives.

Nine days later, on Aug. 31, Santa Rosa prisoner Adrian Mares was stabbed in the facility's gym. As guards tried to place the prison on lockdown the situation spiraled out of control, with prisoners refusing to return to their cells. Wackenhut guard Ralph Garcia, 42, was surrounded and stabbed to death; other guards who tried to help him were beaten back.

Up to 290 prisoners rioted, destroying property, setting fires in four housing units and causing extensive damage. The disturbance lasted over three hours. More than 100 state prison guards and law enforcement officers were called in to regain control of the Wackenhut facility. "It was an all-out riot," said New Mexico Dept. of Public Safety Secretary Darren White.

Acting With an Iron Fist

Following the Aug. 22 beating death of Orlando Gabaldon, Gov. Gary Johnson had threatened to remove state prisoners from the Wackenhut facilities if violence continued. "We have told Wackenhut that anything else happens and we, for real, are going to pull prisoners out and stick them somewhere else," he said .

On Sept. 3, three days after the Santa Rosa uprising, Gov. Johnson made good on his threat: More than 100 New Mexico prisoners were transferred to the Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, a supermax facility. The 109 prisoners transferred were believed to have taken part in the riot; those suspected of murdering Garcia, and other prisoners who witnessed the killing, were moved to a maximum-security unit at a New Mexico state prison in Santa Fe.

The exiled prisoners were transported to the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque where they boarded a U.S. Marshals Service jet. Over 100 security and law enforcement officers, including rooftop snipers, were present in a show of force.

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Rob Perry said the transfer was a warning not only to the state's prison population but also to Wackenhut. "I think it's important to send a message to all of the parties involved," he said.

Several state lawmakers complained they hadn't been informed about the out of state transfers in advance, while Mark Donatelli, an attorney and prisoners' rights advocate, questioned how the prisoners who were sent to Virginia were selected. Perry defended the transfers, saying "The only thing you can do is act with an iron fist, and that's what we're going to do."

Wackenhut Criticized

Wackenhut faced withering criticism immediately following the riot. Corrections Secretary Perry and Public Safety Dept. Secretary Darren White accused the company of waiting at least an hour before informing state officials of the riot and Garcia's death. They also said Wackenhut failed to notify the State Police and misled a state trooper who contacted the prison while the uprising was in progress, which led to a delay in sending response teams to the facility.

White called for an investigation into whether Wackenhut was criminally negligent in delaying reports of the riot. "I can tell you from my own standpoint I want to determine if the recent actions indicate a pattern and practice by Wackenhut which places public relations over public safety," said White. "If we determine that this reluctance to notify law enforcement was part of a corporate policy, then someone could be exposed to criminal charges." White warned that he could go "to the top of the corporate ladder." He noted there had been a four-hour delay before Wackenhut reported the August 22 beating death of Orlando Gabaldon.

State lawmakers also condemned the company, questioning whether inadequate employee training and under-staffing had contributed to the riot. In state facilities the staff-to-prisoner ratio is 1:3, while at the Wackenhut prisons the ratio is 1:5. Also, it was later determined that Garcia, the slain prison guard, who had been on the job less than six months, was not fully certified as required under Wackenhut's contract.

"All I can say is that we are really in an emergency situation and that the profit motive behind-privatization has surfaced and we are feeling its effect," stated New Mexico House Speaker Raymond Sanchez. Wackenhut's stock dropped $3.00 a share -- 16 percent -the day after the August 31 riot.

The Company Responds

Wackenhut spokesman Pat Cannan said the company was striving to "bring the situation under control" at its New Mexico facilities. Wackenhut officials stated they had "promptly" notified appropriate authorities about the riot. Due to a convoluted arrangement in which the state contracts with county governments, which in turn contract with Wackenhut, the company isn't required to inform the corrections department or state police of incidents that occur at the privately operated prisons.

Also, at a Sept. 8, 1999 press conference, Wackenhut CEO George Zoley and president Wayne Calabrese questioned the violent nature of the prisoners sent to the company's medium-security prisons. A month before the riot Wackenhut had complained about problems with the correction department's classification system.

Company officials further noted that New Mexico prisoners were upset because conditions at the private prisons were less desirable than at state facilities. The Wackenhut prisons are double-bunked with no electrical outlets in the cells (allegedly at the state's request), while state facilities are single celled and prisoners can have radios, TVs and other electrical appliances.

Ironically, Gov. Johnson's threat to pull state prisoners out of the Wackenhut facilities if there was further violence may have contributed to the August 31 riot, because the prisoners resented being housed at the private prison.

Playing Politics

A closed legislative hearing concerning the riot was held the same day as Wackenhut's press conference. Dept. of Public Safety Secretary White departed early, saying Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, who chaired the hearing, had a "blatant conflict of interest" because he is a paid consultant for Wackenhut. "It's as ridiculous as the State Dept. holding a briefing on the Gulf War and having the Iraqis at the table," White said of Aragon's participation in the hearing.

Sen. Aragon, who strongly opposed prison privatization before being hired by Wackenhut in 1998, denied a conflict of interest, though he declined to say how much he was paid by the company and state disclosure laws do not require him to do so. Attorney General Patricia Madrid rejected a request by the chairman of the state Republican Party to investigate Aragon's close relationship with Wackenhut.

Besides hiring Sen. Aragon as a consultant, Wackenhut employs former New Mexico corrections secretary Eloy Mondragon as warden of the Santa Rosa prison. Also, Wackenhut and corporate officers have donated $9,000 to Gov. Johnson's election campaign and $5,000 to the state Republican Party. Four months before the Santa Rosa uprising, in April 1999, Gov. Johnson vetoed legislation that would have increased the state's control over private prisons.

Business as Usual

Wackenhut further angered state officials by saying they must pay for the empty bed space at the Santa Rosa facility caused by transferring prisoners to the Virginia supermax. According to the state's contract, Wackenhut claimed, the state must pay as though the prison is 90 percent full even if it isn't. The company demanded $5,000 a day for the vacant bed space; the state is already paying Virginia approximately $7,000 a day for the 109 prisoners housed at the Wallens Ridge facility.

Corrections Secretary Perry stated he had no intention of paying Wackenhut for the empty beds, citing a letter of agreement signed by Wackenhut president Wayne Calabrese specifying that the 90 percent occupancy requirement did not apply to the Santa Rosa facility. Wackenhut officials countered that the letter was not a "final amendment" to the state's contract.

While the Corrections Department and Dept. of Public Safety are holding a board of inquiry into the Santa Rosa riot and Wackenhut's handling of the disturbance, state lawmakers have also requested an independent investigation coordinated through the Attorney General's office.

On Sept. 10, 1999, Attorney General Patricia Madrid asked the State Board of Finance for an emergency loan of $100,000 to hire a contractor to conduct the investigation. Otherwise, due to budget constraints, her office might not have enough money to fund the investigation, she said. Wackenhut offered to help pay for the independent investigation.

According to New Mexico officials, the prisoners held in the Virginia supermax may stay there up to a year. Meanwhile, Wackenhut continues to house state prisoners at its Hobbs and Santa Rosa facilities.

Sources: The New Mexican, Albuquerque Journal, Dallas Morning News, Palm Beach Post

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