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Violence Takes a Toll at New Mexico Wackenhut Prison

The 1200-bed Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF), a New Mexico state prison operated by Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp., has been plagued by nine prisoner stabbings during its first six months of operation, including two that resulted in the deaths of two prisoners.

Jose Montoya, a 44-year-old LCCF prisoner, died December 10, 1998 after being stabbed repeatedly in the abdomen with a homemade shank. Montoya had been waiting in the prison barber shop for a haircut when the stabbing occurred. He died later at Columbia Lea Medical Center in Hobbs. No motive was given for the stabbing. However, one prisoner has been charged with capital murder with special circumstances, and a second one has been charged with tampering with evidence for allegedly throwing a shank in the trash to hide it from authorities.

Another LCCF prisoner, 30-year-old Steven Edwards, was stabbed at least 92 times on Christmas Day December 25, 1998 with a shank made from a piece of chain link fence, officials said. Despite the numerous wounds, police said, Edwards was up and walking around several days later.

Robert Ortega, a 38-year-old LCCF prisoner, was found by a passing prison guard lying dead in his cell on January 13, 1999 with multiple stab wounds to the upper body. Ortega was last seen two hours earlier at breakfast. No motive was given for the Ortega killing either. Five prisoners remain under suspicion in Ortega's death, and investigators are hoping that fluid and tissue samples taken from the five will help them solve the stabbing. A shank recovered from Ortega's cell was likely fashioned from a metal piece from a mop bucket, police said.

Ortega arrived at LCCF on a routine transfer from the Torrance County Detention Center at Estancia, N.M. just three days before his death. Apparently he was part of a group of 425 prisoners that the state moved from that facility to LCCF in January.

In the December 1998 issue of PLN we reported on a disturbance at the Torrance County facility that occurred in August 1998 when some unarmed prisoners from Washington, D.C. allegedly jumped five guards. [See: "New Mexico CCA Disturbance Not Reported for Hours", PLN Vol.9 No.12]. The Torrance prison is operated by Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), based in Nashville, Tenn. It had not been disclosed by authorities whether any of the five prisoners under suspicion had also been part of that transfer group.

The stabbing deaths of Ortega and Montoya represent two of Wackenhut's three reported total prisoner deaths since the company began running prisons in 1987.

While the stabbings are bad for Wackenhut's image, they look bad for Hobbs as well, Hobbs police Capt. Mike Emerson said. Ortega's murder was the fourth in two months for the city. "It still counts on our [FBI] stats," Emerson said. "It doesn't look good to have four [murders] in two months."

Lubbock Avalanche-Journal .

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