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New Mexico Riot Rooted in Religious Rights

On April 6, 1999, up to 400 prisoners at the Wackenhut-oper- ated Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, New Mexico, rioted and ransacked the prison's kitchen and dining areas. Thirteen guards, including two state employees, and one prisoner were injured in the melee, which was the latest in a series of violent incidents that have occurred at the private prison over the past year [see PLN, June, 1999]. Hundreds of state and local law enforcement officers responded to the riot.

New Mexico Corrections Dept. spokesman Mike Toms said the disturbance started as an argument between prisoners and guards over items used in Native American religious services. Several months before the riot, a group of Native American prisoners had complained they were being prevented from conducting religious ceremonies. The group the Red Nation Indian Society submitted the complaint to the corrections department in a letter signed by around 40 prisoners.

The Lea County Correctional Facility holds the largest number of Native American prisoners among New Mexico's state prisons, with about 60 taking part in religious services. The prisoners stated in their complaint that they were unable to use a ceremonial sweat lodge they had built because Wackenhut would not provide a sufficient amount of firewood. Toms said the prisoners' complaints were investigated and the facility was found to be in compliance with applicable legal requirements regarding religious rights.

Wackenhut spokesman Pat Cannan stated he was not familiar with the letter of complaint from the Red Nation Indian Society, but acknowledged that Native American prisoners had filed several grievances prior to the riot. "Staff reacted to those grievances," he said. "As far as we're concerned, they've been looked into."

Mark Donatelli an attorney and prisoner advocate, says he continues to receive complaints from Native American prisoners about conditions at the facility, including allegations that excessive force is being used against prisoners who were locked down following the April 6 disturbance. He has called for increased state supervision of the private prison.

A union that represents guards at the Hobbs facility has filed a complaint alleging unsafe work conditions; at least fifteen guards quit following the riot.

The New Mexican, USA Today, PPRI

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