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New Mexico Riot Raises Questions About Private Prison Company’s Competence

by Kevin W. Bliss

The police department in Clayton, New Mexico and the state police are investigating a September 23, 2017 incident at the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility (NENMCF), which grew into the state’s most dangerous prison uprising in the past 20 years.

“What happened that evening was unacceptable,” admitted the state’s Corrections Secretary, David Jablonski. “There were major security breaches. It wasn’t safe.”

Matt Shriner was a guard at NENMCF employed by the GEO Group, the Florida-based private prison company that runs the 625-bed medium-security facility, when serial killer Clifton Bloomfield talked the inexperienced 22-year-old into opening his cell door in the Restrictive Housing Unit, used to hold prisoners who pose the greatest security risk.

“When you’re dealing with violent inmates you always have a two-man escort,” Jablonski said.

But Shriner was the only guard on duty. He did not restrain Bloomfield, who is serving sentences totaling 195 years for five murders. Shriner also had no backup, nor a radio, and when Bloomfield attacked the guard with a shank, he took possession of keys to every cell in the unit. Shriner got away, but Bloomfield began releasing the other prisoners who then took over the cell block. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.63].

The prisoners caused extensive damage, disabling surveillance cameras, starting fires and flooding the unit. They also attacked a prisoner suspected of being an informant, slicing his throat; he was eventually transported to Union County General Hospital in serious but stable condition. Order was restored an hour later when a riot squad broke into the blockaded cell block and flooded it with tear gas.

Shriner, who resigned two weeks after the incident, was one of just nine guards on duty at a facility that required 20 to be considered fully staffed – with a dozen of those positions deemed mandatory. GEO Group paid $1.3 million in fines the year after the uprising for excessive understaffing in violation of its contract with the state.

“It’s totally unacceptable,” said state Senator Cisco McSorley, who sits on the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee. “I want [GEO Group] to fulfill the terms of the contract. They say that they’re in the business of keeping our prisons safe and secure and they’re not doing it.”

Bloomfield was immediately transferred to the maximum-security New Mexico State Penitentiary in Santa Fe. He has been charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and aggravated battery for his role in the riot.

“I’m not sure how the Corrections Department decided that a prisoner with five murder convictions could be housed safely at this facility. Someone blew it ...,” said attorney Mark Donatelli, a veteran of the Public Defender’s Riot Defense Team put together after the infamous 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary.

Jablonski said Shriner’s decision the day of the riot “jeopardized the security of that whole facility, and it could have been a lot worse.” The state filed criminal charges against the former guard in October 2018 for unlawful rescue and assisting escape.

But Donatelli wondered, “How do you allow an untrained, inexperienced rookie officer to go into the most dangerous portion of your prison without adequate backup, without a radio, with all the keys to the unit?”

In October 2018, Shriner sued the state Department of Corrections, DOC Secretary Jablonski, NENMCF Warden Mark Bowen, Shriner’s supervisor, Lt. Randall Thomas, and GEO Group, claiming he was not properly trained and then made to take the fall for the uprising.

“GEO covered up the riot, and constructively discharged plaintiff in a wrongful manner,” his lawsuit states, claiming Thomas “was not meaningfully disciplined, although his conduct is what caused the riot.” Further, Shriner said he was required to work in the Restrictive Housing Unit “when he was sick, exhausted from overwork, uncertified, not properly trained, and inexperienced in corrections security.”

The suit also accuses the defendants of defamation and breach of contract, and seeks compensatory damages including back pay, medical expenses and emotional distress, plus punitive damages against GEO Group.

The company said it values its relationship with the state but that it must also “dispute certain findings within the New Mexico DOC incident report related to staffing concerns, post assignments, and security measures” at NENMCF. 

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Sources: abc7amarillo.com, krqe.com, santa­fenewmexican.com