A three-hour uprising at a privately-run medium security prison in New Mexico on November 2, 2020, led to a few prisoner injuries, a fire and property destruction. It was an “incident [that] absolutely could have been prevented,” said said the state’s Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero.
But the clash between guards and prisoners of one cellblock at the GEO-run Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs did not generate public statements or press conferences. It was mostly kept under wraps until reporting by KRQE News 13 on February 16, 2021.
Over two months, the media outlet examined prison security video, handheld camera recordings taken by security staff and documents via public records requests.
One prisoner was located unconscious in his cell. In addition, prisoners armed with homemade weapons reportedly began a fire on the upper tier, plus disabled a security camera and wrecked sprinkler heads and some furnishings.
“Tensions rose after prisoners refused repeated directives to lockdown. Inmates attempted to negotiate with prison staff to remain out of their cells,” KRQE reported. “Some prisoners were visibly drunk from a supply of homemade alcohol (hooch). After inmates refused commands to ‘lockdown,’ they gathered in the pod day room, barricaded doors, and took control of the cellblock.”
In response, a Riot Response Team tried to disperse the prisoners. Tear gas canisters were reported dropped from rooftop ports, but prisoners used water-filled trash cans and blankets to neutralize the effect of the gas. A second round of tear gas also was reportedly ineffective.
According to KRQE, “The prison security force escalated the response using Pepper Ball and Stinger grenades fired through ports in the side walls of the pod. Three hours into the confrontation, the prison security force regained control of the cellblock.”
Explaining the lapse in security, Secretary Lucero was critical of the prison’s “design flaw” and supervisors from GEO Group for a lack of effective communication with the prisoners. The prisoners, she said, were “frustrated, and they did not know what was going on. And nobody went and took the time to just talk with them and share with them what was going on in the facility.”
She called the lack of a functional security camera “definitely disconcerting.” Lucero explained that the camera operated on live view, but it wasn’t fully working in recording. Blind spots were hidden.
Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli said the riot was “a highly unusual and extremely dangerous situation.” He told KRQE, “Use of force should be a last resort after all confrontation avoidance means are exhausted. That didn’t happen in this case. Even the Corrections Department’s own investigation determined that they did not adequately exhaust confrontation avoidance before using force.”
Donatelli told reporters that riots don’t take place at “well-run, safely staffed prisons.”
The Hobbs melee is not the first at a private prison in the state. “Two years ago, at the prison operated by the GEO Group in Clayton, a guard was overpowered and taken hostage,” KRQE reported. “Armed with keys to the cellblock, rioting inmates attacked other prisoners and destroyed property. The Corrections Department later took over the management of the Clayton lockup.”
House Bill 40, the Private Detention Facility Moratorium Act, which would ban private prisons in New Mexico, passed the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee but does not appear likely to pass this year.
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