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Lessons of 1980 riot haven't been fully learned

Posted by Mark H. Donatelli | Feb 05, 2020

Lessons of 1980 riot haven't been fully learned

By Mark Donatelli

Feb 1, 2020

As a law student in 1976, I investigated prisoner claims of cruel and unusual punishment at the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe, ranging from brutal beatings by guards to torture of mentally ill prisoners in dark solitary confinement cells.

Appointed a public defender in 1978, I represented prisoners charged with prison murders, escapes and assaults on staff members. Their trials exposed the inhumane and overcrowded conditions endured by the more than 1,100 prisoners at the penitentiary.

So, it came as no surprise to me to learn that on Feb. 2, 1980, prisoners had taken over and destroyed the entire prison while murdering 33 fellow prisoners and torturing correctional officers-turned-hostages.

A little background is in order to understand the riot and its aftermath:

In 1977, prisoner Dwight Duran filed a lawsuit challenging prison conditions. In response to that lawsuit, and again after the riot, the state agreed to remedial orders that governed virtually every aspect of prison operations. These orders were known collectively as the Duran Consent Decree.

In his September 1980 report to the Legislature on the causes of the riot, and in making recommendations to prevent similar occurrences, then-state Attorney General Jeff Bingaman wrote:

“The Duran Consent Decree will ensure that New Mexico will never again deviate so greatly from accepted standards of prison management."

Although New Mexico had been nationally humiliated by the riot, the state did little to comply with the agreed to court-ordered improvements specified by the decree until 1983, when former Gov. Toney Anaya and Corrections Secretary Mike Francke took seriously the state's promises to the federal court. Along with the expert assistance of the court, they implemented reforms that included adequate staffing and training of correctional officers and a rational classification system.

I was appointed to join several other attorneys to work with the Anaya/Francke administration and the New Mexico Legislature to try to institutionalize the hard-earned improvements.

But administrations changed, and the state decided to challenge the previously agreed-to Duran standards, resulting in years of expensive and unnecessary litigation. In 1991, the parties finally reached a new settlement agreement that reaffirmed most of the specific promises for conditions improvements, but also gave the state a pathway to eliminate the administrative requirements in exchange for an agreement by the state to never again dangerously overcrowd its Duran prisons.

In part, New Mexico promised the court and prisoners that no matter what happened in the future, it would never renege on its legally binding commitment to maintain safe populations in its Duran prisons.

Unfortunately, once those administrative requirements were vacated, the state began to dismantle all of the critical institutional reforms they had mandated, such as adequate staffing levels, training, educational and vocational training programs as well as important medical and mental health care requirements. Even worse, in 2017 the Duran lawyers discovered the state had been housing prisoners in a gymnasium and exceeding court-ordered population limits.

Prisoner efforts to enforce the permanent “in perpetuity” population caps were met with a challenge by the defendants to the court's jurisdiction and authority based on a new act of Congress.

Rather than engage in another round of litigation, in 2019 we reached a new 14-page, 30-paragraph agreement containing promised improvements — which, if actually implemented, could eliminate further Duran federal court monitoring of population levels.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has heralded this new agreement as “historic” and said “it would unburden the state of the difficulties left to the citizens by prior administrations."

It remains to be seen if the current administration can meet its new list of promises. So long as New Mexico puts its citizens in prison, the state will be obligated by the Constitution to treat them humanely. The lessons of 1980 are clear. If and when prisoners seek redress from courts in New Mexico in the future, they will be inspired by the legacy and accomplishments of Dwight Duran.

For additional commentary on the 1980 riot from the Santa Fe New Mexican see here.

Mark Donatelli, appointed in 1983 by the court as counsel for plaintiffs in the Duran vs. King lawsuit, is a partner in Rothstein Donatelli LLC. A noted expert on prison issues in New Mexico, he served as a public defender from 1978-80 and was named in 2013 as a top 10 criminal defense attorney in the state by the National Academy of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

About the Author

Mark H. Donatelli

Partner - Santa Fe Office