Chaves County Sheriff Rob Coon will attend a tour of the Old Main Prison building, today, where the Penitentiary of New Mexico riot took place on Feb. 2, 1980. The event marks a dark place in New Mexico history, which the state is hoping to turn into an asset.
Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Alex Tomlin said that the department planned a tour on Friday for first responders, survivors, legislators and religious leaders to provide closure and help heal old wounds.
The DOC also plans to open up the Old Main Prison facility to the public as a museum so others can learn the hard-won lessons of the past. The tour will be an opportunity to present the purpose of the museum and DOC’s goals.
Coon is the last of the first responders who remains in law enforcement. “I was 30 years old when it happened. That was 33 years ago. I was a member of the (New Mexico State Police) SWAT Tactical team.”
Although he and his fellow officers were trained for such situations, the reality was stark. “I was called in by my supervisor and told there was a riot at the state penitentiary.”
The team traveled the entire 200 miles from Alamogordo to the prison with red lights and sirens. “As luck would have it in New Mexico, it started to snow. By the time we reached Lamy Junction 20 miles south of Santa Fe, we could see the smoke and we could smell it.”
When Coon and the team arrived, the entire gymnasium was engulfed in flames. “People there knew what was going to happen and many of the guards had called in sick that day.”
Those that remained formed a skeletal staff. Some were able to make their way out of the building, but more were missing. Those that had not been able to escape, Coon described as being “brutalized.”
He said many of the inmates — the sex offenders, the gays and the informants — also had made their way from the buildings. They were protected by the first responders outside, but the weather was not kind. Coon remembered taking blankets to those prisoners to provide them with warmth during the snow. “We lived in the outbuildings. We got into vending machines to provide snacks for the prisoners until other food arrived.”
Coon was one of the hostage negotiators, although he admitted his services were never used. Members of the National Guards, NMSP and other first responders were forced to stayed outside the fence. “We could hear the screams, but we could not do anything about it…”
The prisoners were able to gain control because workmen who were doing construction inside the facility left out tools, such as cutting torches, that could be used as weapons. The contractors replaced bulletproof glass in the control room with thinner glass, which inmates were able to smash, leaving them in command of the entire building.
The prisoners, which Coon called the “worst of the worst,” had made raisin jack and were liberally plied with alcohol. “They got into the infirmary and took every drug you can think of. Many passed out because of the drugs,” said Coon. “One prisoner got a hold of a machete, which they used on other inmates and the staff.”
When officials managed to get control of the facility he described one room where water pipes had burst as running red with blood. “We were wading ankle deep as we went searching for survivors. The smoke was so bad our gas masks didn‘t work.”
Many of the scenes he relayed compared with some of the worst scenes from any Hollywood horror movie that one could imagine. For Coon, the most troubling memory was when they started to bring the dead bodies out of the buildings.
However, Coon’s team also found survivors. “We reached the gas chambers where no prisoners wanted to go. When we opened the door, we found two guards. They thought it was the prisoners. They were in a fighting position. …When they saw us, they broke down they were so happy to see us.”
All totaled, 33 died in the prison riot, all killed by other prisoners. “In the riots at Attica, there were 47 fatalities and all those were killed by the guards,” Coon said.
He credited the riots to corruption and overcrowding in the prison. Coon believes that the DOC learned the lessons of the Old Main Prison well.
He says he personally has suffered no negative repercussions as result of what he observed during the riots. When discussing it, Coon is matter of fact. “We had a job to do and we did it.”