Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New Mexico Lit: The Devil's Butcher Shop: The Story of the 1980 Prison Revolt

Credit: Book Depository


In a political science class, I learned the origin of the word amok. The professor said it is an Indonesian word and it referred to an intermittent craziness that erupts  - to run amok - resulting in slaughter and other violent mayhem. From wikipedia:
Amok originated from the Indonesian word mengamuk, which when roughly defined means “to make a furious and desperate charge”.[5] According to Indonesian culture, amok was rooted in a deep spiritual belief.[6] They believed that amok was caused by the hantu belian,[7] which was an evil tiger spirit that entered one’s body and caused the heinous act. As a result of the belief, those in Indonesian culture tolerated amok and dealt with the after effects with no ill will towards the assailant.

I thought of this term when I read The Devil's Butcher Shop by Roger Morris.

What the book is about:

1980 New Mexico Penitentiary prison revolt, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The legal, moral and ethical crimes committed before, during, and after the riot by: 
  • Inmates, 
  • Prison guards, 
  • Contractors and vendors, 
  • Corrections officials at all levels of authority, 
  • the governor of New Mexico, 
  • New Mexico legislators, 
  • the New Mexico judiciary, 
  • the legal community, 
  • Penitentiary doctors and other medical staff, and 
  • All the rest of us for our passive or active participation in the systemic brutalization of our fellow man's bodies, spirits, and minds.

In abundance:

Despair, disgust, contempt, anger, fear.

Horror, gruesomeness, murder, rape, torture, rage, terror.

Corruption, nepotism, theft.


Mercy, kindness, heroism.


Accountability, responsibility.


Thirty years later

Here's a 2010 account from Mary Racicot, who was a 28-year old National Guard medic who arrived on the scene during the revolt.

August 2013: New Mexico considers making the 1980 prison site a tourist attraction.

Have there been substantive changes to the New Mexico prison system? I really don't know. But I'd be surprised if the New Mexico system is substantially better than that of others in the country.

Could the 1980 prison revolt happen again? Yes, in a prison where similar conditions apply, including prolonged inhumane conditions, over-crowding, dormitory-style housing of inmates, co-habitation of violent and non-violent inmates, shoddy prison construction and security processes, corrupt law enforcement officials, and lack of effective oversight by people who should be monitoring the prison goings-on, but who are not. 

I know that when you've got a law enforcement official such as that man in Arizona who boasts of how he humiliates the people in his charge (some of whom have not yet been to trial), that's a red flag that abuse is happening. Indeed, under his leadership, the citizens of Maricopa County have paid $24 million in lost or settled lawsuits as a consequence of in-jail abuse or negligence that runs the gamut from inadequate health care to murder. The good people of Maricopa County who keep this man in office year after year know what happens in the jail and are thus accomplices to the abuse.  The local news media even show videos of negligence and deaths, such as here and here and here and here. So there are no viable protestations of ignorance, just as there were none in New Mexico. Eventually, the Maricopa County sheriff will be vilified by all, but among the people vilifying him will be those who have actively or passively kept him in power as long as it was expedient to do so.

In 2006, California's Secretary of State issued this emergency proclamation about the dangerous and expensive (to taxpayers, people!) over-crowding in the the state prisons. Cowardly legislators who fear  being viewed as soft on crime ignore this situation just as the New Mexico legislators did before the 1980 prison revolt. But that emergency proclamation is from 2006. Whoops, still a problem in 2013. Currently, there's a hunger strike among Californian prisoners. The inmates in the New Mexico prison also tried non-violent methods to effect change before the 1980 revolt. (And neither this statement nor any other in this post is a justification for the behavior of the inmates who tortured and killed during the revolt.)

Mother Jones offers America's 10 Worst Prisons (and 7 unsavory honorable mentions). Is it good news that New Mexico isn't one of them? Or is it that the 10 Worst are just worst than the really bad of so many others?

A quibble about the book

I couldn't keep all of the people in the book straight.

I would have loved for there to have been at least three org charts that covered various periods, not only to keep track of individuals, but to have a visual reference for how they were able to leverage their power because of - or in some cases - out of proportion with - their titles.

Another help would have been if Mr. Morris had used the individuals' titles throughout.

The BBC produced a documentary about the prison revolt, which you can find below:

But only by reading the book do you know what a heroic effort that inmate Dwight Duran (and two others) made year after year after year in their attempts to document what went on in the prison, to get their  information out, and to persevere through all of the obstacles in the path of the final Duran Decree. Or of the scandalous waste of taxpayer monies that the state of New Mexico spent to avoid the need to provide the basics of humane treatment.

Only by reading the book do you learn about the endemic corruption practiced by state officials from the highest to the lowest ranks, which also contributed to the 1980 revolt, and which robbed New Mexican taxpayers of millions upon millions of dollars.

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