What started off as a road trip from the cold north country of Montana headed to the Southwest, ended up a life-altering adventure. Circumstances aligned for a geographical shift from Missoula, where I’d lived for seven years, to Albuquerque, the city to which my youngest brother had recently moved. House sold and goods packed in a trailer pulled by my ’63 VW all window bus, it was off on Highway 93 to reported flowers blooming in early 1980. Arriving a few days later around sundown to Galisteo, a small village on the outskirts of Santa Fe, I was greeted by my friend Charlie, brandishing a pistol when I knocked on his door. (We’d worked together on a winterization crew for a few years in MT.) “Nice way to greet an old work partner,” I said. “There’s been a riot at the prison up the road and not taking any chances,” he gruffly replied.
There was a warm spot for me by the fire in his and Barbara’s adobe. After a bowl of soup and libations, the story ensued: Prisoners had taken over the New Mexico State Penitentiary outside of Santa Fe the day before, February 2nd. State Police, National Guard, and firefighters had been there since dawn getting a handle on the riot and reported brutalities. That surely was newsworthy, but more important to me was finding a place to live and gainful employment. Both occurred within days as my buddy’s friends found a room for me to rent and suggested I contact the NM State Employment Office. In one of our many just-having-landed conversations, I reported that my work experience included four years in corrections in Ohio after I graduated from college and then graduate study. Apparently, I was a ‘shoo-in’ for a job since the riot had just been quelled. That turned out to be true.
Surprisingly enough, my application was rapidly processed and accepted. Interviews led to a job offer and acceptance within weeks. Come to discover, there was no Training Bureau in the NM Department of Corrections. Upon hiring, various managers as well as front-line staff were handed keys and a uniform, then told how to survive the inmates.
My first day was an immersion in mostly what hadn’t worked. A tour of the burned-out hulk of a prison was gruesome, to say the least. That day is etched in my memory as a sad one, for sure, as thirty-three men lost their lives. Mostly they were tortured to death. During the brief tour, the area seemed to have the atmosphere of a war zone: remnants of a fire in burned piles of clothing and furniture, major destruction of property, and blood stains were like paint splotches everywhere. Nothing had prepared me for the aftermath of that butchery. Also, I viewed the NM State Police video of the crime scenes immediately after the riot came under control.
Even now, forty-two years later, I find myself disturbed remembering that time. Then I felt deep disappointment and disgust at what led up to the events—even anger at the kind of thinking that kept new and humane ideas from being implemented. Frankly, at that time there was no real training for correctional officers—those who deal daily with anti-social, incarcerated people. There was no effective classification system for separating serious criminals, as there is now. Pre-riot, there was dormitory housing wherein the residents were really in charge. Meals were taken in a large cafeteria setting. Both of these circumstances offered chances for scheming and planning.
Now there is a pod system that has people with similar threat-level classification housed 30-40 people in 2-person rooms. Food is distributed to the pods as well as medications. Closed circuit cameras are now in place. Doors to the pods do not open directly to the corridors. All employed personnel carry radios. These changes were slow coming, mostly facilitated by lawsuits, resulting in consent decrees agreed to by management to ensure more safety for all. When I was hired, there was a scramble to find housing for survivors of the debacle and new hires to fill vacated positions at the facility.
Not only was there no structured pre-employment training, but there was also no designated training facility. The first priority for Dr. West, the new Director of Education (and my boss) was to create not only training for new line staff but a building to house the same. Further, training personnel had to be hired. Having some hands-on construction experience, I was drafted for both jobs.
An empty warehouse building off of Old Santa Fe Trail was secured. Without identified labor nor much of a budget, I was assigned a correctional officer [CO] (who also knew something about construction) and four inmate trustees. These were low-threat, convicted felons who were housed outside of the main facility. They performed menial tasks with minimal management. Juan, the CO assigned to transport and manage my inmate crew, was pretty easygoing.
The workers were happy to be off of the penitentiary property, earning twenty-five cents an hour. In a couple of months, we did a good job of erecting walls and installing restrooms, locker facilities, and a physical training area. After about a month of getting comfortable with each other, I asked several crew members about the riot. None were willing to say anything. Not surprisingly, “snitches” (those who tattled or “ratted” others out to management) were tortured mercilessly to death during the murderous melee. I understood their hesitation in this matter. Flexibility was called for on my part as I often had to get lunches and soft drinks for the crew members. While I was acting as construction manager, I was also working part-time at a desk creating training programs for future correctional officers.
The Corrections Department had a new director brought in from Montana who seemed to be all business, having many issues with which to deal: housing for inmates who survived the riot, publicity, budget, lawsuits, and programming to circumvent that contributed to pre-riot conditions. Our temporary offices were right off the Santa Fe Plaza.
Since I was new to the Land of Enchantment, I had no idea how blessed I was to be at the center of a tri-cultured world. Not only that, but a newly hired co-worker opened a significant door to another world for me. He was a turban-wearing Sikh.
Never having met someone who looked like him, I was fascinated by his long red beard and clear blue eyes that seemed to look through to the back of my skull. We became fast friends.
In the ‘80s, Santa Fe was known for its “Airy-fairy mystical woo-woo” image: Mysticism, New-Age spirituality, East Indian religions, Native American rituals, and Mexican Shaman writings. Immersed like a tea bag, I got to partake in many of these, starting with Kundalini yoga taught by my friend Guru Jagat Singh Khalsa. He had a very gentle, peaceful way about him, but he told me several stories about defending a center in Los Angeles from an armed attack. He had a warrior spirit for sure. One of his classes was Stress Management which included a variation of meditation. That’s where I got hooked on sitting quietly, which fascinated me. He also took me to Española, NM to meet Yogi Bhajan who was the leader of the Sikh religion in the Western world. We also rafted the Rio Grande River through the Taos Box. I got to meet his family and participate in his community. Looking back, I can see that with his friendly guidance, the spiritual seeds that were planted in my childhood came to blossom. For that, I am very grateful. My profession was not the only bringer of fresh ideas.
Non-work time was spent with newly made friends who kept opening the steel trap door of my mind. One evening I went to an alternative music concert with a woman friend where a solo performer played cymbals suspended by wires, metal cylinders, and Tibetan pieces that sounded like gongs. Leaving the intimate venue, I overheard someone say, “That rearranged my DNA.” Of course, alcohol and other intoxicants did their part, and my crowd loved to party-hearty.
One member of the group confided that she had recently completed a two-weekend long seminar designed to radically alter one’s life. Shortly thereafter I enrolled in the “Est Training” which was presented in Phoenix, AZ. I received a scholarship because I worked for the Corrections Department. She was right! That impacted me enough to consider myself reborn.
Memories of that experience have stayed with me as I incorporated some of the techniques into my own training classes. A few years later, my next job was, in fact, as a Professional Management Trainer for a company based in Chicago. Another experience while in Santa Fe was a lecture I attended by Lama Dorje, a Buddhist monk. What he said moved me. It was so different from the religious messages of my youth.
Being born into a Catholic family, eight years of religious elementary education, and four years of an all-male Catholic high school (taught by priests) had all formed a way of thinking that really could not answer my questions about “God.” Nor did my searching, through various experiences, satisfy a yearning for spiritual satisfaction. From that time on I started reading literature based on Eastern thinking and studied Shamanism.
My tolerance for the philosophy of controlling others and locking people up had left me. During my three years of employment, two more correctional officers were murdered. Having known both of them, I could no longer continue in the job.
Something had changed in me. For a while, I did professional management training in Santa Fe as contract work, then moved to Albuquerque. There, I worked in substance abuse treatment, completed a graduate degree at UNM, and became licensed as a Social Worker and Alcohol Counselor. My work took me to the Eight Northern Pueblos, Navajo Nation, as well as Apache Reservations. However, Corrections was in my blood. Years passed as I worked on psyche teams in prisons around New Mexico. Finally, I ended up at the Bernalillo County jail called Metropolitan Detention Center. Collaborating with psychiatrists, I was on a Psyche team assigned to interview prisoners who were asking for therapeutic interventions, mainly prescriptions to deal with drug withdrawals. By then I had stopped alcohol and other intoxicants, so my conversations with detainees were more well-informed.
I spoke from a personal as well as a professional perspective. I had developed compassion for those suffering incarceration. Our team delivered group information sessions for those locked-down 24 hours in their units, called Segregation. One such pod was specifically for those diagnosed with mental disorders that resulted in criminal offenses.
One afternoon I was in a room on such a pod with a dozen men shackled at the wrists and ankles, then anchored to the walls. That’s seemingly safe, right? Not so, as one person accused of a double homicide slipped out of a handcuff. Standing next to me, he hit me with his fist on my right cheek sending me to the floor. Still conscious, I touched my jaw, seeing blood in my right hand. Correctional Officers outside of the door rushed in, subduing him quickly. A loud buzzer went off and the facility went into lockdown immediately. Within minutes, the nurses from the on-site medical unit arrived in a golf cart. I remember one woman coming to me, asking how I was. I said, “Can we go out for coffee after this?” She yelled to the others, “He’s fine.” I really wasn’t. It had been a long time since I had been clobbered like that. Later the attacker said that the voices told him to hit me.
After a visit to an outside ER, I was given time off. I never went back to the jail. It took me nine months of Workman’s Comp with intermittent therapy to get through that assault. Being 65 by then, I decided that I’d had enough of trying to help people who would hit me. That ended my Corrections career. No lawyer would take my case as I think it was considered “small potatoes,” so I retired.
My experience of that assault inside was minimal compared to the victims, family members, witnesses, or participants in the 1980 riot. I can only imagine the suffering I would read about if one of them were to write their story.
PS: Upon completing this essay, I found myself sitting quietly, reflecting on more than half of a lifetime in New Mexico. “What a long, strange trip,” as Jerry Garcia once said. Indeed, this beautiful landscape, history, cultural influence, and widely differing perspectives have influenced me tremendously. Not unlike many travelers who visit this state, I asked myself, “Why am I on vacation when I could live here?” Lew Wallace, governor of the New Mexico Territory (1878-1881) and author of the historical novel Ben Hur, is considered to have said, “Lessons learned elsewhere do not fit in New Mexico.” That sums it up for me.
By: Michael Ferguson
For more information on the NM State Penitentiary Riot itself, consider reading:
THE HATE FACTORY, A first-hand account of the 1980 Riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico;
By Georgelle Hirliman; based on interviews with inmate W.G. Stone