Tuesday, May 24, 2005


The penitentiary riot that resulted in the deaths of thirty-three (33) inmates occurred on February 2, 1980. Numerous lawsuits arose from the deaths and injuries suffered by the inmates. Many of the cases were dismissed because the prisoners did not diligently prosecute their cases, or they failed to cooperate in the pretrial discovery process. Many cases were settled, including wrongful death cases. The estates of deceased prisoners were paid from $4,200 to $37,200, with most settlements at about $15,000. The State paid 60% and the insurance companies for the architect, contractor, and glass company paid the remainder.

One case was filed in 1991, but most were settled within a few years of the 1980 riot. The three-year statute of limitations expired in February, 1983. The information as to how much was paid each claimant in the various settlements was kept secret until June, 1995.

On June 28, 1993, after the Risk Management Division of the General Services Department of the State of New Mexico had been sued for withholding the information in the riot case suits and settlements, the attorney for Risk Management explained in a letter:

“Dear Mr. Love: * * *
You asked why the Risk Management Division (“RMD”) believes that the pendency of the Martinez lawsuit renders the settlement papers of all of the other penitentiary riot lawsuits confidential. The answer is found in NMSA 1978, §15-7-9(A)(2)(b). That section provides that RMD records shall be confidential for six months beyond ‘the date all litigation involving the claim and the occurrence giving rise thereto has been brought to final judgment and all appeals and rights to appeal have been exhausted.’ (Emphasis added.)

“RMD’s position is that the penitentiary riot was a single occurrence. Folz v. State, 110 N.M. 457, 797 P.2d 246 (1990). Therefore, all of the files must be kept confidential during the pendency of this lawsuit and for six moths thereafter.

“As I have indicated to you already, RMD is willing to provide you with the opportunity to inspect and copy riot lawsuit materials once the materials becomes [sic] public. Therefore, I sincerely hope that you can be persuaded to dismiss your lawsuit at this time.”

The Martinez case was filed in 1991. That was eleven years after the riot and the case was clearly barred by limitations, as the Courts ultimately ruled. Then in 1993, another prisoner wrote a letter claim to Risk Management, seeking damages for injuries suffered in the riot. Risk Management delayed disclosure further on the basis of that letter, although it would seem clear that the Legislature never intended such result. That is, the Legislature surely did not intend that the amount of the settlements in the few years following the riot, would remain secret from the public for 15 years, based on frivolous claims dribbling in in the 1990's.

The secrecy allowed the State and the insurance companies for the other defendants to buy up the claims of all the prisoners, dead and surviving, for $433,039.26 from the State, at a cost of $1.5 million in attorney fees for law firms hired by the State to defend the litigation.

The State and the inmates had a claim against the architect, contractor and glass company, based on the allegation that the wrong kind of glass was installed at the control room. Instead of a few prisoners being at liberty but confined in a small area, the whole penitentiary was opened to the most hardened of the inmates after one broke the glass to the control room with three blows with a fire extinguisher.

The report of these matters is dated June 19, 1995. It is styled REPORT ON THE DEFENSE OF THE CIVIL LITIGATION RESULTING FROM THE 1980 RIOT AT THE NEW MEXICO PENITENTIARY. It was released by Governor Gary Johnson, and thereafter the information as to the amounts paid out in settlement was public record.