HOBBS, N.M. (KRQE) – “This is a highly unusual and extremely dangerous situation,” says Santa Fe Attorney Mark Donatelli. “My primary concern here is that there’s there was clearly a breakdown on this day,” Secretary of Corrections Alisha Tafoya Lucero says.

They are referring to a ‘major force incident’ last November at the privately run prison in Hobbs. Take a look at the security camera video from that day about dinner time. You will see inmates milling around the common area. Some are finishing their meal, and others are chatting. Fast forward just one hour, and you become an eyewitness to chaos. A full-blown inmate uprising. A riot.

Officially, the Corrections Department goes to great lengths to keep the Hobbs prison riot under wraps. There have been no public statements, no press conferences, and no news releases. In fact, Adult Prisons Director Gary Maciel downplays what happened. “This (was) not a very serious incident. It was something that was able to be handled relatively quickly,” Maciel says.

However, internal documents and security video obtained through a public records request by KRQE News 13 tell a different story. “It’s an issue of public safety, pure and simple,” says Mark Donatelli. Donatelli is an expert on prison operations. He led the Public Defender’s Riot Defense Team following the 1980 State Pen uprising. “By definition, prisons are supposed to keep those inside under control. They lost control of an entire unit with 35 intoxicated prisoners for three hours. That’s not the way state prisons are operated,” Donatelli tells News 13.

The Lea County Correctional Facility is a medium-security private prison operated by the Florida based GEO Group. On November 2, 2020, in Cellblock (Pod) 4-A at 5:33 p.m., Correctional Officers ordered inmates to return to their assigned cells for a count. Tensions rose after prisoners refused repeated directives to lockdown. Inmates attempted to negotiate with prison staff to remain out of their cells. Some prisoners were visibly drunk from a supply of homemade alcohol (hooch). After inmates refused commands to “lockdown,” they gathered in the pod day room, barricaded doors, and took control of the cellblock.

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The prison’s Riot Response Team assembled outside the pod. In an effort to get the inmates to disperse, tear gas canisters were dropped from rooftop ports. However, the rampaging prisoners were able to neutralize the tear gas using trash cans filled with water and blankets. To minimize the effects of the tear gas, inmates moved the canisters to the shower area. Armed with homemade weapons, prisoners started a fire on the upper tier. They disabled the security camera, smashed fire protection sprinkler heads, and destroyed cellblock furnishings.

A second round of tear gas also proved to be ineffective. The prison security force escalated the response using Pepper Ball and Stinger grenades fired through ports in the side walls of the pod. Three hours into the confrontation, the prison security force regained control of the cellblock.

A few injuries were reported, including one inmate found unconscious in his cell. The Corrections Department launched an investigation focusing on the GEO Group’s handling of the riot.

“This incident absolutely could have been prevented,” says Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero. She says things went wrong long before the inmates went on a rampage. She blames GEO Group Supervisors for failing to effectively communicate with the inmates. “(The inmates) were frustrated, and they did not know what was going on. And nobody went and took the time to just talk with them and share with them what was going on in the facility,” Secretary Tafoya Lucero says.

“Use of force should be a last resort after all confrontation avoidance means are exhausted,” attorney Mark Donatelli said. “That didn’t happen in this case. Even the Corrections Department’s own investigation determined that they did not adequately exhaust confrontation avoidance before using force,” Donatelli says.

There were other failures that night. For example, with only one security camera in the cellblock, much of the riot occurred in blind spots outside camera range. And even though inmates managed to disable the camera, investigators discovered it was not working properly that day. “The recording mechanism was not functioning properly,” Secretary Tafoya Lucero says. “The camera was working in live view, but it wasn’t fully working on the recording side. The Corrections Secretary calls the lack of a functional security camera “definitely disconcerting.”

The three-hour prison uprising was documented on handheld cameras operated by security staffers. That video was turned over to KRQE News 13 pursuant to a public records request.

Investigators also questioned the effectiveness of tear gas dropped from the roof. Inmates were able to hamper security efforts to regain control of the prison pod. Secretary Tafoya Lucero calls the lapse in security “a design flaw” in the Hobbs prison’s construction. “This is a situation where we are not the proprietors of the building. We can make those suggestions to (the GEO Group). But ultimately, we cannot force it unless we add language to our contract that specifically addresses those security flaws,” Secretary Tafoya Lucero says.

The Hobbs incident is not the first riot at a New Mexico private prison. Two years ago, at the prison operated by the GEO Group in Clayton, a guard was overpowered and taken hostage. Armed with keys to the cellblock, rioting inmates attacked other prisoners and destroyed property. The Corrections Department later took over the management of the Clayton lockup.

KRQE News 13 asked Mark Donatelli whether these things just happen in prisons where, every once in a while, prisoners get upset and take control of a cellblock? Donatelli’s response, “Not in well-run, safely staffed prisons, it doesn’t happen.”

Lea County Correctional Facility Warden Dwayne Santistevan did not return a phone call for comment.

During this year’s Legislative Session in Santa Fe, lawmakers are considering HB 40, which would cancel the contracts for all private prisons in New Mexico.