CLAYTON, N.M. (KRQE) – “We don’t want to ever see something like this happen again,” says Northeast New Mexico Prison Warden Tim Hatch. He’s referring to a defining moment at the Clayton, NM prison on September 23, 2017.
It was just over three years ago, at 9:05 p.m., that Cellblock 3 exploded in chaos. A hostage was taken, inmate cell doors were unlocked as some of the most dangerous prisoners in New Mexico went on a rampage and took control. A subsequent investigation of the incident uncovered a host of sloppy and reckless security blunders. The Clayton Prison riot would be New Mexico’s largest inmate uprising in the last 20 years.
In 2017, the Clayton facility was a private prison operated by the Florida-based GEO group. The facility is designed to hold 625 medium-security inmates. Cellblock 3 is a Restrictive Housing Unit reserved for inmates who pose security threats.
On the evening of September 23, 2017, rookie Correctional Officer Matt Shriner patrolled Cellblock 3’s upper tier. His activity that night was captured on the prison’s security cameras. A few minutes after 9:00 p.m., Shriner is seen pausing at a locked cell. He reaches in the door slot and is handed contraband. The young guard surreptitiously passes the item to another inmate in an adjacent cell.
As Shriner continues to patrol the cellblock, he stops at cell 203, where cameras catch him chatting through a locked door with one of the most dangerous inmates in the entire prison system. Clifton Bloomfield is a notorious convicted serial killer serving multiple life terms after murdering five people in Albuquerque.
Shriner exchanges a few words with the convicted killer and then, in blatant disregard of security, unlocks Bloomfield’s cell door. Moments later, the inmate jumps Shriner and overpowers him with a sharpened toothbrush fashioned into a homemade weapon. Shriner is taken, hostage. Bloomfield grabs the guard’s keys and proceeds to unlock cell doors. Shriner is able to break away. He dashes down steps to the main level, retrieves his walkie talkie and runs for help.
With keys to the entire 40 man cellblock and no guards, the inmates take control. Cells doors are unlocked, and the prisoners go on a brutal rampage. The main entry door is barricaded. Some prisoners use their newfound freedom to settle scores. One inmate, a suspected informant, is assaulted in his cell, his throat slashed. Other inmates disable the prison’s surveillance cameras. They start a fire and trash the cellblock.
The prison’s Riot Response Team floods the cellblock with tear gas. Gradually, the security force is able to regain control of the facility. Inmates are rounded up, handcuffed, and escorted one by one to the prison’s day room. The inmate who was attacked by rioters was found unconscious in a pool of blood. Rescuers drag him out and call an ambulance. Ring leader Clifton Bloomfield was handcuffed, ushered out of the cellblock, and transferred to Maximum Security at the State Pen in Santa Fe. GEO Group Warden, Mark Bowen, refused public comment as the Correction’s Department launched an investigation.
So what went wrong?
“It was a disaster,” says Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli. Donatelli led the Public Defender’s Riot Defense Team following the 1980 Santa Fe prison uprising. “It’s hard to know where to start. There were so many security failures in the operation of that facility prior to that night (including) understaffing, the lack of training, the classification system that led to the placement of high profile violent offenders at a facility that wasn’t designed to house them,” Donatelli said.
Consider Clifton Bloomfield. The convicted serial killer was known throughout New Mexico’s prison system as a dangerous and disruptive inmate. One month before the riot, he attacked prisoner Steven Woods, nearly strangling him to death with a towel. Instead of transferring Bloomfield to a more secure facility, he was ordered to undergo counseling in the Predator Behavior Management Program.
Eleven days before the uprising, Warden Mark Bowen notified the prison staff about potential violence from Clifton Bloomfield. In a September 12, 2017 email titled ‘Threat from inmate Bloomfield,’ Warden Bowen said, “We received a (note) this morning stating inmate Bloomfield … wants to harm our staff. All of us know how dangerous this inmate is. Ensure that all precautions are used when dealing with this inmate. Ensure that a supervisor and a camera is present when his food tray slot or cell door is opened.” Days later, in total disregard for security or staff safety, Bloomfield was let out of his cell, where he overpowered his guard and orchestrated the prison riot.
And then there’s Matt Shriner. On the evening of the uprising, the 23-year-old Shriner was the only Correctional Officer on duty in Cellblock 3. When he unlocked Clifton Bloomfield’s cell door, he carried the keys to every cell in the unit. “An inexperienced rookie officer with very little training was sent into the most dangerous, secure part of the facility without backup, without a radio,” attorney Mark Donatelli says. “The officer was compromised by a prisoner who was able to take his keys away, opened everybody’s cell in that unit, and it led to the takeover of that unit,” Donatelli said.
In an interview with Correction’s Department investigators, Shriner admitted passing notes for inmates. He said he couldn’t remember why he unlocked Bloomfield’s cell. A month after the riot, Shriner resigned and moved out of state.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the Northeast New Mexico Private Prison was understaffing. Correctional Officer vacancies at the GEO Group facility were dangerously inadequate. On September 23, 2017, 20 guards were required to secure the prison. That night, however, only nine were present. Over a two and half year period (May 2017-November 2019), the Department of Corrections fined the GEO Group’s Clayton facility $2,713,005 for failure to safely staff the prison.
“There was this arrangement between the state where GEO could simply pay a fine instead of safely staffing the prison that they were commissioned to operate,” Mark Donatelli said. “They were paying fines rather than finding staff, training them, and putting them in the positions that could have run that prison safely,” Donatelli said.
In November last year, the Department of Corrections severed ties with the Clayton, NM prison operator, GEO Group. The State of New Mexico took over management of the Northeast New Mexico prison and named Tim Hatch as its new Warden. “It was very serious,” Warden Hatch says about the 2017 inmate uprising. “It’s a situation that some people will work an entire career and never experience,” Warden Hatch said.
“We have put together a plan that if this ever happened again, we would be able to defeat it quickly,” Warden Hatch says. “If we have an inmate that we would consider threatening the staff, we would make sure that door is marked, and staff knows do not open that door without at least two staff members, a supervisor, and a video camera. We no longer allow keys down into the housing unit. All doors are opened (remotely) through Master Control,” Hatch said.
The 50-year-old Bloomfield is the subject of a ten count Criminal Information filed by the Union County District Attorney in January last year. In connection to the Clayton uprising, Bloomfield is charged with multiple crimes, including Kidnapping, Conspiracy To Commit Murder, Assault, Battery On A Peace Officer, Arson, and Criminal Damage To Property. The convicted serial killer also faces Attempted Murder charges relating to the assault on inmate Steven Woods prior to the riot. Both cases are pending.
Following the September 2017 incident, former Correctional Officer Matt Shriner was charged with Unlawful Rescue of Convicted Capital Offender and Assisting Escape. Earlier this year, the Union County D.A. dismissed the case saying there was insufficient evidence to prove intent on Shriner’s part. The former prison guard lives out of state and did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, inmate Samuel Sanchez, who was seriously injured by other prisoners during the Clayton riot, filed a negligence lawsuit naming the GEO Group and the Correction’s Department as defendants. That case is pending.
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