The Devil’s Butcher Shop, by Roger Morris

The Devil's Butcher Shop

I came to The Devil’s Butcher Shop with a certain trepidation. Partly that’s because the subject matter itself is so horrific—the 1980 New Mexico prison riot where so many people were tortured and murdered—but for more personal reasons as well.

I volunteered for several years at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington—participating in a weekly social group with other volunteers and inmates—where I experienced a lot of emotional highs and lows. One of the lows was an evening we showed a documentary on this prison riot. I remember almost nothing about the documentary itself—in fact, I think I was in and out of the room talking with some of the guys across the hall and such, and so wasn’t even paying attention to it—but what I do remember is some of the reactions from the guys.

At any mention of the atrocities, there were laughs and hoots of approval. Just vicious “Serves ’em right!” “About damn time!” kind of stuff. The one person I remember mildly challenging on it responded with a ranting, defiant justification of hating and torturing the kind of people who were killed in that riot.

And I’m not saying by any means that every prisoner in the room enthusiastically agreed with the torture and murder. But enough did—and in that chilling kind of overly emotional way that signals when a person is beyond being able to respond rationally to a situation or argument—that I’ve always thought of that as one of the creepiest moments I experienced in the prison. It was a side of the guys that they rarely showed us—not necessarily from motives of deception, but just because our meetings typically weren’t the sort of occasion that triggered it.

But that side existed in them—some of them—and seeing it was a reminder of the ugliness there can be in the human heart. Even people I, for the most part, liked and thought well of were capable of being exhilarated by the notion of committing the most heinous atrocities on people they hated because they perceived them as falling into certain categories.

I felt a loss of connection with the guys that evening.

This book did indeed bring back some of the negative emotions I remember from that evening. But it absolutely should be upsetting to anyone, regardless of whether they happen to have some personal connection with prison issues.

The Washington State Reformatory—at least when I was there; it was somewhat different before and after—really was pretty darn good, as prisons go. Naturally there were issues, but conditions weren’t all that horrible, there were elements of respect between the prisoners and the staff that aren’t present in most prisons, it was not nearly as unsafe as prisons can be, and there were somewhat liberal policies about allowing interaction with the outside world (visitors, volunteers, private industry employers).

As depicted in this book, the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe is an absolute hell hole, the worst kind of prison you hear about and pray the accounts are exaggerated and sensationalized.

The author does a thorough job of describing the history of the New Mexico prison system and this facility in particular, the jaw-dropping degree of political corruption surrounding it and the efforts to use the legal system to reform it, the ominous clues to the impending riot, and the depressing return-to-business-as-usual aftermath of the riot.

And he provides a good blow-by-blow account of the riot itself. Almost too good in fact, in that he has a lot of details that presumably could only have come from one or a small number of witnesses of questionable reliability. So as far as the details are concerned, it’s probably best to read that section as “Here’s what there’s a decent chance happened,” “Here’s the version of this incident that seemed most plausible of the conflicting versions that came out,” etc.

But in broader terms, I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his account of the riot and its atrocities.

It is a vivid, horrifying depiction of brutal, ugly inhumanity.

The author writes in a tone of righteous anger. But not just about the riot itself. As I say, he provides a great deal of context for the story, and as unflinching as he is in describing the rioters at their worst, he is at least as condemnatory of the powers that be that spent years and decades creating the conditions that led up to it, and that inflicted the day-to-day injustice, brutality and torture that didn’t draw as much attention because they didn’t all occur at one time in an explosion of fury.

A few things of note that stuck with me:

Racism is a significant factor in the evils that take place in the prison, but not always in the way one might expect. Most staff positions are poorly paid and some are dangerous, so they almost all go to Latinos. The Latino guards then abuse prisoners according to race, but if anything the people they brutalize the most are other Latinos. As the author says, that can be one of the perverse results of racism, that the people from an oppressed group who’ve made it a rung or two up the ladder turn their rage not on their oppressors but on those of their own group who are still at the bottom.

As the prisoners used to tell me when I was a volunteer, at the worst prisons the guards function as just another prison gang, except that they have better weapons and get to go home at night. That’s clearly true at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. Not as a bit of hyperbole, but literally. Their ruthlessness, greed, penchant for violence, etc. are indistinguishable from the sort of prison gangs that society condemns as pure evil.

As I observed as a volunteer, prisoners can be really, really dumb and easily manipulable if the authorities push their buttons. If the guards at this prison want someone killed, or they want to destroy the reputation of someone who might be a threat to them down the road, they simply spread the word that the guy has cooperated with them and ratted on his fellow prisoners.

Or a lot of times it’s not even about getting the guy killed because he’s an enemy of some sort. The guards (and prisoners themselves sometimes) pick out prisoners who, say, are not poor and thus can be expected to have people on the outside who are willing and able to pay to keep them alive. Instead of, or in addition to, threatening direct violence, they threaten to leak the rumor that the prisoner is a rat if he does not get his family to pauperize themselves to pay the extortion money.

Prisoners react so viscerally and so furiously to the phenomenon of ratting (and to certain types of sex crimes, especially against children) that the mere suggestion of it sets them off. So there’s no skepticism about such a rumor, no “innocent until proven guilty.” Instead there’s a “zero tolerance” policy of attacking anyone who even might fall into such a category.

So no matter how transparent that ruse on the part of the guards is, prisoners fall for it every time. It’s very easy to get them to turn on each other.

Some of the falsely accused prisoners escape the fury of their fellow prisoners in such cases by going into protective custody. But of course that’s where the bulk of the casualties came from in the riot. Once the prisoners gained access to the protective custody area, they indiscriminately tortured and massacred folks both innocent and guilty of ratting and sex crimes and such, just because they were there.

(Devil’s advocate time. There’s no legitimate defense of the prisoners’ willingness to be duped to serve the interests of the guards, but here’s the best explanation I’ve heard of the other side of the argument from prisoners I know:

Yes, accusations of that kind can be bogus. But the key in interpreting them is seeing how the accused responds. If a guy is weak and accepts what’s being said about him without a fight, especially if he checks himself into protective custody in response to it, then he’s likely guilty, or at the very least he’s a coward and not worthy of being excepted from the wrath unleashed on rats and others at the bottom of the totem pole. On the other hand, if he reacts with angry denials and uses violence against anyone who dares repeat such rumors in his presence, then he’s likely innocent, or at the very least worthy of the respect and wariness due those who are willing to stand up for themselves.

So if the guards or whoever say such things about you, and you grab someone involved in spreading the rumor and beat him within an inch of his life, you may be able to save your reputation after all and not be killed for being a rat.

And that’s just part of life in prison, at least the very bad prisons. You’re always having to fight to maintain your status, whether for just or unjust reasons.)

An important factor in the riot is that one of the first things the prisoners did was to ransack the infirmary and grab all the drugs. It was kid-in-a-candy-store time at that point. From the author’s account, it sounds like it wasn’t a matter of just a few of the prisoners—the ones who happened to get there first, the addicts, whatever—who overindulged, but just about every prisoner involved in the riot.

So the things they did, the decisions they made, everything was greatly affected by their being stoned out of their minds. And especially as time passed, large numbers of them were physically very sick from overdoing all the drugs. One of the main reasons so many eventually stumbled out to the perimeter to give themselves up is that they were deathly ill.

Some people, especially those trying to distract attention away from the horrific conditions in the prison that could create such rage in people, attributed the atrocities in large part precisely to prisoners being crazy and out of control due to the drugs.

The author gives this explanation short shrift, noting that if anything the drug use probably had a net lessening effect on the violence, since the drugs left more people in a useless hazy stupor than in some sort of maniacal state.

I’m not so sure though. I don’t think you can do the math that way. If I slip something into the water supply at work, and it turns 90% of the people into stoned zombies and turns 10% of the people into homicidal lunatics, there will be a lot more havoc than there would have otherwise been on this work day, even though 90% is greater than 10%.

Which is not to say that the author is wrong to point the finger at the psychological damage done by torturing people and forcing them to live in conditions of unimaginable brutality and injustice for years on end, but he may be a little too quick to dismiss other contributing factors to the mayhem.

I didn’t talk frequently with the prisoners I knew about prison riots specifically, but it came up occasionally. Some had been in one—though never as bad as this one certainly—and they noted that it can be genuinely scary to even the most seasoned con, because when restraints are that fully thrown off, and people are in that much of a frenzy, even the little bit of what passes for order in a prison is in jeopardy, and people can’t be relied on to follow the hierarchical rules and customs and such that are normally in place.

I thought about that as I read this account. Certainly the violence wasn’t a hundred percent random. There was at least some correlation between pre-existing grievances and who was attacked. The protective custody prisoners were brutally tortured and murdered at high rates. The guards were beaten and at times gang raped. But that wasn’t all of it.

There were also people settling individual scores, seeking out their enemies in the confusion. There were incidents of people beating, raping or murdering whoever happened to be in their path, for no particular reason except that they could.

By the end, when the adrenaline was wearing off, when some of the drugs were wearing off, according to the author even the prisoners at the top of the food chain were scared and ready for this to stop. Even they moved in packs and knew they were vulnerable in a world where your reputation didn’t have the usual effectiveness in pre-empting violence from lesser prisoners. Not when people were getting away with anything and everything, hopped up on drugs, unable to think straight or put any restraints on themselves.

Some of the vivid anecdotes from the riot are the stuff of nightmares. The unit that housed the protective custody prisoners took several hours to break into, and during that whole time, those inside were yelling and pleading with the authorities to save them. But no help was forthcoming from those on the perimeter hearing their screams for all that time, as they feared any move to retake the prison would result in hostage guards being killed. Better that dozens of prisoners be predictably tortured and killed than that any guards be placed in a more hazardous position.

Once the rioting prisoners were in the unit, a few of the cell doors jammed when they tried to open them electronically, meaning those prisoners had even more minutes or hours to contemplate their fate. In most cases, the rioters managed to break into those cells and massacre those prisoners the same as the others. In at least one case they got frustrated at how long it was taking and simply doused the prisoner with flammable liquid through the bars and roasted him in his cell. In at least one other case, where there were multiple people in a cell, there was so much smoke and confusion that an intended victim was able to slip out and get lost in the crowd while his cellmate was beaten to death. There were also rare cases where the rioters never followed through to break into the cells, and those prisoners miraculously survived, after days of shivering in terror in their cells.

One surviving victim remarked how amazing it was that some of the most enthusiastic rape was going on at the height of the murders. You can say rape is a crime of violence and not sex all you want, but somehow these guys were sexually aroused enough to maintain an erection hearing the most horrific screams of the tortured, smelling the stench of burning human flesh, and standing in several inches of blood.

In part again because of the drugs, there was never more than the vaguest, most ad hoc leadership, organization, planning, etc.

The author points out that there were acts of heroism, albeit few and far between. People risked, and sometimes lost, their lives trying to protect their lovers, people they perceived as innocent, and guards. Indeed, the guards survived precisely because certain prisoners made great efforts to keep them alive. There was a vague sense that they’d be more useful as hostages, but in the mayhem they would have been killed anyway if certain prisoners hadn’t spirited them away to more secluded areas, negotiated with or threatened those who came to kill them, etc. Very early in the riots, some guards found a hiding place and never were found by the rioters; there’s some evidence this only happened because sympathetic prisoners unlocked a certain door and looked the other way while the guards sought out a suitable spot to hide.

Certainly prisoner medics did a great deal in keeping various victims alive, both prisoners and guards.

Eventually a settlement was negotiated, the hostages were released, and the prison was retaken, though by then the riot had largely petered out anyway. Whatever the authorities had agreed to they of course violated at will afterward. To the point that they turned to their old tricks and let the word out that the prisoner who had been enough of a de facto leader to do the negotiating had in fact cooperated with them and sold out his fellows.

One of the most surprising things about the riot is how uncertain are the casualty figures. The official figure that was eventually settled on was 33 dead, but the evidence indicates it was probably higher, possibly much higher.

But it’s bizarre that the records were so inexact, so nineteenth century. It sounds like a lot of it was just pen and paper jottings, much of which was destroyed in the riot. So there were no surviving records of precisely who was even supposed to be incarcerated at the prison.

Thus the calculations were happenstance, based on what body parts were found and how many bodies they probably added up to, who was missing that staff happened to remember, whom people on the outside inquired about, etc. (As to the last, only about 50% of the prisoners had anyone on the outside that they were in touch with, so that wasn’t the most reliable evidence to go by.)

No one really knows how many died, or even if anyone escaped in the confusion. Many prisoners live a life of anonymity, and evidently some died that way.

And there’s a lot of uncertainty over who was guilty of what in the riot. The state decided early whom they would prosecute, and ignored whatever evidence didn’t fit their preferences. So there was likely considerable disconnect between the crimes and the punishment, which was par for the course after all.

It’s almost too upsetting to even write about this, so I’ll stop here. Before, during, and after my experience as a prison volunteer I’ve believed that the U.S. prison system is an absolute disgrace and a human rights abomination. The Devil’s Butcher Shop merely added more evidence to push me in that direction.

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