36 Hours, 30 Years Later: One National Guardswoman's Account of the 1980 Prison Riot

To get a better idea of what veterans from the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in Santa Fe are going through, read the following account of the incident written by Mary Racicot, then a medic in the National Guard.


WARNING: Some of the scenes described below contain graphic violence.

Mary Racicot

744th Med. Det., New Mexico National Guard

On the morning of Feb. 2, 1980 our medical Det. 744th MASH was in formation for drill. Our commander told us we were going to Santa Fe N.M. and to load all of our field emergency medical supplies. On the drive up we stopped a few times so that our commander, Major [James] Buckman, could communicate with Gov. Bruce King. Finally we were given orders to go to the Santa Fe penitentiary, the inmates were rioting.

By the time we arrived the riot was in full swing. For us it was the beginning of a brutal holocaust. We could smell a very acrid smoke coming from the gym. The murderous "ring leaders" had piled the dead tortured bodies from the previous night of carnage in the middle of the gym floor and set fire to it. Another smell was that of burned wet wool. The inmates that were coming out of the prison to us were wrapped in wet wool blank[et]s to keep from being burned and/or smoke inhalation.

I was in charge of three Pvt's just out of basic and three specialist, all of whom were young and new to our unit. The rest of the unit were prior Reg Army from the Viet Nam era. We had in one way or another experienced the wounded and burned GI's from the war. So we pretty much knew we were smelling burned bodies. The new personnel were pretty na%uFFFDve to it.

The prison riot was much worse than anyone had experienced before. One officer who had done a tour in Nam said "the horror in Nam doesn't come close to what we are seeing here."

The first person we helped treat was one of the tortured guards the inmates had held hostage all night. When they finally let him out he was all beaten, broken, raped and terrorized beyond belief. Throughout the day we treated violated and terrorized prisoners and guards.

I saw one prisoner slowly die in the "holding cage." That is where the "ring leaders" would hold an injured and/or dying inmate until they felt he was near death and ready to come through to us. The "ring leaders" said on this occasion they just wanted to watch my reaction as I watched the prisoner expire in front of me and couldn't do anything about it. The killers seemed inhuman to me.

We have anyone who came out on a stretcher an IV and an IV medication that counteracts a narcotic overdose. One inmate did respond to the drug and came off the stretcher kicking and hitting me and everyone else around him.

Saturday night was the hardest for me. I was put on body detail in a well lighted corner of the front lawn. As the bodies were brought to me on stretchers, my job was to get the body from the stretcher into the body-bags, without tearing the bag. Then they were to be identified and tagged properly. The most difficult one for me was an inmate that had had a blow-torch to his face and groin. When I went to move him from the stretcher his tissue was still melting. It went through my fingers and onto the ground. I set him aside for identification but by the time I was done with all the rest of the bodies I turned and that burned, torched inmate had vanished. To this day I do not know where he went. I will never forget the terror on the faces of the dead that I dealt with that night.

From body detail I was responsible for cleaning off the stretchers the dead bodies had been on. We took them to a dark corner of the yard that had a water hose. In washing them off in the dark I could feel body parts & blood clots washing to the ground. The next morning I could see those body parts, tissues and blood clots frozen to the ground. The stacked stretchers were frozen with blood that had soaked into the material.

Throughout the night we could hear screams from inside the cell blocks. We could see inmates trying to escape—then see the "ring leaders" chase them back into their cells and light the cell on fire. The screaming would get louder and louder.

On Sunday morning, just before sun up there were a large number of inmates crawling toward [the] fence to us. They had made it through a second night of carnage and somehow made it out of their cell blocks.

These inmates told us of all the dead bodies that were under water from the broken sewage system still inside the cell blocks. They also said there were bodies hanging from the railings. Our commander and male nurse went inside Sunday afternoon to see if there were any living inmates in need of help. They said it was "indescribable."

The last stretcher that I remember coming out to us was a decapitation. The head, that had been hacked off, was put between his legs with his penis in his mouth. The sexual torture at this riot was horrific. We tried to keep the newer people in the unit oblivious to this, but it was so very blatant. I know one of our specialist[s], Donna Anderson, suffered for 22 years with her experiences of the riot. She died in 2002 at the age of 44.

At the time of the riot, I was raising two little children by myself. After the riot I felt I couldn't have any problems or repercussions from the riot interfering with my day to day responsibilities. I wasn't going to let that happen. But over the next few years it did catch up to me in a very destructive way. It did manifest into several problems that not only impacted and ruined my life, it also affected my childrens lives.

Thank you

Mary Racicot

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