Of all the questions to rise from the blackened debris and blood-smeared chambers of the February 1980 New Mexico prison riot, none would be more haunting than the uncertainty about how many men actually died during the horror.
To a shocked public, state officials were quick to insist that the toll went no higher than 33, still less than the 43 guards and prisoners who died when state troopers stormed Attica prison in New York state in 1971, and thus leaving Attica the gruesome distinction as the most lethal penitentiary uprising in American history.
Yet almost immediately after the Santa Fe riot, there were gathering rumors and eyewitness reports of more—in some accounts, many more—than 33 victims.
Numerous inmates told of seeing "stacks" of corpses in the burning prison gymnasium where only three bodies were officially discovered. Other prisoners swore that they had counted as many as 40 or 50 dead men in the corridors and cellblocks. Some survivors specifically recalled seeing in the basement of Cellblock 5 an older inmate's body, which was never recorded.
Nor were the inmates the only witnesses to doubt the swiftly announced official casualty figures.
Corrections officers and others who re-entered the pen as the inmates surrendered would later contend that they too had seen more than 33 corpses. One Corrections Department official told team reporters that while he was visiting the prison two days after the uprising, he had watched one inmate die in the yard as a result of riot wounds; yet the death was never reported.
Nonetheless, state authorities continued to assure the public that only 33 had died, curtly dismissing any contradictory reports as the result, as one official put it, of "emotion distress."
If men were missing, relatives would be calling, and the calls had stopped, Gov. King explained in a standard response to questioners, ignoring the fact that perhaps only half the inmates in the pen at any one time have any contact with families or others outside.
In any case, officials insisted that the proof of the number dead was in the living, and that all other men in the prison during the riot had been duly identified.
"We are satisfied that all have been accounted for," vouched Warden Jerry Griffin on Feb. 17, 1980, exactly two weeks after the riot.
This year marks SFR’s 40th anniversary. Celebrate with us by reading excerpts of stories that have graced our pages through the years. A former inmate just asked for access to look for proof of torture in pen areas closed to the public.