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What a Riot!

New Mexico governor's prison break revelation turns out to be phony. Now he can't escape the political damage.


New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) held a press conference in February to announce a major achievement: Acting on an informant’s tip, his administration had stopped a mass riot and breakout at the crumbling Prison of New Mexico (PNM). The governor claimed that prisoners had dug a tunnel for their escape and had even built a fully equipped kitchen in the prison administration building basement to feed the rioters.

Corrections officers and AFSCME leaders knew better.

"It should have been obvious to anyone who looked at the video shown on all the TV news that this entire thing stunk to high heaven," recalls Council 18 Rep. John LaBombard, a former CO at the prison. "Either the governor was going to come clean and say he was given bad information, or I was going to climb out on that limb and try to set things straight."

Johnson has made New Mexico’s prisons a pet project of his administration — and he has not been a friend of COs.

COs have been working double and triple shifts since Johnson banned hiring replacements for retiring officers at PNM which is scheduled to be closed for good in October. Overtime is mandatory and COs can be disciplined or even terminated if they refuse to accept it.

"Our guys are walking zombies working two straight shifts," says Richard Hellein, president of the AFSCME Northern Sublocal of Local 3422 (Council 18). "After a week of working overtime every other night, you don’t think as clearly and you certainly don’t react as quickly."

POLITICAL PLOY. The governor also has launched a campaign to build two new prisons and to privatize the whole system, possibly putting COs out of work. But the governor so far has failed to convince the people of New Mexico or their state representatives that privatization is the answer.

LaBombard and other AFSCME members saw Johnson’s great escape story as a ploy to scare the public into supporting his prison policies. The day after the governor’s news conference they called the press with their own explanation.

"I call the whole thing a hoax to induce the legislature to pass what Johnson wants for the prisons," LaBombard told reporters. "I can’t think of any other reason for this."

Within hours, several key state legislators announced they would tour the prison to have a firsthand look at the alleged escape route.

The legislators crawled through the "escape tunnel" and toured the secret kitchen.

"That’s just what you would need in an escape: a waffle iron," quipped state Sen. Manny Aragon (D-Albuquerque) as he stood in the kitchen.

There were other holes in the story, too. How could the inmates smuggle a full-sized refrigerator and commercial hot table into the prison? Why would they have ended their tunnel in front of the main parking lot, providing no cover for their escape? And why did the governor’s display of prisoner-made knives include one that had been confiscated nearly two years earlier?

"Seeing that old shiv [knife] there made me wonder just how long they had been holding this story in reserve," Hellein says. "I think the governor was hanging on to this until he could use it to push the legislature to finally approve funds for two new jails."

THE FALLOUT. Johnson’s plan worked — to an extent. The legislature gave him $500,000 in an emergency hearing to send 256 inmates to an Arizona prison to ease overcrowding. But in an indication of Johnson’s declining credibility with the state legislature, his nominee for corrections secretary, Dona Wilpolt, was re-jected by the state senate. Johnson immediately named her a "special consultant" to the Department of Corrections and kept her on the state payroll.

Johnson, however, is as determined as ever to push through his plan to privatize the prisons. The governor asserts that with the second-highest per-prisoner cost in the nation, privatization is the only way to lower personnel costs and reduce expenses.

AFSCME Local President Hellein says the average $10-an-hour wage earned by New Mexico COs would be cut in half by private firms. "Most of us are barely making ends meet as it is," he says.

"The bottom line is the governor isn’t comparing apples with apples," said CO Martin Clay. "The private firms said they can provide housing for our inmates for less than $79 per day. But all they included in their bid was room and board — no other costs like education, medical care and job training."

"It’s that kind of deception that we’re bringing to light, as a union, to show this has all been a first-class farce," LaBombard says. "We’ll keep working until we win, and/or this guy leaves the statehouse and goes back to his construction company."

Speaking of deception, if the secret tunnel wasn’t an escape route, what was it?

"It looks like a crawl space and that’s what it is: a utility access route to install and service the plumbing pipe it follows," LaBombard explains.

And the basement kitchen?

COs use it during breaks.

By Daniel Guido

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