SANTA FE, N.M. -- Recent violence at the riot-scarred Penitentiary of New Mexico has increased tension among inmates, but most consider the incidents a normal part of prison life rather than signs of an impending crisis.
State Corrections Department officials allowed two reporters to tour the prison for six hours Friday and speak freely with inmates about present conditions inside the institution.
Rumors of a crisis situation at the prison prompted the tour, designed to provide a chance to determine first hand the current situation behind the grey walls on a windswept mesa south of Santa Fe.
Within the past two weeks, one inmate has been murdered, two made an unsuccessful escape attempt, some 15 inmates took over a cellblock for almost an hour and another inmate was stabbed during a struggle in one of the dormitories.
While the murder of 30-year-old George Saavedra may have contributed to the overall tension, inmates would not link his death to the dormitory stabbing incident. Such things are a normal part of prison life, they said.
Grim reminders of the Feb. 2-3 riot, which left 33 inmates dead, scores more injured and caused millions of dollars of damage, still are evident.
The gymnasium, where some inmates met their death, is still a gutted shell. Located across the hall from the recently opened kitchen, it serves as agrim reminder of the carnage that took place during the nation's most savage prison uprising.
The kitchen was in full operation Friday, ending the almost 8-month meal-trucking service provided since the February riot by the New Mexico National Guard from its kitchen 10 miles north of the prison.
Inmate Armando Cordova, Jr., a legal assistant in the prison's law library, described the current tension level: 'On a scale of one to ten, I'd say about six,' he said. 'Five's about normal,' he added quickly.
The majority of the men denied that the prison was on the brink of another riot. One man did say, however, that a riot would occur within 90 days unless some changes were made soon.
Continuing problems include overcrowding, inconsistent procedures, guard harrassment and a lack of things to do. Living behind bars 24 hours a day magnifies even seemingly insignificant issues, the inmates said.
'There's always a certain level of tension at all times, mainly because the people are lying around doing nothing,' one inmate said. 'There's tension 24 hours a day, seven days a week.'
Referring to Saavedra's murder, the inmate said, 'Naturally that causes a lot of hard feelings; that in itself creates tension. I would think it's fading now.'
An inmate in Dormitory A-1 said the knifing incident there was caused by 'just being cooped up.' He and several other men said the cramped quarters in the dormitory, with only two showers and four sinks for the 57 men living there, grated on everyone's nerves and created tension.
'You got to do everybody else's time,' one man said, explaining the dormitory offered absolutely no privacy.
Acting Wadren Felix Rodriguez, who was not on the tour, said future plans call for individual cells for all inmates, which most of the men want.
When asked if changes in prison policy were apparent, most inmates responded negatively.
'They're trying to change, but they don't know how,' one man said.
Several of the inmates complained about broken windows and a lack of heating in the prison, remnants of the February melee.
Rodriguez said in about a week, crews would go from one end of the prison to the other, repairing and painting as needed.
He explained that many reconstruction projects were done on a priority basis, such as rebuilding the kitchen and hospital. Less important items will be finished soon, he said.
One inmate succinctly summed up life behind bars, when the deputy warden asked him how he was doing that day.
'I'm still here aren't I,' he responded. 'That should tell you something.'