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Inmates rioted at county jail, barricaded on upper floor armed with broken porcelain shards

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times
Farmington firefighters prepare to leave the scene of a reported inmate riot at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center on July 13. There were no injuries reported as of 2 p.m. on July 13.

FARMINGTON — Regional law enforcement agencies and emergency medical and fire units responded in force to the San Juan County Adult Detention Center July 13 to quell a riot that led to damage inside the facility and one injury to an inmate.

Police scanner traffic indicated that 35 inmates donned makeshift body armor and barricaded themselves on the upper tier of the facility armed with shards of porcelain from broken plumbing fixtures.

Initial reports shortly after 11:30 a.m. indicated there was a structure fire, but units first to arrive on the scene reported that no smoke was observed. Monday afternoon, county spokesperson Devin Neeley clarified in a press release that fires were set in two prison housing areas during what Neeley termed a "disturbance" but not a riot.

A sprinkler system doused the fires.

The San Juan County Sheriff's Office described the incident as "contained" around 2 p.m.

One inmate was injured during the event, Neeley reported Monday afternoon, and was taken for medical care.

"At no time did detainees control any part of the facility. It is important to call this incident a disturbance, rather than a riot," Neeley said in the release.

A San Juan County Sheriff's Office deputy blocks access to the San Juan County Adult Detention Center on July 13 after authorities responded to a report of riot and fire in the facility.

Multiple agencies, including Farmington fire and police, New Mexico State Police and the San Juan County Fire Department, responded to the scene

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Scanner reports indicated that some detainees had wrapped books and magazines around their torsos for use as makeshift body armor, and some threw shards of porcelain.

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San Juan County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Jayme Harcrow said guards had been trying to de-escalate tension at the facility recently.

Neeley's press release said the jail staff tried to create a dialogue on July 12 as detainees met with officials and complained about a reduction in hot meals, and access to COVID-19 testing and test results.

"Detention Center staff are currently following New Mexico Department of Health guidance for testing," the release stated. "Only detainees who have previously tested negative are being retested."

But there is no provision in the state's notification system for informing people who are in custody of their test results, and that lack of results was one spark for Monday's events.

"Detention Center Staff has promised to advocate for full facility testing and adequate notification," Neeley stated. 

The cutback in hot meals was unavoidable, Neeley's release states.

He said "detainees have only received one hot meal per day. The reduction of daily hot meals is due to a lack of available detainees to cook the meals. There are two shifts of 6 to 7 detainees who work in the kitchen to provide meals for the facility. Low population in the facility has forced the temporary change."

Sunday's efforts at calming things down did not work.

"Monday morning, the disturbance continued, and detainees refused their sack lunches," Neeley's release said. "Detention Center staff say that sack lunches provide material to ferment alcohol and detainees were illegally producing and consuming alcohol. Staff regularly checks for contraband of this nature and recovered some today."

When an administrator tried to talk to detainees in the facility's B6 pod, "the administrator was assaulted and a taser was deployed. Then detainees broke a fire sprinkler head off in the bathroom, flooding the pod," Neeley said. "Detention Center staff moved out of the pod at that time. The fire suppression system was turned off."

When detainees set fire to blankets in the B6 pod, the fire suppression system was turned back on to douse it "and Farmington Fire Department was dispatched. The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and Farmington SWAT teams were also dispatched," Neeley said.

Fast, large response

"The unrest continued in the B5 pod, where detainees started another fire and broke apart a bunk and used it as a battering ram to attempt to break down a fire door," Neeley stated. "Detention Center Staff worked with the SJCSO and Farmington Police Department SWAT Teams to remove detainees from both pods one by one, and noncompliant detainees were placed in lockdown."

Neeley thanked all the agencies that rushed to help.

First responders were staged near the juvenile detention facility before noon and started to leave the scene around 2:45 p.m.

Emergency vehicles parked at the jail started to leave around 2:50 p.m., around the time deputies blocking vehicle access to the jail also left the scene. 

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office will review incidents that happened in the jail and decide if charges should be filed. 

Neeley's release said there were 345 people in custody the morning of July 13, 147 of whom "have tested positive for coronavirus. The positive detainees have been quarantined in 5 pods. Coronavirus positive detainees have been monitored regularly and provided medical attention as needed."

Note: Documents filed in court described the mkeshift weapons made from plumbing fixtures that were broken during the riot as porcelain sink shards, while police scanner traffic during the riot described them as being from broken toilets. This article was modified on Sept. 2, 2020 to reflect the new information.

Contact John R. Moses at 505-564-4624, or via email at jmoses@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e

Reporter Josh Kellogg was at the scene and also contributed to this story.

The San Juan County Adult Detention Center in Farmington.