On November 20, 2011, Officer Louie Nieto of the New Mexico Penitentiary, a level-six maximum-security facility, acted heroically by saving a fellow officer from a life-threatening attack by an inmate. The inmate had gotten out of his restraints and was attempting to retrieve the correctional officer’s keys so he could attack another inmate. Nieto observed what was happening and immediately approached the inmate. The inmate took his eyes off the other officer, whom he had held by the arm. The inmate struck Nieto and sent him to the floor. Nieto rebounded and once again approached the inmate, blasting him with Oleoresin Capsicum spray, which subdued him and allowed the other officers to escape. The situation was handled effectively as part of the Emergency Preparedness system (developed by Law Enforcement Training and Research Associates), which allows for staff to make decisions at their level and take control immediately.
Warden James Lopez said Nieto “exemplifies and demonstrated the department’s core values: courage, responsibility, ethics and dedication.” Lopez, whose institution was one of the first to be ACA accredited, explained that Nieto had just completed his initial eight-week academy training and had only been working for the facility for a few weeks. However, he had previously worked for four years at a private correctional facility.
Nieto noted that his mental acuity came from his experience as a wrestler with mixed martial arts training, and he combined this with training from the New Mexico Corrections Department Training Academy. Using his survival instincts, after he was hit, he got back up. “I stared the inmate in the face and made him back down, even though I was scared afterward,” he reflected. “This made me stronger and more aware. I knew I had to do what was right. I had to stay and do something.”
Nieto likes his job. “Corrections is a good job, a good career,” he said. He intends to go back to college to study criminal justice and move up the ranks, perhaps becoming a state police officer or staying in corrections. “I am doing the best I can. I’m here to make a difference.”
In the aftermath of the incident, Nieto and three other staff members were taken to the hospital for assessment, which included crisis intervention by a clinician. Additionally, they were given four days of administrative leave with follow-up crisis debriefing through the department’s Employee Assistance Program. Lopez met with each of the staff to talk to them and encourage them to stay in corrections. Despite the scare, his talk worked and all the staff underwent further training in policies and procedures and are still employed.
Lopez explained that the problem was due to the staff not following protocols. This particular inmate required a two-man lieutenant escort, which meant that when he left his cell, he was to be escorted by no less than three staff members, including one lieutenant. Additionally, all level six inmates’ hands are to be restrained behind their back with handcuffs prior to opening the cell door. The first officer did not restrain the inmate properly nor did she or the control center officer ensure that there were two additional staff right there. The officer believed in treating the inmates nicely and thought they would respond to her in a similar manner. Instead, the inmate took advantage of her.
As a result of this incident, the entire complex was placed on lockdown; every correctional officer received training on the proper application of restraints and the proper use of the control strap. Additionally, the warden, the director and secretary of corrections met with the staff at the beginning of shifts. Once every staff member received the remedial training, the facility went into a step-down process toward full operations.
Lopez explained, “When this incident occurred, I had only been here as the warden for three months. When I heard and saw the video of the event, I realized that Nieto used his training from the academy, and his natural instinct to protect kicked in even after taking a punch that knocked him to the floor. His efforts averted what could have been significantly worse.”