ABC News doesn't so much level charges as hurl them tonight on the Close-Up report "Death in a Southwest Prison," at 10 on Channel 7. The riot in the Santa Fe, N.M., penitentiary that left 33 dead and $25 million in damage is blamed on the "incompetence" and "incredible slackness" of authorities and "corrupton" among the prison staff.
Essentially the program represents more rock 'n' roll from ABC News with a decidely sensationalist beat. Correspondent Tom Jarriel, reading from a script by producer Stephen Fleischman and others, characterizes the bloody riot with words and phrases like "uncontrolled terror," "uncommon ferocity," "blind ferocity," "nightmare," "vicious," "monstrous," "savagery," "butchery" and "36 hours of wildness." They must have raided Roget's to get this gratuitously purple prose.
"We can't show you what some men did to others, their actions were so savage," Jarriel says to the camera almost by way of apology (this line was used in lurid promos for the show). But they do manage to trot out several close-ups of gashed heads and scars left by meat cleavers. Jarriel keeps saying he'll get to the bottom of this, but most of the investigative stuff, by reporter William Sherman, is saved until after generous peeks at the carnage.
Then the accusations of indifference and incompetence fly and the producers take pains to mention ABC News as often as possible: "In ABC's investigation of the riot," "ABC has obtained" and so on. Shots of the prison as it is now are intercut with local news footage of the seige, and ABC News takes to task those officials who would not appear on camera or who would not permit access to certain documents.
A visual redundancy is momentarily relieved when the mother and sister of a slain inmate who was known inside prison walls as "King of the Snitches (Informers)" talk to the camera while seated beneath a huge felt painting of "The Last Supper." It is a poignant, eloquent shot, but at ABC News they don't have much appreciation for such qualities and the image gets chased off the screen by one banality or another.
Jarriel says the riot, its aftermath and the ducking of responsibility by prison and state officials constitute a "classic case" of social breakdown, bound to be repeated. In not terribly encouraging ways, the documentary is a classic case, too.