The shift was just like any other day — then all hell broke loose at the Santa Rita Unit of the Arizona State Prison Complex on Tucson’s southeast side.
A year ago Sept. 20, some 200 Hispanic and African-American prisoners went at each other before sundown during recreation time in the yard.
Corrections Officer Mario Figueroa survived the riot and rescued a beaten inmate. Figueroa received a pummeling across his back and face by other prisoners as he pulled the injured inmate to safety. Figueroa, 31, a 2000 graduate of Palo Verde Magnet High School, received a Silver Medal of Honor for his actions from the American Correctional Association at a convention Nov. 8 in Atlantic City, N.J.
On Wednesday, Figueroa recalled the riot, which was brought under control in 30 minutes, and he thanked fellow officers who came to his rescue. He and another officer were injured, along with 11 inmates who were taken to hospitals for treatment.
Figueroa recalled he had only pepper spray when he saw a beaten inmate on the ground, and some 20 inmates heading toward the hurt man to deliver another bashing. Some carried broom handles.
Figueroa, a rookie, said he remembered his training and took action that possibly saved the life of the prisoner. He risked his life when he grabbed the prisoner and dragged him about 50 yards to another area for safety.
“We did our job. As officers we stick together and our job is to protect officers and inmates,” said Figueroa, who works in a unit with more than 700 prisoners.
Figueroa, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration management in 2008 from Northern Arizona University, said he likes his new chosen career.
He also asked to be returned to the same unit after the riot, explaining that the beef was between prisoners and had nothing to do with prison employees.
“I have never been threatened,” said Figueroa, adding that the award makes him proud.