As part of the New Mexico Centennial, the New Mexico Corrections Department hosted monthly tours at the abandoned New Mexico State Penitentiary “Old Main” Prison. We toured the prison in July. Our tour guide was an active-duty Corrections Officer who had worked “Old Main” in the late 1990s.
“Old Main” is located south of Santa Fe off N.M. 14. Built in the 1950s, “Old Main” was the state’s maximum security prison and had a capacity of 900 inmates. It was closed in 1998 by Governor Gary Johnson. Since then, the site has been used as a location for film productions including the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard as well as National Guard and New Mexico State Police training. There’s no electricity, heat, or cooling in the prison and wildlife has claimed parts of it. “Old Main” is best known for the prison riot that occurred on February 2 and 3, 1980.
The riot was one of the most violent prison riots in the history of the American correctional system. At the time of the riot, there were more than 1,100 men in the prison; it was severely overcrowded. Prisoners were not adequately separated and many were housed in communal dormitories. It began at 2am, Saturday, February 2, 1980 in south-side Dormitory E-2 when two prisoners overpowered an officer who had caught them drinking homemade liquor. By the time it was over, the riot had led to the deaths of at least 33 inmates. (According to our guide, the death toll may have been higher, as a number of bodies were incinerated or dismembered during the course of the riot.) More than 200 inmates were treated for injuries. Twelve officers were taken hostage. None of the officers was killed, but seven officers were subjected to beatings and rapes. Without a doubt, the worst atrocities occurred in cell block 4 which housed informers, the mentally ill, or those convicted of sex crimes. When rioters found blowtorches brought into the prison as part of an ongoing construction project, an ‘execution squad’ was formed to extract their revenge on the inmates of cell block 4. Victims were pulled from their cells to be tortured, dismembered, decapitated, or burned alive. Thirty-six hours after the riot had begun heavily-armed State Police officers accompanied by National Guard servicemen entered the charred remains of the prison to restore order. After the riot, new facilities were built and over time all the inmates were moved out to other sites.
The results of the riot can still be seen throughout the prison. The burned out dormitory has been left as it was after the riot. Filled in axe marks on the floor show where inmates were decapitated. In two spots in cell block 4, the charred imprints of blow-torch victims are clearly visible. According to our guide, various attempts to wash, bleach, or paint over the figures on the floor with paint have failed.
The tour was eye opening. To hear our guide’s calm description of the horrible events that occurred over those two days was chilling. The description of the conditions which existed in the prison put it into perspective.
We have posted a gallery of photos from the tour: The New Mexico State Penitentiary “Old Main” Prison.