I Am Going to a Maximum Security Prison

LOL.. Yes, I am. Going on a tour for photography reasons (and hopefully some ghost-hunting) to the Old Main Prison in Santa Fe NM, where one of the worst prison riots occurred in 1980.

The New Mexico Corrections Department will be hosting tours once a month at the New Mexico State Penitentiary “Old Main” prison in Santa Fe, beginning February 2, 2012. The prison tours will be hosted once a month to display the history of New Mexico prisons for the past 100 years.

I am booked to tour on September 14th.

The Riot

In the early morning hours on Saturday, 2 February 1980, inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe overwhelmed four correctional officers during a routine inspection in one of the dormitories. These inmates immediately took the officers hostage and then ran to another dormitory where they attacked four more guards. Thus began a thirty-six-hour riot during which the rioting inmates held twelve officers hostage, thirty-three inmates lost their lives, and at least ninety inmates suffered serious injuries including beatings, stabbings, rapes and overdoses.

On the night of the riot, after the early evening count at about 8:30 p.m., inmates in Dormitory E-2 began drinking a “home brew” that they had made from yeast and raisins, items they had smuggled from the kitchen. After drinking for a couple of hours, they became drunk and angry and decided to attack the guards when they came for the early morning inspection. When the four officers arrived for the inspection, the inmates quickly overpowered them. One officer who had remained at the door struggled to close the door, but was unable to do so. The prisoners then took the four guards to the dayroom where they stripped, bound, and blindfolded them.

Once the rioters had gained control of the Control Center, they had access to the whole institution. Some inmates broke into the pharmacy and took a variety of drugs, mostly barbiturates, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and sedatives. Others entered the paint shop and shoe repair shop where they found paint, paint thinner and glue which they inhaled. Known as “sniff,” these inhalants can induce violent behavior. By the end of the riot, many of the inmates suffered drug-overdoses.

With the keys obtained in the Control Center, inmates entered the plumbing shop where they found a heavy-duty acetylene cutting torch. They also found two more torches in Cellblock 5 where renovations were underway. With these tools in hand, the rioters made their way over to Cellblock 4. This cellblock housed a number of inmates, protected from the general population because they were snitches or believed to be snitches. For several hours, the rioters could not gain access to the cellblock, and the inmates of Cellblock 4 sent SOS messages to the police outside the prison. Officials later said that they thought that the rioters held the entire institution and did not see the messages from the desperate inmates. Finally, just after dawn, the rioters cut through the grill at Cellblock 4, yelling “kill the snitches.” These violent rioters, later known as “execution squads,” shouted out the names of their intended victims. Some of these men locked themselves in their cells, but the execution squads were able to burn through the bars with the torches. Some executioners, unable to wait, threw flammable liquids into the cells onto their victims and then ignited them. Once they did open the cells, they dragged out the men, stabbing, torturing, bludgeoning, burning, hanging them, and chopping them apart. Some executioners threw their victims from the upstairs tiers to the basement floor, where officials later found many bodies.

In the video, you will see the ax marks in the concrete floor from a decapitation, as well as a burn mark roughly in the shape of a body on the floor.


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For thirty-six hours, prison officials negotiated for the release of the hostages and the surrender of the rioters. By 1:30 p.m., Sunday, 3 February 1980, the riot had, for the most part, ended. After the inmates of Dormitory E-1 had escaped, a steady trickle of men followed, and by the end of the riot most inmates stood outside the penitentiary. Finally, the police and National guardsmen retook the penitentiary without resistance. So ended one of the most violent prison riots in New Mexico history.

Reported Phenomena

The most active areas of the prison are Cell Blocks 3, 4, the Tool room and the laundry room.

Cell Block 3 was the maximum security ward which also contains the Solitary confinement cell. Activity reported here includes unexplainable noises, doors that open and close by themselves, and lights that turn on and off without any apparent cause.

Cell block 4 was the area where the “snitches” and other prisoners held in protective custody were contained. Upon entering the cell block, there are marks on the floor where rioters used power tools to decapitate the snitches and several other inmates. Also visible are the outlines of scorch marks where other inmates were burned to death with propane cutting torches. Another inmate was hung from the upper tier of the cell block with sheets that had been tied together. The activity reported here is similar to those reported in Cell Block 3. Twenty three of the inmates that were murdered during the riot were killed in Cell Block 4.

The laundry was the site of several murders, although they occurred long before the riot of 1980. It is located in a labyrinth of corridors that lie underneath the prison. These corridors also link to the gas chamber, many mechanical rooms and the tool room where the inmates stole the propane torches and other tools that were used during the riots. Uneasy feelings and whispers are often reported down there as well as unusual human shaped shadows.

Click on a thumbnail to view in full size. You may then toggle through the images to view.


Photo Sources:

Flickr by redspub
Southwest Ghost Hunters
ABQ Journal

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15 replies »

    • I cannot wait until I have my own!!! But I’d love to get them via a private tour at night. I’m not a ghost hunter and am “indifferent” towards paranormal, but I do LOVE the thrill of “haunted” places. Which is why I’ve been to the haunted insane asylum down the street from me a couple times now. It’s cool!

  1. Wow… What a horrific story.

    I also enjoy the sense of adventure in supposedly haunted places, and in years past my wife and I visited and spent the night at various places in New England that were supposed to be haunted, but we never heard, saw or felt a single thing that could even be remotely associated with paranormal activity, and it was disappointing. I guess that ghosts don’t like us, or maybe they don’t like appearing to people who are eager to see them. Maybe they thought that we’d ask them annoying questions, or bug them for autographs… Lol

  2. I still remember that riot. At that time, it was the worst in US prison history if I’m not mistaken, and the news stations were reporting on it around the clock. It was absolutely horrible. I have books on it as well. They describe what happened inside in great detail; certainly not for the faint at heart.

    I knew a guy in the prison; he was serving a life sentence for the murder of my best friend and her boyfriend in 1977. Two people told me he was killed in that riot; but I’ve also heard he died of AIDS while in prison and one person told me he is now out of prison after serving time and then being paroled with points for good behavior. I’ve never been able to get the truth.

    I’m looking forward to going on this tour, though. I’ll be packing all I can, camera and other equipment, to record whatever happens.

    • Good… you got my message. I’m looking forward to it as well. They still had some avail spots on Oct 31st, but the last tour was 5 PM… and that kind of defeats the whole purpose. The tour will finish and it’ll still be light outside. So I opted for the soonest we could get in. They’re filling up fast.

      I cannot wait!!!

  3. That one pic…(the 1 with the medic)is that a female… didn’t think they had women in the guard back then.

    • I went on the tour just last Friday and we didn’t go into the women’s unit. We just stayed in the units where the rioting was. One, I think Level 3, was burned so bad they never opened it back up. And Level 4 (PC, snitch unit) was were all the killing was. Plus a few other rooms and places along the way. But we never went to the women’s unit. Sorry.

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