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Photos | Old Main Maximum Security Prison, Santa Fe, NM – Site of one of the worst prison riots in the US

Well, it’s actually been 1-1/2 years since I took this tour. Finally have uploaded the photos to the internet. The riot which occurred in this penitentiary is considered to be the nation’s most savage prison riot. I have posted a few images below. The rest can be found here on my Flickr page. More information about the reported phenomena can be found on my previous posting, “I Am Going to a Maximum Security Prison,” which I posted prior to the tour. 

A brief background about the Santa Fe prison riot:

In the early morning hours on Saturday, 2 February 1980, inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, originally opened in 1885, 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.

Charred remains.

Charred remains.

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 “huffing,” these inhalants can induce violent behavior. By the end of the riot, many of the inmates suffered drug-overdoses.

Burned body char mark.

Burned body char mark.

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.

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.

Click on any photo below to see in full size. You may scroll through the gallery then.

Want to see more photos? Click HERE to go to my Flickr set of the tour.

Those inmates who were killed during the riot (from Wikipedia):

  • Michael Briones (Albuquerque)
  • Lawrence C. Cardon (Las Cruces)
  • Nick Coca (Taos)
  • Richard J. Fierro (Carlsbad)
  • James C. Foley (Albuquerque)
  • Donald J. Gossens (Farmington)
  • Phillip C. Hernandez (Clovis)
  • Valentino E. Jaramillo (Albuquerque)
  • Kelly E. Johnson (Albuquerque)
  • Steven Lucero (Farmington)
  • Joe A. Madrid (Albuquerque)
  • Ramon Madrid (Las Cruces)
  • Archie M. Martinez (Chimayo)
  • Joseph A. Mirabal (Alamagordo)
  • Ben G. Moreno (Carlsbad)
  • Gilbert O. Moreno (Carlsbad)
  • Thomas O’Meara (Albuquerque)
  • Filiberto M. Ortega (Las Vegas (NM))
  • Frank J. Ortega (Las Vegas, NM)
  • Paulina Paul (Alamogordo)
  • James Perrin (Chaparral)
  • Robert F. Quintela (Carlsbad)
  • Robert L. Rivera (Albuquerque)
  • Vincent E. Romero (Albuquerque)
  • Herman D. Russell (Waterflow)
  • Juan M. Sanchez (Brownsville, Texas)
  • Frankie J. Sedillo (Santa Fe)
  • Larry W. Smith (Kirtland)
  • Leo J. Tenorio (Albuquerque)
  • Thomas C. Tenorio (Albuquerque)
  • Mario Urioste (Santa Fe)
  • Danny D. Waller (Lubbock, Texas)
  • Russell M. Werner (Albuquerque)

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    • Actually, it wasn’t as unnerving as I thought it would be. I was hoping for more of a supernatural feel, experience, but it wasn’t. It was still very interesting, though, and I enjoyed it. I would love to go on a private tour — at night.

      • I was looking at one of the photos could you tell me what cell block the one is where there are 2 tiers and both facing each other?

        • I’m sorry, I do not remember. It’s been a few years since I toured the prison. And even then, I had a difficult time hearing the tour guide, so it may have been one that I didn’t even hear.

        • I think it is cb 6 (could be 1 or 2) medium security. The maximum security had the cells facing the outer window, the minimum security were the dormitories.


  1. I remember the riot but none of the details other than that there were fires. Those char marks on the floors are creepy and overall the place looks just as horrid as it must have been.

    • watch the Dead Files episode called: “Death Sentence” and you hear what really happened in that God forsaken place!

  2. Reblogged this on Weaving Among The Stars and commented:
    Beautiful photographs of Santa Fe’s “Old Main” prison by my friend, Michelle. Her photographs are just wonderful. Mine aren’t so terrific, which is why I haven’t done anything with them yet. She includes a bit of history regarding the prison’s violent past.

    • Sure! It actually wasn’t as creepy as I was hoping it would be. I wanted it to feel more like a haunted prison. Probably because it was daytime. I would love to go back in a night with just a few people and flashlights only.

  3. I didn’t grasp the whole riot until we went to the tour. I have some pictures that have what appears to be something. The way that it makes you feel is out there. I would love to do this tour at night.

  4. So my whole life I had always heard that my biological grandmothers brother was one of the inmates who started the riots. However I never had a relationship with any of that family until recently so I asked if what I had heard was true and they confirmed that yes he indeed was responsible for starting the riots. Trust me when I say this is not something that I am proud of, I think it is shameful. On another note I had a cousin who did time there before they closed down and he said it was defiantly haunted.

    • Although I don’t condone violence – and there was definitely some very violent acts which occurred here – this all could have been avoided. And is also considered one of the examples as what can happen if you treat the inmates like animals rather than human beings. Prison reform has come a long way – but still has a long way to go. At the top of the list is do away with private prisons. The inmates are nothing more than investments to the fat cats who have stake in the prisons.

      Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed of your grand-uncle (?). He did what we felt was needed. The opportunity arouse, they were all tired of being neglected and mistreated, and they wanted the country to know. And they did.

      In as far as the snitches, well, there is a common bond among all inmates, male or female, that brings everyone together as a family – dysfunctional, yes. But a family. Don’t screw over your family.

  5. I worked the Old main from 1981 to 1992, some of the prisoners told me some facts about the riot that made the hair on my neck stand up. I would love to go back in, even at night.

  6. I am married to a man who was at the Old Main on February 2, 1980. He was only 23 at the time and was in unit E-2 where it all started. If you read the Devils Butcher Shop, he pretty well confirmed what it said. What happened in Cellblock 4, was of the making of the Administration. I also personally know Jerry Griffin, the Warden at the time, he took the job just months before and had no idea what was coming. This had been in the planning for months, months.

    • I started the Devils Butcher Shop, got sidetracked with an overabundance of work, and haven’t finished it. I need to. I hope your husband is out and doing well.

  7. Michelle, my father, Roy Taylor, worked as a guard at the Old Prison at the main guard tower from 1938 to 1953. Just thought you’d like to know.

  8. I was stationed at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque when this riot went down. I remember a year or so prior to the riot a young guy in his early 20’s (can’t remember his name) robbed a convenience store & killed someone in the process. He was sent to NM State Prison and was one of the convicts in protective custody. I heard he was snitching on other convicts. He was one of the fatalities.

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