For Riot Site in New Mexico, a Gift Shop but No Ghost Stories

Dianne Frazee-Walker

“Respecting our past to create a better future” is painted on the sign that hangs in the entryway of the New Mexico Penitentiary nicknamed Old Main. Near the sign is a list of inmates and correctional officers who were ether killed or terrorized in the 1980 prison riot. In 36 hours, 33 inmates were killed and more than 200 were injured.

Since the second worst prison riot in U.S. history in 1998, the New Mexico prison located on desert land about 15 miles outside of the touristy town of Santa Fe has been closed.

The deserted correctional facility is known for its haunting death chambers and creepy hallways that contain what is left of chilling cells that housed death row inmates.

The condemned building was the textbook site for filming Hollywood movies and ghost documentaries. The prison gained notoriety from the movie “The Dead Files” on the Travel Channel and some of the graphic episodes that took place during the riot can be located in a book entitled “The Devil’s Files.” Adam Sandler’s remake of “The Longest Yard” was filmed inside Cellblock 2, and Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound in “Zero Dark Thirty” was built on its grounds. 

When New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez wanted to do something special to celebrate the state’s centennial she confided in Gregg Marcantel who was only four months into his position as secretary of the correctional department. Marcantel, a former Marine, was confounded when Ms. Martinez asked for his input.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Marcantel to come up with a resourceful plan. Believing New Mexico citizens still had the tragic incident ingrained in their souls, Marcandel ventured on a restoration that has a reverent theme and would financially benefit the state budget. “Why not open the prison up for tours and transform the building into a museum?”

When Marcantel first proposed his idea he received negative feedback from the public, inquiring if he had “lost his mind.” The consensus opinion of most New Mexicans was that the prison needed to be demolished, along with the horrifying memories of what took place there.

Marcantel had an enthusiastic vision of inmates running tours, operating a restaurant, and a gift and hobby shop on the prison grounds. “The possibilities were endless!”

The innovative strategy would give inmates an opportunity they normally did not get behind bars. The work skills would educate inmates to run a business and provide them with experience to include on an employment application.

The 1980 riot was prompted by the dreadful conditions the prisoners could no longer tolerate. Correctional officers treated inmates abusively. They manipulated prisoners to snitch on each other so they could severely punish inmates for mild violations.

The food was unpalatable and the living quarters were unbearable because of overcrowding. The prison was built for 900 but housed 1,100. Violent and non-violent offenders were thrown into the same cells. Vicious fights were a common occurrence. The recidivism rate was high because there was no rehabilitation. Unchecked savagery driven by hostility that had long festered inside the prison walls raged into a 33 day riot.

Marcantel’s prophecy was the gateway to a 360-degree transformation that could change the Old Main’s legacy.

Marcantel decided to “take a leap of faith” and follow through with his controversial idea.

Originally, the plan was to hold tours once a month, but the reservations were booked within days. More tours were added out of demand and they were quickly grabbed up within hours. Free tours were offered last year as an addition to the centennial festivities. The museum attracted 5,000 visitors.

When the Corrections Department began charging $10, 577 visitors did not mind paying the admission fee to tour the prison museum. The revenue is invested directly back into the project. The visitor center courtyard has been spruced up and the building has undergone a thorough cleaning. 

Today a visitor walking through the prison tour will be greeted with art on the walls created by inmates. The smell of wholesome cooking will fill the air from the restaurant staffed by inmates cooking, serving food, and managing the business. The barber shop is chockfull of customers getting their hair cut. The gift shop, also run by inmates, is stocked with souvenirs, trinkets, and crafts made by the prisoners.  

Remnants of what the prison used to be are imminent. Correctional officers doubling as tour guides point out the outline of an inmate’s charred body, silhouetted on a cramped stairwell-landing in the protective-custody wing.  Tour guides entertain the guests with extraordinary ghost stories for which the prison is famous.

Make sure you notice the clocks, frozen in time, hanging on the walls, set at perilous moments in the early morning hours of February 2nd, 1980. One clock reads 1:45 a.m. when the mutiny began. The destruction of the control center is represented on the clock set at 2:02 a.m.  

If you look closely, you can see hatchet marks on the concrete floor of the protective-custody cellblock, where most of the killings occurred.

Visitors can view the infirmary where raging inmates bee-lined during the bedlam and broke-in to swipe the drugs. The dormitory stands the same as it did 33 years ago; tattered, its white walls turned gray by smoke and fire.

The only structure unharmed is the chapel, where some inmates stopped to pray during the mayhem.

On Oct. 25, a private tour was offered to riot survivors. Many of the surviving inmates were transferred to other state prisons when the riot ended. The tour was their first return visit.

Gary Nelson, 65, was a return visitor, who joined the inmate tour.  He was serving time for armed robbery at the prison the night the riot broke out. Nelson is now a free man living in Albuquerque, but he can still recall the violent night.

The tour caused Mr. Nelson to reflect on gruesomeness of the riot. Nelson felt a sense of relief from seeing the prison in a new light. The tour provided Nelson with closure from the horrific event and he confirms the tour was his last visit. He proclaims, “I am never going back there again.”

When Mr. Marcantel was approached with a way to change the ambience of the prison he sensed an opportunity.

Ideas that seemed at once unreachable and risky also seemed reachable.

 When Mr. Marcantel steps outside his office at The Main and gazes at tourists wandering curiously through the corridors and inmates maintaining the businesses, he probably doesn’t regret his decision to “go for it,” even though his critics initially were vehemently opposed to the project.

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Overview of New Mexico’s Prison Education Programs

By Christopher  Zoukis

The New Mexico prison system takes a comprehensive view of prison education; their educational programs are governed by the New Mexico Corrections Department Education Bureau.  The bureau works in conjunction with other agencies, organizations, and the community to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to obtain vocational and academic skills.  The aim of their programs is to reduce recidivism and help inmates become responsible and contributing members of society.  Image courtesy

Range of Educational Services

New Mexico offers many types of educational programs to inmates.  Parenting courses, English as a Second Language courses (ESL), vocational classes, employment related classes, and college-level coursework are some of the main features of their overall programming.  Placement exams allow bureau staff to effectively steer inmates to the programs that would most benefit them.  There are also programs to address special needs of incarcerated individuals.  Taking coursework while imprisoned allows the inmates to earn certifications, certificates, and even college credits.

Assessments Offered to Inmates

The bureau offers a wide array of exams that allow it to place prisoners in appropriate programs suited to both their level of education and demonstrated skills.  Some basic tests offered by the prison system include the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) that measures basic skills in reading, language, and math.  The test is standard in the education field and is suited to the diverse range of adult learners.  Once an inmate has taken the exam, staff members are better able to determine which types of programs would be most advantageous for individuals.

The Employability Competency System Full Battery (CASAS) assesses skills for the bureau’s vocational and post-secondary programming.  The Act WorkKeys exam also helps determine placement by assessing employability skills.  The Choices assessment takes inmates’ own preferences for future employment into consideration while also helping them determine careers that best meet their skill sets at the time of their assessment.  The Keytrain assessment relates to state employability and allows inmates to determine their eligibility for a range of employment options in New Mexico.  These are just a few of the assessments offered through the bureau.  There are others that determine college level placement, intelligence tests, and language deficiencies, for example.

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