New Mexico Alcatraz

In the fall of l979, a number of reporters, including myself, toured the New Mexico state prison, Old Main as it was called, a few miles southwest of Santa Fe. We were to meet a new warden and get something of an inside look at the grim surroundings, including an up close inspection of the gas chamber

This was something less than four months before the February riot at the penitentiary, considered by many as the most brutal and sadistic prison uprising in American history, worse even than Attica in l971.

Thirty three inmates were murdered, many with blow torches, 200 were brutalized, almost beaten to death, and a dozen guards were held hostage. Some were tormented by mental and emotional trauma for the rest of their lives. The rioters took revenge on snitches, mangling and burning them to death in ways too hideous to describe here. Read long-time political writer and historian Roger Morris’s The Devil’s Butcher Shop. It sets the record straight.

It was one of the most shameful moments in New Mexico history.

To make some sort of tourist attraction out of the Santa Fe Pen would be rather like making a Halloween ride though the remains of a Gestapo torture chamber. It would trivialize reality so grotesquely that new shame would rain down upon us, undermining our state’s reputation, damaging our tourist economy and making a mockery of the terrible suffering that killed and afflicted so many in the riot of l980.

On that tour a few months before the riot, reporters were taken to the warden’s conference room for a short news briefing. My attention was drawn to a plaque on the wall that looked from a distance like a Boy Scout project, with a dozen or so little rope frames around photographs of faces. When I examined it closely, I saw to my disgust that this plaque contained the mug shots of the people executed at the prison. 

It was a ghoulish display and reminded me of a handicraft project that some demented serial killer might put together of his victims. The plaque told me more about the prison than any tour ever could.

A few years before, I was teaching poetry on an NEA grant to inmates at the Springer Boy’s School. I became aware then of the terrible damage the snitch system did to the whole population, teachers, guards and kids. Everyone was snitching on everyone else, in a misguided behaviorist attempt at control by rewarding approximations of positive behavior. It got so bad that a priest apparently was snitching from the confessional.

A few weeks before I arrived, some kids found out about the priest’s betrayal, snuck into his bungalow, tied him in a chair, beat him senseless, stole his car, and escaped.

I was reporting for the New Mexico Independent then, and I remember, asking to see the “black hole” where “incorrigible” kids were kept in solitary confinement. After much evasion, I was shown something like a broom closet in the back halls of the administration building. It had no windows and no toilet. I was assured it hadn’t been used “in years.”

New Mexico has had two other serious prison riots at the Santa Fe Penitentiary, one in l922 and one in l953. Both riots came after enlightened prison policies were dismantled by conservatives following WWI and WW II.  During both wars, prison recidivism was reduced to some 2 percent, as inmates were given job training and war jobs when they were released. Current recidivism since 2008 is 44.6 percent, according to the New Mexico Department of Corrections.

Those periods of punishment, rather than rehabilitation, resulted in a massive sense of hopelessness after the wars which turned the prisons into cauldrons, just as the living conditions at Old Main did in l980.

It was suggested by the Gary Johnson Administration, a decade or more ago, as I recall, that the new prison in Hobbs be built without air conditioning, as a form of “cost savings” and punishment.  That kind of thinking mirrors what happened after the wars and before the Devil’s Butcher Shop riot. Wiser minds prevailed in Hobbs when the threat of lawsuits were raised.

Jails and prisons in New Mexico are nothing to be proud of. The Valencia County Jail, for instance, was so terrible that the ACLU of New Mexico got it temporarily closed down in 1997. The locked emergency exits had no keys, prisoners couldn’t get to arraignments because guards couldn’t find keys to open their cell doors, women were made to clean fight-bloodied floors with their bare hands in the age of AIDS.  As a member of the ACLU Board then, I remember discussions of the terrible conditions in other county jails.

And now corrections officials in the Martinez Administration, according to the AP and the Albuquerque Journal, want make a tourist buck off the riot of l980, expecting to bump revenue, perhaps, by appealing to the sadist set.

Despite a Journal editorial last Sunday recommending the potential learning experiences of “dark tourism,” this idea is privatization at its most abysmal.

Some private company – maybe from Texas or Arizona -- would be hired to run the show, at some fantastic price, and instead of teaching us about prison reform, a lesson we have repeatedly failed to learn, it would make hay drawing attention away from what New Mexico has spent millions of dollars, and tens of thousands of jobs over the years, trying to build – an image of our land and way of life that enchants others, rather than revolting them and demeaning us.

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

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