Old Main prison: A tour through American prison history

A look into the 1980 Old Main prison riot and the resulting institutionalisation of solitary confinement in US prisons.

NM Prison
Old Main would become a dark stain on the state's prison system after the riots that left 33 inmates dead in 1980 [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

New Mexico, US – Twenty-four kilometres south of Santa Fe, the now defunct Penitentiary of New Mexico, or “Old Main”, sits in managed decay, its imposing exterior rising above the plains that stretch southeastwards from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which loom in the background of the state’s capital city.

It was here, on the early morning of February 2, 1980, that a group of inmates from an overcrowded dormitory overpowered guards during the nightly headcount, setting in motion one of the most brutal riots in the United States’ prison history.

“It was pure insanity,” says retired criminal defence lawyer and former inmate Gary Nelson, describing to Al Jazeera the apocalyptic scene he witnessed as inmates – some high on prescription drugs and armed with assorted power tools – began a murderous rampage that would leave 33 fellow inmates dead in 36 hours.

The riot would shock the nation and implicate the New Mexico Correctional Department (NMCD) in years of poor prison conditions, poor officer training, misuse or overuse of segregation, severe overcrowding and mistreatment of prisoners, according to the official Attorney General report on the riot.

“We really dropped the ball on this one,” says Trinidad Lucero, an officer with NMCD who spoke to Al Jazeera last summer from inside Old Main.

While a portion of the prison was closed down after the riots, most of Old Main would remain open for another 18 years, a dark stain on the state’s prison system. In the years since its final closure in 1998, the prison has come to occupy a near-celebrity status in New Mexico, engendering its own folklore, ghost stories and becoming a popular set for the burgeoning New Mexico TV and film industry.

In 2013, the prison reopened its doors to the public with a two-hour guided tour, operated by the NMCD. Now, for under $20, customers can explore one the darkest moments in US penal history, one that fundamentally altered the New Mexico prison system and whose legacy is still felt today.

“The riot was a tipping point,” says Trinidad Lucero, leading a group of eager tourists through the defunct hallways of Old Main, hatchet marks and burns still visible on the ground, where two people had been murdered decades prior.

“Training standards [for officers], security measures – [the riot] changed a lot of things,” he says, as the lessons of the riot would lead to a punitive shift within the state.

Craig Haney, an expert on correctional mental health and a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has written extensively about the rise of the super-maximum-security isolation prisons, or supermax prisons, notes that “the riot caused New Mexico to shift very decisively towards a policy of isolation and segregation”.

1980 saw the infamous New Mexico prison riot that launched an unprecedented trend towards prisoner isolation in jails across the United States [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]1980 saw the infamous New Mexico prison riot that launched an unprecedented trend towards prisoner isolation in jails across the United States [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

Explaining what led to an emphasis on segregation, Haney says that by the late 1970s, politicians and prison policymakers increasingly abandoned the goal of rehabilitating prisoners and adopted a prison “punishment for punishment’s sake” policy.

Haney added that security responses to heightened violence and overcrowding during the prison explosion in the 1980s led to an emphasis on segregation as a means of punishment and control. It led prison administrators to “increasingly relying on solitary confinement as a prison management tool”.

“I was locked up all day and all night [for] 23 hours,” says Samuel Chavez, who arrived at Old Main in 1988 – eight years after the riot – on charges of second-degree murder. He spent the better part of a decade unjustifiably isolated at both Old Main and another supermax, known simply as “North”.

“The only contact you had was with guards handcuffing you, putting you on dog leashes, beating you,” says Chavez, explaining the conditions he faced living in a cell the size of a parking space.

“You are subject to their [the prison guard’s] whims, their anger, their frustration – whatever [problems] they had at home was brought out on you,” says Chavez, whose experiences reflect the devolution of what was once a short-term punishment into an institutionalised prison tool.

“People remember the riot,” says Chavez, speaking to Al Jazeera last summer at a coffee shop near his home in southern New Mexico. “But they should also remember all that happened afterward. The riot has a legacy that extends beyond those two days.”

Wrong prison, wrong time

By 1980, Old Main was overcrowded, understaffed, sorely lacking in educational and rehabilitation programmes and further plagued by inmate abuse and mistreatment.

“I was in the wrong prison at the wrong time,” says Nelson, now in his 60s. After booking, Nelson was placed in the E-2 unit, a barracks-style dormitory that, due to construction on more secure cell blocks, according to an Attorney General Report, was housing many of the penitentiary’s most hardened and violent criminals.

“It was a pressure cooker,” adds Nelson, describing the violent make up of the inmates, which included members of Mexican mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood – all together in an overcrowded and dilapidated space considered one of the least secure in the prison.

The night of the riot started uneventfully, according to Nelson. “I was playing guitar and singing songs with some fellow inmates.”

Nelson, who had only arrived at the prison a month earlier, described how some of the inmates were getting drunk “as they often did” on homemade hooch. “One of the fellas I used to play Eagles’ songs with began hollering about prison conditions,” says Nelson. The inmate declared that he was “tired of this place”, and plotted that night with the other prisoners: When the correctional officers “come to do the count, if they don’t lock the door, we’re going to jump them and take over”, the inmate had said.

Indeed, the door was left unlocked. At the 1:30am count, inmates attacked the officers and took three of them hostage. Within minutes, rioters took control of the cell blocks, releasing hundreds of inmates from their cells and into the prison. They gained access to the control centre, the pharmacy and the utility closet, acquiring huge quantities of drugs, as well as the acetylene torches that would allow them to break into the E-4 dormitory, where the most grotesque violence would take place.

In the hallways of Old Main, hatchet marks and burns are still visible on the ground where two inmates were killed during the 1980 riot [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]In the hallways of Old Main, hatchet marks and burns are still visible on the ground where two inmates were killed during the 1980 riot [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]
“The prison underwent a brutal transformation as the sun rose,” wrote Nelson in an unpublished manuscript, which was shared with Al Jazeera, about his time in prison.

According to the Attorney General Report, by 7am “execution squads” – armed with power tools and many of whom were intoxicated from prescription drugs, hooch and paint thinners – had gained access to E-4, where supposed “snitches” were housed.

In a distressing scene, Nelson describes “strung out inmates roaming through the smoke-filled buildings, calling out the names of their victims”.

“Some impatient killers threw flammable liquids into locked cells and ignited them,” according to the official report, while other inmates meticulously cut through the bars of the E-4 cells with the torches left behind by construction workers. Once opened, victims were “stabbed, tortured, bludgeoned, burned, hanged, and hacked apart.”

Never again’

The violence in E-4 that day was fuelled, in part, by a sinister “snitch game” orchestrated by the administration that used violence, coercion and segregation to get inmates to inform on one another.

By the time the National Guard retook the prison, 33 inmates had been killed at the hands of their counterparts, 200 others were injured or had overdosed, and 12 of the guards had been raped or otherwise brutalised.

In the riot’s aftermath, the corrections department would adopt a philosophy of “never again”.

Jerry Roark, who has spent 26 years with the NMCD and is now the supervisor of adult prisons, told Al Jazeera that the riot affected the philosophy of the department by emphasising a “security and containment approach to control and to limit inmate movement as much as permitted”.

READ MORE: My life after 44 years in prison

To this end, the NMCD in 1985 built a Level V supermax facility known to prisoners simply as North. This prison holds inmates in solitary confinement, which, according to a report by the New Mexico Law and Policy Centre and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU), typically involves “locking an inmate alone in a cell – no bigger than the size of an ordinary parking space – for 23 hours a day, under conditions of extreme social isolation and forced idleness and deprivation of virtually all meaningful environmental stimulation, including restrictions on property, severe limitations on visitations, and a total ban on group activities”.

“New Mexico over-built its prison system in reaction to the security failures in 1980,” says Mark Donatelli, one of the lawyers instrumental in establishing the Duran Decree Consent Decree that mandated federal oversight of the prison and provided a humanitarian “bottom line” to protect the human rights of inmates.

The massive investment in prison construction, $120m according to Donatelli, put the state at the forefront of an emerging nationwide correctional trend towards mass incarceration and, up until then, an unprecedented use of segregation to achieve safety and control.

“It convinced New Mexico prison authorities to ‘harden’ their isolation and segregation units and build newer, tougher – and frankly much nastier – [units] than those at [Old Main] pre-riot,” says Haney, referring to the Level V North that was built just up the road from Old Main.

New Mexico was at the forefront of an emerging correctional trend towards mass incarceration and the use of segregation to achieve safety and control in prisons [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]New Mexico was at the forefront of an emerging correctional trend towards mass incarceration and the use of segregation to achieve safety and control in prisons [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

Life in a cell

“North was a mausoleum for the living,” says Chavez, who would spend more than seven years in several periods of isolation at North after his transfer from Old Main. Here, he was subjected to various forms of abuse at the hands of prison officials. His 2007 civil rights complaint alleges that he endured “total mind-numbing sensory deprivation, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, except for brief and meaningless escorts to the humiliating bare outdoor quasi-dog cages, where he would pace back and forth, and quickly breathe fresh air”.

“I remember I would ‘run’ in the cell, seven-and-a-half paces towards the door, then I would turn around and head back. I would try to keep my body occupied so I didn’t go insane,” Chavez said, adding that he’d have absolutely no contact with other prisoners during this time. Those in solitary would “get maybe an hour a day ‘outside’ in a yard the size of a dog pen. It was all cold steel and concrete, [with] no circulation; brutally hot in the summer and freezing in the winter”, according to his account. 

The abuse, however, Chavez says, began years before. Upon arrival at Old Main in 1988, he began working on filing for an appeal. He soon became a self-taught legal advocate for other inmates – a so-called “jailhouse lawyer”, as well as an inmate representative under the Duran Decree working with outside lawyers to monitor prison conditions during the nearly two-decade period of federal oversight.

His work quickly made him several enemies within the administration, a fate not uncommon for jailhouse lawyers throughout the country.

“Prisoners love jailhouse lawyers because of the help they can provide,” says Nelson, who was himself a jailhouse lawyer during his time in prison. “And the prison administration hates them for the same reason.”

At Old Main, Chavez began to experience abuse and threats at the hands of correctional officers, including arbitrary placement in solitary confinement for months and then years – three separate terms that lasted more than two years each – at a time.

Between 1992 and 1995, he was left in isolation at North for a 32-month stretch. “I think they [the prison guards] tried to say [to Chavez] ‘stop doing what you’re doing’,” says Francisco Macias, a lawyer based in El Paso, who was previously representing Chavez in a civil rights lawsuit against the NMCD that alleges widespread abuse of inmates by prison officials.

“Sam [Chavez] never had a write-up for violence the entire 26 years he was there,” says Macias, speaking about the years of solitary confinement Chavez was subjected to. “When he didn’t stop [his work as a jailhouse lawyer] they just threw him in there forever,” said Macias, noting the 2000 Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Samuel Chavez.

[Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera][Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

In 2003, a ruling by the district judge, Michael Vigil, found that Chavez had been illegally put in administrative segregation despite a clean record, as punishment for his work as a jailhouse lawyer. “The Court has never seen an inmate similarly situated with a clean disciplinary record and perfect conduct kept in administrative segregation for as long as the petitioner,” according to Vigil’s ruling.

Special Control Facilities

In 2002 inmates confined at the Special Control Facilities (SCFs), a 544-bed segregation facility in both the high-security North and South units of the current New Mexico Prison, filed a class-action lawsuit alleging widespread rights violations inside the prison.

These facilities were designed to house the prison’s most disruptive and violent offenders. Yet, according to the lawsuit, they housed “many nonviolent prisoners” transferred there because of “unsubstantiated allegations of gang involvement”, as well as mental disabilities, or simply to “ease overcrowding at other institutions” – all, according to the lawsuit, for “no apparent or penologically legitimate reason at all”.

Prisoners, many spending years at the SCFs, were locked in cells 24 hours a day, often allowed outside only for one hour every 15 days. Inmates were given no access to outdoor exercise, subjected to frequent strip searches intended to humiliate and harass, denied family visits and allowed only five pieces of paper a week. Prisoners receive no meaningful programmes, jobs, entertainment or other stimulation, and are frequently and arbitrarily put in stripped cells – small rooms completely bare except for a mattress – for between 48 and 72 hours at a time.

While the corrections department had a policy that no mentally ill prisoner would be transferred to the SCFs, mental disorders were in fact “endemic at the SCFs,” according to the lawsuit documents.

 Forgotten Youth: Inside America’s prisons

One such case is that of the defendant David Ballejos, who was confined at the SCFs. Ballejos had been diagnosed with severe personality disorder as well as an anxiety disorder. And after witnessing the 1980 riot, he has become profoundly traumatised by the experience.

According to the lawsuit, Ballejos was arbitrarily transferred from the mental health treatment centre at the high-security segregation unit. He suffered continuous retaliation for behaviours caused by his mental disability. He was denied outdoor privileges, denied attorney and telephone privileges, and even had his glasses taken away for eight months, leaving him unable to read or write.

The lawsuit was settled in 2003, and the ruling required the corrections department to provide for expanded and improved mental healthcare, visitation rights, personal property allowances, staff training, education and access to legal recourse, among other amenities.

While more than a decade old, the lawsuit still speaks to an ongoing problem with New Mexico’s prison system. As former NMCD spokewoman Alex Tomlin said in 2014 to the local Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper: “The corrections department has been very open in the past years in saying we fell into a culture after the riot of overuse of segregation. Because we were so worried about having another riot, we just locked people down.”

“We got in the habit of making it too easy to lock down prisoners,” says Roark, the New Mexico Correctional Department director of adult prisons. “Right now, we have way too many nonpredatory prisoners in segregation. We need to change that, and we’re working on it.”

Prisoners in confinement had no contact with others, only getting an hour a day to spend 'outside', in a yard the size of a dog pen, according to Chavez [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]Prisoners in confinement had no contact with others, only getting an hour a day to spend ‘outside’, in a yard the size of a dog pen, according to Chavez [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

According to the state’s corrections department, approximately 16 percent of New Mexico’s incarcerated population is housed in some form of solitary confinement, making the state the second-worst in the country according to the ACLU report.

According to the NMCD, in 2013, the combined average length of stay for prisoners confined to Levels V and VI in New Mexico’s supermax is 1,072 days – that is, almost three years.

The cycle of violence

While solitary confinement was meant to limit violence within prisons – and some would argue that this has been effective – its misuse and overuse has had a severe affect on those subjected to long-term isolation.

According to Human Rights Watch, “[Solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of psychoses – seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”

Psychiatrist Robert Slater, who studied the effects of solitary at the infamous San Quentin State Prison in California, said segregation can give rise to psychophysical ailments, including tension, irritability, sleeplessness, nightmares, inability to think clearly or to concentrate, and fear of impending loss of impulse control. Slater adds that often, “the anxiety is severe enough to be crippling … and predisposes prisoners to brief psychotic reactions, suicidal behaviour and psychophysiological reactions”.

“It fuels the cycle of violence, leading to more violence and terror.”

Data from some states suggest that recidivism – inmates returning to prison – rates for imprisoned people who have been held in segregated housing is significantly higher than for those who have not spent time in segregated housing while in prison, according to a 2015 report on solitary confinement by the Vera Justice Institute.

Mass incarceration: From rehabilitation to control

When New Mexico’s North facility was opened in 1985, only one other prison in the entire country would have fit the designation as a supermax institution. About 30 years later, more than 40 states operate these facilities designed to hold the country’s most dangerous and disruptive inmates in segregated conditions.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), on average, 80,000 individuals find themselves locked up in isolation on any given day, with a full 20 percent of the country’s prison population spending time in isolation. This emphasis on segregation is connected to the larger prison explosion that began in the late 1970s.

According to the Annual Survey of Jails and data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of US prisoners was 2,306,100 in 2014, up from 500,000 in 1980. And while this rate has declined slightly since 2008, according to an email correspondence with BJS statistician Lauren Glaze, the US still has experienced a 500 percent increase in its prison population over the last 30 years.

This mass incarceration is connected to shifts in policy and public opinion dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, when prisons moved away from a rehabilitation model to the so-called ‘tough on crime’ approach that views punishment as a prison’s main function.

“The country moved in this ‘tough on crime’ direction, away from any attempts to address the root causes of crime,” says Nazgol Ghandnoosh, speaking about the punitive turn in the US as initiatives like the “the war on drugs” and the de-institutionalisation of mental health facilities that would further flood the system with prisoners.

Ghandnoosh, a research analyst for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organisation working for prison and criminal justice reform, spoke about the connection between this mass incarceration and segregation, saying that “there was a willingness from the public to use punishment instead of rehabilitation as the way we deal with crime. Simultaneously there was much less transparency about what goes on in prisons. In that setting, the proliferation of solitary and segregation used in this way has been able to flourish,” she says.

“When rehabilitation [the ‘carrot’ of correctional control] was taken away, only ‘sticks’ remained. Isolation/segregation was the biggest stick available,” Haney said in an email to Al Jazeera, explaining the dramatic departure from pre-existing norms concerning the use of punitive segregation.

A tour to remember

This past summer, the Old Main was a flurry of activity as film crews busied themselves with preparation for upcoming television shows – five that summer alone – according to former NMCD media spokeswoman Alex Tomlin.

“Did you see Zero Dark Thirty?” asked Tomlin, speaking to Al Jazeera about the blockbuster hit filmed in part at Old Main. “You know the whole Bin Laden complex [from the filmset]? That was built here,” she said, as the once-isolated prison complex has been steadily encroached upon by the sprawl of Santa Fe, including a state-of-the-art film studio built just across the road.

“Hollywood has taken a liking to this place,” says Trinidad Lucero, leading the tourists back to the prison’s old booking area, where a van is unloading another group of visitors.

“We have big plans,” says Tomlin, speaking about the tour’s popularity, which is now complete with shuttle service, a personalised mug shot, and an NMCD-produced greeting video in which a diverse set of officers outline the rehabilitative work and positive impacts the New Mexico corrections department has on prisoners and the state.

The Old Main prison has attracted the attention of Hollywood, with the once-empty complex now hosting film crews from across the US [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]The Old Main prison has attracted the attention of Hollywood, with the once-empty complex now hosting film crews from across the US [Gabriela Campos/Al Jazeera]

The tour is about “respecting our past to create a better future,” says Tomlin, echoing the departmental motto found on the website and repeated during the intro video.

“Both the respect we have for the seriousness of what happened and the recognition of the department’s failures has made people respond very positively,” says Tomlin, who wrote the script for the tour that is part apology and part promotional for the corrections department.


The tour has the effect of placing the riot firmly in the past, reduced to a cautionary tale, a glimpse into a more brutal and antiquated period in US penal history, something learned from and corrected.

“We learned from the mistakes of the riot,” says Lucero, speaking to Al Jazeera after the tour group moved past the infamous green rooms, where inmates like Chavez were held in tiny cells devoid of water, toilets, bedding, ventilation or even adequate breathable air.

“Things like the [1980] riot happen when people are not paying attention,” says Gary Nelson, who for years worked to represent prisoners’ rights. “In the 80s no one was paying attention. Maybe they still aren’t.”

Back at the booking hall, visitors queue up for their personalised mug-shots, faces turned in profile just like in the movies. On the nearby walls, two colourful plaques, painted by former inmates, commemorate the 33 dead and the 12 officers taken hostage during the riot.

“Let us take a moment of silence,” said Lucero to the group of tourists, his words lost among the voices of those discussing their next sightseeing destination.

Source: Al Jazeera


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