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‘New Mexico’s Alcatraz’

A flashlight illuminates a cell at the old state prison south of Santa Fe. The New Mexico Corrections Department is considering opening up the prison, the site of a 1980 riot, for regular public tours and other visitor activities. (Marla Brose/Journal)
A flashlight illuminates a cell at the old state prison south of Santa Fe. The New Mexico Corrections Department is considering opening up the prison, the site of a 1980 riot, for regular public tours and other visitor activities. (Marla Brose/Journal)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The penitentiary that was the site of New Mexico’s grisly 1980 prison riot – one of the deadliest in the nation’s history – has been closed for more than a decade, its once-packed cellblocks and dormitories off-limits to all but the occasional filming crew.

However, a plan to open up the “Old Main” prison as a public museum of sorts, complete with regular tours, a restaurant and a hobby shop staffed by inmates, has been percolating in recent months.

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said the idea was hatched in response to the overwhelming popularity – evidenced by lengthy waiting lists – of tours offered last year as part of the state’s centennial celebration.

“I know this can be New Mexico’s Alcatraz – easily,” he told the Journal recently, referring to the famous California island penitentiary that draws more than a million visitors each year.

Marcantel said he’s sensitive to the history of Old Main, where 33 inmates were killed by other inmates during the February 1980 riot. A tribute to inmates who died and the correctional officers on duty would be a part of the project, he said.

“It was an incident that shouldn’t have happened, but it is an incident that we can’t forget about as a state,” Marcantel said. “Why not exploit that in a positive way?”

However, one former officer who worked at Old Main at the time of the riot said she is concerned that the plan to open up the prison to the public might lead to the riot being sensationalized instead of being accurately depicted.

“If they’re going to do it, they better (expletive) do it right,” said Marcella Armijo of Albuquerque, one of the first people to enter the prison and see the carnage once the riot ended.

Like other survivors of the riot and its aftermath, Armijo has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during the past 33 years. In a private ceremony this year, the Corrections Department awarded medals of valor to some of those survivors.

In addition to the inmates who died, more than 100 other guards and inmates were injured during the 36-hour riot, which was fueled in part by prison conditions – 1,157 inmates were housed in a prison designed to hold no more than 800.

Little change

Much of the old prison remains as it was in 1998, when the prison’s doors were closed and its inmates sent to other prisons, including to the newer facilities of the Penitentiary of New Mexico, which sits on the same grounds as Old Main along N.M. 14 south of Santa Fe.

Drawings and writings on the old cell walls could still be seen during a recent tour of the fenced-off prison, along with hatchet marks, the outline of a burned body and other chilling evidence left from the 1980 riot.

“It’s exactly the same as it was,” said tour guide David Trainer, a quality assistance manager for the Penitentiary of New Mexico who worked at the Old Main from 1988 until it closed 10 years later.

Due to the existing conditions, repair work would have to be done to make the old prison safe for visitors, corrections officials say.

State crews began looking at the site several weeks ago to determine the scope of work that would have to be done for full-time tours to start, Corrections Department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said. Future renovations could also be in the works, and inmate crews from the nearby Penitentiary of New Mexico could help with repairs once a cleanup plan is finalized, Marcantel added.

“It’s got to be safe, it’s got to be secure, and it’s got to be clean,” he said.

Marcantel said he hopes the Old Main can be opened to the public within three years. The total cost for the project is not clear, but the agency’s spokeswoman says they might be able to use visitors’ fees to help pay for the work and do not plan to seek taxpayer dollars.

Past mistakes

In addition to being a tourist draw for the state, there is another idea at work behind the Old Main’s reopening.

Marcantel describes the old penitentiary as having the potential to be a shrine of sorts to past mistakes that contributed to the 1980 riot, including the crowded conditions and the lack of an inmate classification system.

The museum model would show the state’s attempt to learn from those mistakes, Marcantel said. While visitors would get a chance to see inside the walls of the old penitentiary, for instance, inmates would be able to hone their work skills for life after prison.

That could mean inmate crafts being sold at a hobby shop, using low-risk inmates to help give tours and possibly having inmates cook food at a museum restaurant.

“You could come to the prison and eat prison food if you want,” he said. “You can have the experience.”

Mark Donatelli, a Santa Fe lawyer who represented inmates charged in connection with the riot and has been involved in long-running litigation over prison conditions, said he’s supportive of the agency’s plan.

“I’m glad they’re doing it,” Donatelli told the Journal. “If it’s handled appropriately, I congratulate them on keeping the history alive.”

Meanwhile, Marcantel said he has spoken with Gov. Susana Martinez about the plan and has her backing. A spokesman for the Republican governor confirmed the assertion on Friday, saying Martinez believes there is a “tremendous amount” to be learned from the prison riot.

“We confronted one of the greatest tragedies in the United States,” Marcantel said. “There’s no doubt that we took our eye off the ball as a state, but we’ve grown from it.”

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