'Etched in your mind for life' - Albuquerque Journal

‘Etched in your mind for life’

Full series: Revisiting the Nightmare

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Tourists can now walk through the “Old Main” and take a sanitized tour of the empty prison south of Santa Fe from May through September.

They can view the marks left by murders on cell floors and watch a documentary of inmates and others recalling the 36 hours of horror.

It is a very different tour than the one reporters had after the riot ended.

Mary Lynn Roper was a news anchor for KOAT-TV channel 7 in 1980 reporting from outside the prison.

“It is something that is etched in your mind for life,” Roper said. “It was extraordinarily cold. We were walking through water; some of it had blood in it.

“You could feel the horror. When you saw the bars of a cell individually cut – by what we later learned were acetylene torches – you could imagine the absolute terror of the inmate trapped inside while the others waited to get at him.

“There was a toilet bowl smashed, I was convinced someone’s head had been used to smash it,” Roper, who retired as general manager of the television station, said.

“I should underscore that we were quiet, solemn going through there.

“When we got to the control center we saw that everything had been broken and broken again and smashed again. You could feel the rage,” she said.

In 1980, Jim Belshaw was the Journal features editor and part of a media group on the first of those tours.

“I remember a thick swath of blood about a foot wide. It ran across almost the entire length of a cell wall,” Belshaw said.

“I remember the cold, dank air and the sense that we had just stepped into a nightmare that was beyond anything we might imagine. I remember the reddish-brown water that flooded the building where we walked.”

Brian Sanderoff, now the state’s preeminent pollster, was at the riot and the days following as a key aide to then-Gov. Bruce King.

“It is all a blur now,” Sanderoff said. “I was there for five days and nights as Gov. King’s eyes and ears. I caught some cat naps on the living room floor of the warden’s home.

“Here we are 40 years later and I wonder if we have forgotten the lessons of the horrific brutality we witnessed.”

Sanderoff said the average voter focuses on the front end of the criminal justice system – the crime, the arrest, the sentence handed down by the judge – that dominates the nightly news and newspaper headlines.

“They are not focused on the equally important issue of whether prisoners who are released from prison are prepared to face society without committing new crimes, with being able to find jobs. Whether inmates after serving their time are able to re-enter society isn’t a sexy issue.”


In the days after the riot, a few hundred inmates were slowly put back into the prison, which remained in use until 1998.

“When we got the last inmate out of The Main, it was like a weight came off my shoulders,” former Corrections Secretary Rob Perry said in a Journal interview.

“We could put an inmate, who was doing well in another prison, into The Main and suddenly the guy is walking around like a Mafia boss, strutting down the hallway,” Perry said. “The place was an infection.”

Albuquerque attorney Peter Cubra, who represented inmates in the Duran Consent Decree civil rights lawsuit, said, “Inmates adapted their behavior to the history of the prison.

“It was haunted in the figurative and literal sense of the word,” Cubra said. “As long as the state kept inmates in The Old Main, it could not comply with the court’s orders in the Duran case. Everything about the facility was obsolete.”

The plumbing in the building didn’t work well before the riot and despite constant repairs after the riot, cells still flooded.

The cooling and heating systems never worked properly and were under constant maintenance.

Perry wanted to tear the buildings down but it turned out to be too expensive.

“It would have cost between $12 million and $18 million,” Perry said. “You don’t realize how massive a structure it is until you start estimating the tipping fees to have it hauled away to a dump.”

Santa Fe attorney Mark Donatelli was opposed to tearing the old prison down.

“I think it is a monument, a reminder for everyone about what can happen when you run inhumane prisons,” Donatelli said.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

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