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Site of Gruesome Prison Riot Becomes New Mexico Tourist Attraction

by Joe Watson

New Mexico corrections officials said “the possibilities are endless” for a dilapidated prison that has become a tourist attraction and occasional movie studio 35 years after it was the site of one of the most violent riots in U.S. history.

In February 1980, dozens of state prisoners were brutally murdered at the “Old Main” Penitentiary of New Mexico, 15 miles south of Santa Fe, after a group of convicts – reportedly “drunk on hooch and high on prescription meds” – gained access to blowtorches, hatchets and power tools left unattended by construction workers.

A day and a half later the National Guard took control of the bloody scene, where 33 prisoners were killed – many of them tortured and dismembered – and over 100 others were seriously injured or had overdosed on drugs stolen from the prison pharmacy. A dozen guards were taken hostage during the incident; some were beaten and raped.

A New Mexico attorney general’s investigation into the riot later concluded that it was caused by prison overcrowding, understaffing, poor training and a so-called “snitch game,” in which guards “would sometimes put a snitch jacket on a prisoner just because they didn’t like them ... to get even,” according to an investigative report. During the riot, those so-called “snitches” were targeted by fellow prisoners and “stabbed, tortured, bludgeoned, burned, hanged, and hacked apart,” as recalled by criminal defense attorney Gary Nelson, who was serving time for armed robbery when the disturbance occurred.

The response by the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) in the aftermath of the riot was to shift to a “security and containment approach” designed primarily “to control and to limit inmate movement as much as permitted,” Jerry Roark, NMCD’s Supervisor of Adult Prisons, explained to Al Jazeera during a 2015 interview.

Today a state-of-the-art production studio sits across the road, and six film projects were planned for Old Main in 2015 alone. The NMCD is capitalizing on Hollywood’s interest in the prison by charging voyeurs $16.50 each for a two-hour guided tour – a practice that began in 2012.

Once visitors finish touring the infamous Cell Block 4, the protective custody unit – where one prisoner was beheaded during the riot and hatchet marks are still visible in the floor – they can hop over to the gift shop and pose for fake mug shots.

“Imagine what it would take to cut through the bone and into the concrete,” prison guard and tour guide Trinidad Lucero tells visitors as they ogle the macabre site where 33 men suffered brutal deaths due to the NMCD’s incompetence and misconduct.

Movies filmed at the facility, which closed in 1998, have included the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard and scenes from Zero Dark Thirty.

The NMCD has even allowed “ghost tours” of the prison, and there are future plans to turn Old Main into a virtual amusement park, complete with “barbershops with inmates cutting hair” and “a prisoner-run restaurant,” according to NMCD public affairs director Alex Tomlin.

“Many think there is not much to celebrate about prisons,” Tomlin stated. “But this is something we thought might be interesting to people.”

While the NMCD’s plans may be disrespectful to the prisoners who died during the riot and their families, and to the prison guards who were taken hostage and injured, the state’s desire to financially exploit the facility apparently outweighs such concerns.