Feb 10, 2023 I Brent Swancer

A Bloody Riot, Prison Ghosts, and One of the Most Haunted Prisons in America

One common feature of the many haunted places of our world is that they are often imbued with a dark past, saturated in stories of pain, suffering, and death. These factors seem to ensure that tales of hauntings and paranormal phenomena are etched upon them, this suffering and death somehow managing to seep into their very being to make them wellsprings of the odd. One sort of place that seems to be very at home within this context are haunted prisons, which are often stained with tragedy and death, and one of the most haunted of these has managed to become well known for its morbid past and its many tales of aggressive specters. 

As with many purportedly haunted places, our story here begins with violence and strife. The Penitentiary of New Mexico, once a men’s maximum security prison in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, had already had a long history of turmoil and violence even before it was to become ground zero for one of the most violent prison riots in the correctional history of the United States. In 1922, one inmate was killed and several others injured when tower guards opened fire on rebelling prisoners who had refused to enter their cells. In 1953, inmates protesting the use of excessive force seized a Deputy Warden Ralph Tahash and twelve guards and held them hostage. In the ensuing mayhem guards would kill two inmates and wound a number of others, leading to the construction of a more secure “main unit” of the prison. Yet this was nothing compared to the nightmare that unfolded in February of 1980.

In the early morning hours of February 2, 1980, guards entered dormitory E-2 on the south side of the Prison and the door to the dormitory was accidentally left unlocked. In another strange violation of safety procedure, it would turn out that the door to the hallway that led to the prison’s control center was also left unlocked, and on top of this there were only 15 guards on duty watching over 1,100 very grumpy inmates. It was a perfect recipe for disaster, and when they saw their chance prisoners long fed up with mistreatment, unsanitary living conditions, prison overcrowding, bad food, and inferior prison services rushed the guards and havoc ensued. During the very first two minutes four guards had been taken hostage, and when inmates stormed the main corridor the guard on duty at the control center fled, leaving behind keys that could open most of the prison gates and doors. What followed was a bloodbath that would become the most horrific orgy of violence the U.S. prison system had ever seen.

Penitentiary of New Mexico

By all accounts the inside of the prison became an absolute free-for-all of chaos and violence that one reporter would later say was a “merry-go-round gone crazy.” Prisoners ripped out the plumbing, others raided the infirmary and took drugs with some of them flailing about tripping ballas and others overdosing, while still others stalked and hunted their enemies down for revenge. Full on brawls were breaking out everywhere, men were killed with piping, work tools, and crude homemade knives called shanks, and one man was partially decapitated after being thrown over the second-tier balcony with a noose around his neck, after which the corpse was then dragged down and hacked up. However, the worst was yet to come when inmates began using tools from the prison to gain access to cellblock 4, which was the protective segregation unit that held the “snitches,” the ones that had gotten many of the other inmates locked up in the first place and were kept out of the general prison population for their own safety. When the rioters broke into cellblock 4 a horror show began to play out. Men were brutally tortured, butchered, dismembered, viciously decapitated with makeshift weapons, and hung up on the cells with sheets or burned alive. Retired NYPD detective Steve DiSchiavi would say of it:

I talked to one of the guys that was in jail for murder that was there. It was absolutely brutal. There was so much blood from them killing everybody that he said there was a river of red running going through the hallways. They cut guys' heads off. They were running around with heads on broomsticks.

In the meantime, twelve prison guards in total were taken hostage, and fitful negotiations began between police and some of the inmate leaders. This went on for two days until the riot finally began to run out of steam and simmer down, and in the early afternoon of Sunday, February 3, National Guardsmen and police retook the prison without any violence. In the aftermath of the riot, 33 prisoners were dead, most of them from the segregation unit, but amazingly no guards had been killed. At the time the grim incident shocked the nation, and shortly after this the prison was shut down and abandoned. Today parts of it have been repurposed for other uses, and the sections of prison still standing have often been used as sets for movies. Considering this black cloud of death and violence hanging over the place it should perhaps come as no surprise that it is said to be intensely haunted.  

Much of the phenomena here is rather typical of haunted prisons, like anomalous footsteps, flickering lights, the clanging of bars when no one is there, unexplained noises including growls and screams, overwhelming feelings of evil and darkness as well as unease and powerful fear, mysterious mists, the feelings of being watched and followed, the sound of cell doors slamming shut or disembodies voices whispering in the dark, but there are also spookier things reported from here. There is often reported the smell of burning flesh or rotting meat that will descend out of nowhere and is so sickening that visitors have been known to retch or even pass out. One commonly reported phenomenon is that of shadow figures that prowl the cells and corridors, often acting rather aggressively and actively harassing visitors. In one instance a member of a film crew claimed that a “human shaped shadow” stepped out of a cell to flick a cigarette at him, after which it vanished to leave a cigarette butt still smoldering on the floor. Another film crew member reported that a shadow figure followed him into a bathroom and shoved him against a wall. In another case, an extra on one movie set wandered off on his own, walked into a cell, and had the door inexplicably shut on him, leaving him locked up. Indeed, many of the reports of supernatural activity at the prison come from film crews there to film movies or TV shows, as well as news crews. 

One such report comes from actor Scott Patterson, who played the role of an Army captain in charge of the prison in the movie The Boys of Abu Ghraib. Patterson was there for a late night visit to the site selected for filming the interior prison scenes along with a producer for the film, and while they were there they decided to visit the Death Row and the gas chamber. Along the way they were spooked by the hack marks still marring the floor from axes used to decapitate prisoners during the riot, as well as a scorch mark from one of the fires, but the spookiest was yet to come. When they reached the gas chamber, they were surprised to find a single candle sitting there flickering in the darkness, which was incredibly odd as no one else was there and both men insisted they had not lit it. The producer at this point wanted to leave, but Patterson made his way into the gas chamber towards the candle, and that’s when things got even more bizarre. Patterson would say of it:

My training is such that I don’t back away from such experiences. And I looked at him (the producer). I noticed that he was fixated on the viewing area behind me. And I turned around. In the viewing area, we saw black shapes, sitting in chairs. We ran so fast. And we felt it whoosh over us, actually felt the wind over us and we encountered a winged demonic specter in a stairwell that literally flew at us.

The most intense areas for this sort of phenomena are supposedly cellblock 4, where most of the riot deaths occurred, as well as the tool room, laundry room, and the gas chamber. The prison has become popular for urban explorers and ghost hunting crews, and appeared in an episode of the Travel Channel's Dead Files, but not everyone is so convinced that the place is as haunted as it seems. Retired New Mexico State Penitentiary guard Rick LaMonda, who now runs tours of the penitentiary, says:

I need an explanation for it. I’ll find an explanation for it. It could be an animal, or the reflection of traffic passing nearby. Animals are in the old pen. The distant sound of a crying phantom can probably be traced to a band of feral cats who live in the basement and often fight among themselves. Yes, you may hear the moans of tormented souls echoing through the prison’s chambers. But upon closer inspection, you discover the noise is emanating from some not too-to-distant dog kennels used by the state police. Raccoons have managed to get into the place, and their five toe paw prints imprinted in the dust of the floor might suggest a devilish creature lurking about. Other noises might not come from wildlife, but nature does play a hand. Like that wailing sound coming out of Cell Block 2? That’s the wind passing through air-conditioning ducts on the ceiling. And it’s mighty eerie to hear. That icy frost hitting your body? Well, the prison has a lot of open windows, and the wind rushes through them, especially on a cold autumn night.

That’s not to say your imagination won’t start conjuring up ghosts around every corner. In one darkened room, all three of us heard the distant noise of something hitting the floor to our immediate right, something akin to a steel pipe being dropped. Later, while sitting alone in a cell in Cell Block 4, where vengeful prisoners killed cons who were in protective custody because the latter provided insider information to the warren and guards, I heard two noises that couldn’t be immediately explained. A sudden “bump” sound came from the threshold of the cell as I sat on the bunk. Then, while I was whispering some gibberish to the video camera set up by my colleague, Luis, a distinct “shhhhh” noise erupted from the darkness. It wasn’t Luis or Rick (or so they claim) as they had both moved out of the cell block earlier.

Can this all really be explained in a rational, mundane way? Or are we dealing with forces from beyond the physical realm that have managed to tether themselves to this creepy place with its grim history? Whatever the case may be, the Penitentiary of New Mexico has certainly earned its place among some of the creepiest and spookiest haunted places around. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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