Hell In A Cell

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By Jennifer Garcia and April M. Brown

Alleged hauntings and ghost sightings of places where accidents and tragedies occurred is not uncommon. In fact, there are many places throughout the state that are said to be haunted, so it should come as no surprise that the New Mexico State Penitentiary’s Old Main facility is on that list — especially since it was the site of a vicious riot in 1980.


Inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, overtook prison guards in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, 1980. Fed up with airing grievances about overcrowding, substandard food and the treatment of some prisoners — that seemed to fall on deaf ears — they decided to take action.

During a routine inspection in one of the dormitories, the inmates overtook four prison guards and took them hostage. They then went to another dormitory, where another four guards were taken hostage. They continued to take hostages until they had acquired a total of 12. 

During their initial assault, they were able to gain access of the control center, where they were able to get keys for the five grill gates in the prison. What happened after that will forever be etched in New Mexico history. For 36 hours, prisoners and guards alike, were tortured, beat, stabbed and raped. There were also several overdoses after the rioters gained access to the prison pharmacy.

Prison and state officials made contact with some of the prisoners and talked to them, in hopes of trying to get them to surrender and release the hostages. The mayhem continued until Feb. 3, when most of the inmates surrendered and law enforcement and National Guardsmen were able to retake the prison with no resistance.

Following the riot, various reasons were cited for the incident, which included poorly trained guards, logistical factors, difficult-to-control factors and glass in the control center that despite being bulletproof, was not unbreakable.

Since the riot, some former prison guards and others that worked at the Old Main facility have shared their stories of strange — and sometimes supernatural — happenings. Some believe that there are ghosts in the facility. Now, David Trainer and Rosie Sais share their stories.

David Trainer is on his 25thyear with the State of New Mexico’s Corrections Department. He is now the ACA/Quality Assurance Manager for the penitentiary, but he once worked at Old Main, after the inmates were moved to the new facility in the late-90s.

As part of this year’s Centennial Festivities, the Corrections Department opened up tours of Old Main where Trainer also volunteers his time as a tour guide. During his version of the tour, Trainer shares how a ghostly encounter helped him evolve from a skeptic to a believer in the supernatural.

The inmates left Old Main in 1998, but the kitchen and control room remained in use until everything was transitioned to the new facility. At this time, there were only two corrections officers stationed at the old building during the graveyard shift — one officer in the tower outside and one inside the control room.

The big, abandoned building was deadly quiet at that time of night. Trainer was manning the control room inside Old Main alone. Since he was responsible for monitoring activities within the control room, he couldn’t listen to music or watch TV to help pass the dark and lonely shift.

As he sat in silence, he was suddenly startled by a face looking at him from the other side of the large, rectangular window inside the control room. The face was that of an older, Hispanic man.  He said what truly shook him was that it was only a face.

He was certain that no one else was in the building, but he stepped into the corridor to check anyway. The hallway is very open and extensive, so it was clear that it was not a personthat peered at him through the window.  At that moment, he said he became very frightened. So frightened, that he called the tower officer outside, forcing him to remain on the phone with him until daylight.

Trainer said that this incident transformed into a believer from that point forward. When asked if he had ever compared any photos from the riots to the face he saw in the window, he vehemently shook his head and said “no.” He said he really didn’t want to know.

Rosie Sais, public affairs coordinator for the Office of Corrections, said she has also had some chilling experiences both personally and through tours. On one tour, Sais said that an older woman reported to her that a man suddenly appeared over her shoulder during a stop in front of Cell Block 4. The woman referred to the ghostly figure as one of the “shadow people.” Sais said she had felt something behind her while she was speaking to the tour attendees, but she shook it off and continued on. 

Sais said that while activity is reported all over the prison, most of the activity seems to center around the basement, in the area where the gas chamber sits. Not only have some of the employees recorded voices in this area with a digital voice recorder, they also have constant issues with the door leading to the basement.

Sais said that sometimes, when the door is not locked, it feels as if someone is pulling it from the other side. She said during one such incident, multiple employees tried prying the door open to no avail, before it suddenly and easily swung open when they were all about to give up.

There are continued reports of negative presences, ghostly voices and things being moved around without explanation. Photos capturing orbs are also common here. Numerous ghost hunters have visited the place and deemed it very haunted.

Supernatural events such as those reported at Old Main cause fear, but it’s most likely a fear of the unknown. Although alarming, according to Sais and Trainer, no one has ever reported truly feeling threatened or being harmed by any of the entities inside of Old Main. 

Both Sais and Trainer said that the spiritual activity must be related to the riot. More than 30 inmates and officers were murdered and tortured in various places throughout the building. Reportedly, victim’s bodies were found stacked in the corridors and stairways after the riot. They agree that these dark, heinous events must have left some sort of dark imprint on the building.