The old New Mexico State Penitentiary

On July 25, 2009, as part of PhotoArts Santa Fe, I went on a field trip to the old New Mexico State Penitentiary, infamous for a riot in 1980 in which 33 inmates were murdered by other inmates. About 10 photographers spent three hours shooting inside and outside the prison. Most of the interior shots had to be done on a tripod, unless you wanted to use flash, which no one did.

I took only my Nikon D40 with a Sigma 10:20 lens. I figured that being inside a dark prison, I wouldn’t have much use for my D80 with its 18:200 lens–and I was right. Most of the spaces were not very big, so the wide angle worked perfectly.

We started in the gas chamber, but I have not organized this book according to the way we moved through the prison. In fact, once we were shown the gas chamber, we were free to roam about the unit in which the murderous riot took place. We saw where inmates’ heads were chopped off and where one inmate’s body was incinerated.

I didn’t take any photos there, but I did shoot the gas chamber. It was used only once--in 1960--so it didn’t quite carry the same burden that the cellblock of death did.

Our guide said that the prison was closed in 1999 and everyone moved to a new facility nearby. As the photos show, no effort was made to clean up. Today part of the prison is used as a movie set.

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