Tip of the hat to the woman I overheard talking on her mobile in the DFW airport this summer:
“And we were, like, going to go on this rilly cool tour of the prison outside Santa Fe? But it was, like, totally sold out?”
After I got over the cognitive dissonance (prisons? tours? upspeak?), I quickly googled and found…yes, the New Mexico Corrections Department runs tours of the “Old Main” prison facility outside Santa Fe. (Go check out that link now: There are two more tour dates this season.)
Which was still a little hard for me to grasp, actually, because that prison, which is no longer in use, was the site of one of the country’s worst prison riots, in 1980. Thirty-three people were killed, many in really grisly ways, and the whole facility was taken over by the prisoners for a while.
I was seven years old then; we lived about 45 minutes down the road. I happened to overhear the grownups talking about what went down, and happened to see photos (a family friend, unfortunately for her, was a paralegal with the state attorney general’s office and had to deal with all the materials). Let’s just say I learned a bit about man’s inhumanity to man, with a blowtorch, at an early age.
So…now it’s a tourist attraction? I was confused, but I booked tickets for Peter and me later in the summer.
It was a really good tour. Other sites of trauma and tragedy should be so lucky to have their stories told so well.
A lot may have hinged on our particular guide, a retired guard who started work in the facility in 1981, not too long after the riots.
His experience kept the tour from seeming morbid or voyeuristic.
The tour itself was done in interesting way, telling the hour-by-hour story of how the riot began and developed. You couldn’t really make up a worse set of unfortunate factors and bad management: recently installed but untested “bulletproof” glass; an unsecured construction site in one cell block (that’s where the blowtorches came from); prison policy that dressed “vulnerable” prisoners (pedophiles, snitches, etc) in different-color jumpsuits, and so on.
Woven in were details about how the corrections department learned and changed following the incident.
These details included not just practical things, such as the more secure way they store cell-block keys now, but also “softer” stuff, all the various programs for prisoners and the like.
One goal of these tours, I realized at the end, was perhaps to explain to people why treating prisoners well is a far better idea than treating them poorly. Even my mother, who is a pretty liberal lady, said when we were talking about the tour later, “Well, prison should be terrible.”
Actually, no, these tours seem to be saying. If prison is terrible, it makes people do terrible things–and then these brutal people will get out of prison and live right next door to you!
So, yes, please, teach the gang leaders how to decorate cakes that they can give to their kids when they visit. Yes, please, have prisoners grow vegetables and run a printing press and sew boxer shorts for the other inmates.
It seems to be working. The woman who spoke to us at the end of the tour said recidivism in New Mexico is only 48 percent–which sounds not so great, but the national rate is more like 75 percent.
So, here’s to being soft on crime, or at least on criminals. Thanks, NMCD–I certainly never thought I’d be inside that building and hear the full story I did.