New Mexico State Penitentiary, Santa Fe, NM (More Witness Accounts and Ghost Stories)

One of the popular ghost stories that have come out of the prison involves a member of one of the film crews who reported seeing the dark-garbed figure while he was alone in the prison. The figure went into a bathroom. When the crew member followed, the bathroom was empty. An article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on October 31st, 2010 provides more detail on the crew member’s experience. It was written by Robert and was entitled “Chasing ghosts in the old pen.”

   “We got the bad news when we walked up to the entrance of the old New Mexico State Penitentiary right at dusk. There’s no electricity in the joint. So once the sun goes down, you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

Not that we wanted to see our hands. What we wanted to see in the old pen were ghosts. And that’s why this New Mexican reporter joined photographer Luis Sanchez Saturno one night this week to do time after dark in the now vacant structure, south of Santa Fe off N.M. 14.

And our guide, retired New Mexico State Penitentiary guard Rick LaMonda, was right: After 6:30 p.m., it was pitch dark in the prison. No lights, no heat, and no running water.

The pen has a bloody history. The February 1980 riot led to the deaths of at least 33 inmates, many of whom suffered extremely violent deaths at the wrong end of a blowtorch. At that time, there were more than 1,100 men in the prison, which was built in the mid-1950’s. After the riot, new facilities were constructed north and south of the main prison, and new prison buildings were erected near Las Cruces, Los Lunas, and Grants to ease the overcrowding. Over time, all the inmates from the main facility were moved out to the other sites, and late in 1998 former Gov. Gary Johnson closed the main facility, noting that it represented “uncontrollable disturbances.”

Since then, the site has been used as a location for film productions including the 2005 remake of  The Longest Yard and the yet-to-be-released romantic fantasy Passion Play as well as National Guard and New Mexico State Police training, according to LaMonda. But other than that, it’s been empty, except perhaps, for the ghosts.

We’d heard the stories told by former prison employees and cast and crew members from film sets: disembodied voices moaning through the cell blocks, apparitions of former convicts wandering the halls, the sound of a cell door slamming shut when no one is around, and so on.

LaMonda passed on one such tale he heard from a Passion Play employee who spotted a male figure clad in green convict garb walking by the accounting office in the pen around 10 one night. No one else was supposed to be in the building, so the brave crew member looked into the bathroom where the figure entered. No one was there.

A moment later, the figure came out and walked back in the other direction, disappearing into the darkness of the hall.

LaMonda, who insists he does not believe in ghosts, is the unofficial custodian of the prison now. He has two first-hand stories of his own. Once, while making his rounds in the basement after dark, he was startled as a huge white ball flew at his head. He ducked, swung his flashlight around, and discovered, on a nearby perch, a big white owl staring at him.

His other tale isn’t so easily explained, though he maintains it is not supernatural. On at least four occasions, he has seen a dark figure, its shadow spotlighted against a window at the end of the hall, walking across the hall to another. When he investigates, there’s no one there.

Still, he doesn’t buy into the ghost business. “I need an explanation for it,” he said. “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, he said. 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.

“But who did it?” LaMonda asked us, still unwilling to consider the option of a spectral companion.

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.

You can still see the outline of the charred imprints of blow torch victims in two spots in Cell Block 4 (including right outside my cell)> LaMonda says various attempts to wash, bleach or paint over the figures on the floor have failed.

He’ll acknowledge the prison itself is scary. He said 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. The production team couldn’t find the extra, so they called in LaMonda, who found the man shivering on an old bunk in the corner. LaMonda let the unfortunate actor out, and the guy promptly quit the show!

Nationwide, abandoned prisons are rumored to be haunted. Alcatraz. Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. West Virginia Penitentiary. The Old Jail in St. Augustine, Fla.

Maybe these haunted-prison stories stem from the notion that some men and women will always serve time, even after death. We were lucky. Some people get locked away forever. We got out before the chimes of midnight rang, signaling the witching hour.

But LaMonda will go back when called, walking the deserted halls alone, armed only with his flashlight. He claims he has no fear of the unearthly

His biggest concern is unexpectedly coming across a homeless person looking for a place to sleep or a youngster out to cause mischief. He’s not sure how he would react to them.

“The living scare me,” he said. “Not the dead. The dead don’t bother me.”

And he, apparently, does not bother them either.”

There is a lot to discuss about this article. I’ll start with the account from the Passion Play employee. First of all, there is the assumption that “no one else was supposed to be in the building.”  As I mentioned earlier, Old Main sits right next to the present day Hi-Max facility and as such an escort is required to be on-site anytime someone is in Old Main. This is a precautionary measure. If something bad was to occur in the Hi-Max, their job is to escort the visitors off of the prison grounds. This means that the employee was not alone and also offers many alternative explanations for the “ghost” sighting.


Additionally, the account is a little misleading as there is not a direct line of sight from the administrative office to the restrooms. By the employee’s admission, it is dark and at a distance of about thirty feet. This makes a rather low-grade observation. The area near the restrooms also contains access to several other rooms, which were often used to store props and other materials for the film production crew. There is more than one place a person could have gone in the area other than the restrooms.

However, the more exciting thing that the article mentions is the rational explanations given to the various phenomena by Rick LaMonda. This is because LaMonda has had to be in the building for extended periods of time. If there was a noise, it was his job to investigate it to ensure that no one had broken into the building, and as a result, he is familiar with its conditions and sounds. This lies in direct contrast to many of the other accounts where the witness was merely visiting Old Main.

LaMonda was extremely helpful during our multiple investigations inside Old Main. In fact, many members of the team gave Rick the nickname “Elvis” because of his long sideburns. Where ever we were, if something unusual was heard, seen or felt, LaMonda would say, “Oh, I know what that is,” and would lead the group directly to the source of the disturbance. The same elements are true with Marcella Armijo, another person who has spent extensive time at the penitentiary. Yet in all that time she only had one thing happen that she would consider being unusual “but probably not a ghost.”

Another actor, Scott Patterson, was working at Old Main where he also claimed to have a paranormal encounter. His ghost story was actually featured on a television program. This is his account.

   “After landing the role of an Army captain in charge of the prison in the movie The Boys of Abu Ghraib, actor Scott Patterson (The Gilmore Girls) reached Albuquerque around midnight, arriving on a late night flight. A producer on the new film greeted him at the airport.

Instead of heading for his hotel, Patterson accepted the producer’s offer to take him for a late night visit to the site selected for filming the interior prison scenes — the abandoned, former maximum-security New Mexico State Penitentiary, located just outside of Santa Fe.

Also at his producer’s suggestion, Patterson decided to visit Death Row. He intended to sit in the chair inside the gas chamber itself for “the experience.”

As the two men made their way underground three levels toward the gas chamber, Patterson noted a spot on the floor where the concrete had been marred by what appeared to be hacking marks. Further along the way, he saw a blackened spot on the floor that he didn’t understand, uneasily noting it took the vague shape of a human form.

When they reached the viewing room for the gas chamber, the two men found a small lit candle standing upright in a chair.  By Patterson’s account, the producer looked terrified and claimed to have no knowledge of how the candle got there. He expressed an interest in leaving at that point, but Patterson said, “My training is such that I don’t back away from such experiences.”

So he insisted on continuing on until he actually sat in the gas chamber chair. Patterson described what happened next as he looked as his producer, standing in the entrance to the gas chamber:

…and I looked at him. 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…

As the two men ran from Death Row, Patterson claimed that they encountered a winged demonic specter in a stairwell that literally flew at them.  The two men cowered in fright, screaming like little children. Patterson exclaimed, “And we felt it whoosh over us, actually felt the wind over us.”

Somewhere along the line as they fled in terror, Patterson dropped his cell phone. The following morning, a sound technician, a local hire, found the phone on Death Row and returned it.

The technician said, Wait a minute. You went down into the death chamber at night? No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t you know the history of this prison?”

An interesting ghost story isn’t it? However, that is all that it is. As I have mentioned, visitors are never left alone in Old Main. The dark figure they saw behind them was actually Officer LaMonda, who told me his version of the event along with the occasional chuckle. As for the “winged demonic specter,” say hello the big owl that lives in the basement, just down the hall from the gas chamber. Having run into her (the owl) myself, I can attest that it is quite a startling experience.

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