‘Old Main’ prison tours resume, with emphasis on history, not ‘ghost stories’

The former state penitentiary, commonly referred to as ‘Old Main,’ on June 3, 2010. New Mexican file photo

A former inmate of the state Department of Corrections’ “Old Main” prison south of Santa Fe — the site of the 1980 prison riot — has asked a district judge to allow him to dig in and around the old pen to search for proof of his claim that the state experimented on and tortured prisoners, and even sold their organs and blood.

The plaintiff in the case is Samuel P. Chavez, who was sentenced to 47 years in prison and served 23 — some of them in Old Main — on a second-degree murder conviction for shooting to death his friend Roy Mintz in 1988.

In a motion filed in First District Court on Oct. 23, Chavez asks for permission to search the premises of the prison for evidence in a case he filed in 2007, alleging his civil rights were violated by the treatment he received as a prisoner — treatment he claims led to his loss of vision.

“Plaintiff will need to physically dig into loose soil surfaces under one of the PNM [Penitentiary of New Mexico] buildings at various locations in order to obtain documentation buried by the plaintiff showing evidence of medical experimentation and torture,” according to the motion.

The motion says Chavez worked as a safety and sanitation clerk, a maintenance assistant and a meat cutter while incarcerated at Old Main and that while he was there, he buried air-tight containers filled with documents and substances that were added to prisoners’ food.

“The documentation consists of memoranda, handwritten directives and makeshift ledgers showing revenues from sales of prisoners’ body organs and blood,” according to the motion, which asks for permission to inspect the basement, boiler rooms, crawl spaces, cell blocks, medical wings, holding cells and other areas around the facility.

Attorneys for both sides in the case could not be reached for comment Thursday. Contact information for Chavez, reportedly from Mesilla, could not be located Thursday.

But a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department denied Chavez’s allegations Thursday.

“As far as the department stands, there is nothing to indicate anything is true about this,” Alex Tomlin said.

She said the department has done extensive work at the Old Main facility in recent years as part of a restoration project, and the building is now used for filming and tours.

“In that process, we’ve checked to make sure there is no mold, no asbestos, no lead,” she said. “There is no indication that the foundation of that prison has been compromised in any way or that there is a chamber that we don’t know about that’s not in the drawings. There is no indication that there is some sort of hidden place. There is no indication that there is any sort of burial site down there. It is a solid concrete slab.”

Tomlin said the department provides almost no medical care beyond basic first aid (prisoners are sent to the hospital for more serious procedures) and does not conduct autopsies.

“We are accountable for those inmates,” Tomlin said. “It’s not like people just come to us and disappear.”

Chavez was a known “jailhouse lawyer” who helped other prisoners with legal filings and was a prisoner representative during the implementation of the Duran Decree, put in place to govern prison conditions after the riot in 1980.

He claims in his 2007 complaint that he suffered years of abuse, torture and retaliation from prison staff because of this role. He says he was kept in solitary confinement for years at a time.

In 2004, after Chavez filed a complaint about his solitary confinement, then District Judge Michael Vigil ordered the Corrections Department to reclassify him and stop holding him in segregation.

“Chavez has continually been in administrative custody for over 7 years,” the order said. ” … The Court has never seen an inmate similarly situated with a clean disciplinary record and perfect conduct kept in administrative segregation for as long as Petitioner.”

According to the order, not a single Corrections Department official was able to explain why Chavez continued to be held in segregation.

Tomlin said Thursday that the Corrections Department “has been very open in the past years in saying we fell into a culture after the riot of overuse of segregation. Because we were so worried about having another riot, we just locked people down,” she said. “We way too often segregated people that did not need to be segregated and kept them there longer than they needed to be.”

Tomlin said that practice has been discontinued and replaced with a system that calls for inmates’ security status to be automatically reviewed every six months and allows inmates to work toward lower security ratings.

Attorney Mark Donatelli — who represented the plaintiffs in the class-action suit that led to the Duran Decree and later was appointed to work with prison representatives during the implementation and monitoring of the decree — said he had never heard any stories from inmates about blood or organ sales or the food being poisoned.

He did hear stories about missing bodies, he said, but no family members ever came looking for any missing people.

But Donatelli said he did work with Chavez during that time, and he found him to be “reliable and credible.”

Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or phaywood@sfnewmexican.com.