Exterior: Rain falls on a crumbling and vacant state penitentiary, the site of the country’s deadliest prison riot almost 30 years ago.
Lightning strikes a transformer nearby, knocking out electricity to the prison, leaving it in pitch blackness.
If this sounds like the opening to a Hollywood movie, it ain’t. This is reality at the old New Mexico state penitentiary, where film production offices have been running on generators for the past four weeks, ever since the transformer blew.
It remains unclear who will fix it. According to Alex Cuellar, public information officer for the state’s Property Control Division, which oversees approximately 750 state-owned buildings, including the old pen, it’s the Corrections Department’s responsibility. But Corrections Department Public Information Officer Tia Bland says, “It’s not clear who will be responsible for evaluating and fixing the transformer problem.”
In the meantime, the electricity-less, leaky-roofed 450,000-square-foot building is slowly falling apart from the inside out.
The 53-year-old facility also faces competition in the near future; the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners recently approved Santa Fe Studios, a film studio that will be built on 65 acres across the street from the state pen on State Highway 14.
“Nobody’s gonna want to office up here anymore,” Rick LaMonda says. He is a retired key control officer for the state penitentiary who spent 28 years as an employee here. White-haired, with muttonchop sideburns and dressed in black, LaMonda has volunteered as caretaker at the old prison since its shut-down in 1998. “I’m in charge of the building,” LaMonda says. Yet, he admits, he has no authority to get the lights working again.
“Why they don’t want to turn it on is beyond me,” LaMonda says of the electricity problem, as he saunters down a long hallway where ceiling tiles have fallen—a sure sign of water damage to the roof. He loves working with the film crews here, but worries that, without utilities, business will go elsewhere. Production offices, through an agreement with the state film office, get to use the prison free of charge. But even that, LaMonda notes, will not be incentive enough to get crews during the winter.
Indeed, the made-for-TV movie Sex & Lies in Sin City, currently filming at the old pen, will probably be the last film to house its production offices here, according to New Mexico Film Office Director Lisa Strout.
“I don’t see us having offices out there unless we figure something out for electricity,” she says, adding, “it’s unfortunate that this happened in the middle of production.”
Strout readily admits the old prison is the “most significant” state facility open to studios right now. But once Santa Fe Studios is built, Strout says, the prison’s future is indeed uncertain. “We don’t have a formal statement on this yet, but…my personal feeling is that I’d like to see it be something for local productions.”
As for those working on Sin City, they seem to be taking the inconvenience in stride. Sara Scaritt, the film’s production coordinator, is responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations on the set. Sitting in her stiflingly hot production office, she jokes, “This is what made the pioneers make it across the country.”
Be that as it may, “it’s not an ideal situation when you’re trying to function,” Strout says.