Sometimes, before the riot, the stabbings were so quiet that all you heard was poom, poom quick in the darkness, muffled and low.

There were "free world" knives smuggled in from outside, but that hardly mattered; an inmate could kill with a screwdriver, an Ajax can lid, a spoon honed down on the concrete floors or a razor blade stuck on the end of a broom. If you jammed a blade into a bar of soap and dropped the soap into a sock, you could just take aim and swing the sock.

In the night, men were raped in dormitories so crowded that inmates slept on the floor. A convict's ear had been bitten off by the man who was assaulting him; the medical technician tried to sew it back, but the ear never took. An informer in the protective custody unit was sent by accident one day to a group shower, where another convict recognized him. "I'll be right back," the other convict said, "I'm going to kill you." And he did come back, with a razor blade shoved into a toothbrush; he used it to open the snitch's throat.

There were prison classes, but not enough. There werre jobs in the furniture and shoe shops, but not nearly enough. There were single-man cells housing two inmates, and bunks lined up side by side in dormitories, where radios thumped and wailed, and roaches and mice and clogged toilets.

There were ill-paid guards who would hiss small insults, or bang on cell windows in the middle of the night with flashlights shining, or change their rules from one day to next. In the pen, the digs built up under the skin, like maggots.

And there were men who sat still in the bad prison light, festering and furious, turning over in their minds some remembered slights now three years past -- the heroin seller who burned his customers, the snitch now locked away in the protection of Cellblock Four, the con who threatened a relationship by making advances at somebody else's homosexual "kid," the black who insulted the Chicano, the Chicano who threatened the black and the Chicano who shoved the Anglo until the Anglo pulled some brothers together and waited to vent the rage.

Before it erupted the weekend of Feb. 2-3 in the bloodiest convict-against-convict rampage ever loosed inside a modern American prison, the New Mexico State Penitentiary was a storage bin for every felony inmate in the state.

There are two minimum-security facilities in New Mexico, but prisoners are transferred there only after a stay at the state penitentiary. For at least the first portion of their sentences, multiple murderers, check forgers, armed robbers and drug dealers all did time at the Santa Fe pen, most of them crowded together, without much to separate lifers from first-time offenders.

It was a case study in desperate American prisons -- underfunded, understaffed, filled far beyond capacity with men who live each day taut and clawing for some small sense of self. A University of Alabama psychologist, an expert in correctional work, wrote an article for the journal Law and Human Behavior, using the New Mexico penitentiary as a rich observatory for the effects of overcrowding, extended idleness, inadequate medical care.

A class-action lawsuit, one of many filed around the country by the eight-year-old American Civil Liberties Union Prison Project, described the penitentiary as "totally unfit for human habitation." Its design, a series of long, double-tiered cellblocks and dormitories, followed the 200-year-old institutional tradition that Fred Moyer, former head of the National Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice Planning and Architecture, called "efficient for warehousing -- if you want to discount the kind of atmosphere is breeds and the kinds of disturbances."

It was not the worst penitentiary in the nation -- "I think it's generally true that in most prisons of that type in this country, the same situation exists," said Ralph Knowles, one of the Washington-based ACLU attorneys involved in the class-action suit. And what the New Mexico pen nurtured, inside its thick concrete walls, was men stripped down to the worst that humans can be.

It is not accurate to describe the riot here as "animalistic." Nonhuman animals do not shove steel pipes through each other's heads, or hold torches to their eyes, or hurl wounded bodies off second-story tiers.

"They don't respect anything or anyone," said a former inmate who spent 13 years in the New Mexico pen on a murder conviction. "When you got absolutely nothing left but your life, and it's worthless, you're capable of anything."

Although there has not yet been an official version of what happened in the early hours of Feb. 2, it is known that inmates somehow overpowered the guards in one cellblock.

A young inmate interviewed, last week said the word in the pen, confirmed to him by one of the guards taken hostage, was that three guards making late lockup rounds stepped into a dormitory and for some reason momentarily locked the door behind them. The inmate, a pale, skinny 21-year-old -- call him Jack -- said that the dormitory prisoners, who had been drinking homemade liquor, lunged for the guards and grabbed their keys.

The men stormed the hallways, Jack said, opening cells, overpowering the few guards who came to see what was happening. When the inmates reached the control center, heart of the prison complex, a group lifted a heavy steel desk, Jack said, and threw it through the thick glass that supposedly kept the area secure. Jack heard screams, people running through the halls, and finally an elated voice over the prison intercom: "We have the penitentiary. This is KPNM Radio Riot."

They raided the canteen, hauling coffee, cookies and candy back to the cellblocks. Then they ran, Jack said, straight to the prison hospital.

"They went right for the Class A narcotics," he said. "Demerol, morphine, sulfate." Some of the drugs were in 500-capsule jars; inmates swallowed pills by the handful, or crushed and dissolved them and passed out syringes. "I saw people taking 40 or 50 Dilantin," Jack said, "20 or 30 Demerols. That's enough to kill a person."

They pulled gallons of glue and paint thinner from the prison shops, soaked some rags and passed them around.Anybody in a penitentiary knows about "sniff." It shuts down the brain, kicks out every inhibition. As a former inmate described it last week, "Even the worst of us have a little scruples, morals or whatever. You don't even know what that means when you sniff."

For the next day and a half, in frenzied ways that seemed to Jack to coincide with the cycles of drug highs and lows, inmated roamed the smoky halls and killed one another.

Gangs moved under cover of riot, settling old scores, Jack recognized a small band of Chicano prisoners, part of a larger gang well known in most western penitentiaries, and a racist Anglo self-protection group called the Aryan Brotherhood. A third "death squad," seven close friends, carried machetes and grenade guns grabbed from the control center.

The yard filled with prisoners who wanted out; others were murdered as they tried to leave the buildings. Inmates stabbed others to keep from being labeled traitors, or being stabbed themselves. And when someone cried, "Let's go to Four," a small mob, armed with acetylene torches to burn through the bars, moved on the protective-custody unit, home of the snitches.

One by one, in the burning corridors of Cellblock Four, inmates who had asked for protective custody were dragged from their cells: the informants, the open homosexuals, the small black man who went crazy a while back and would preach from his cell to the empty halls.He was decapitated.

Outside the pen, as the 14 prison employes who had been taken hostage were slowly released, self-appointed inmate representatives faced off a small collection of reporters and prison officials.

"They were treating us like little children and we're grown-up men," said one.

"They've got a six-month waiting list to see a psychiatrist, and there's guys in here walking around like zombies," said another.

They spoke of crowding, of terrible food, of relatives strip-searched during visiting hours, of cutbacks in their schools and work-release programs. Before they surrendered to state police, they made a reporter promise to air their story on television.

Twenty-eight inmates' bodies were identified.

Five are so badly mangled and burned that police have no idea who they are.

The prison complex (which, without heat or beds or full plumbing, is still holding most of the inmates) will be completely rebuilt, and Gov. Bruce King has already announced plans for a new 500-bed maximum security penitentiary, plus an early opening of the now half-completed 500-bed medium security facility in central New Mexico.

The legislature has been asked for new money for guards' salary increases and improved training.

The governor's people say they were trying to defuse the pen even before the riot. The kitchen had just been completely refurbished, and the overcrowding would have been relieved by the medium-security facility later in the year, they say.

It was not enough, and it came too late.

"There comes a time in a penitentiary," said Jim Burkhead, a bearded Albuquerque teacher who used to lead philosophy and humanities classes at the pen, "with people serving sentences of upward of 200 years, that they have nothing to lose. 'Oh, yeah, convict me. Add another life sentence to the sentence I'm already serving.' If you have people who are desperate enough, if you take enough privileges away, if you harass them enough, if they're overcrowded enough and the racial tensions are high enough . . . it's kind of a physical irrational squaring off in the hall, I could feel it, almost like walking through a cellophane barrier . . . they feel like they've lost their last little straw hold on any kind of control of their lives.

"And then if accidents happen which allow the desperate, the crazy, the people who have nothing to lose any more to act, get loose and act, and then another accident happens which allows them to go even further, like dominoes, that begins to be like -- like wine. It's heady. It's power . . . big tip-of-the-wave power . . . like an alcoholic who's been off for three years, and all of a sudden he takes three straight shots of whiskey. It's just going to go wham."