A cheerful excursion to the WV State Penitentiary!

West Virginia State Penitentiary, 1876-1995

Yes, nothing like a visit to a forbidding state penitentiary to start the weekend! I hope you’ve been behaving yourself.

West Virginia State Penitentiary

We happened by the former prison once again while returning from a visit to my doctor in, appropriately, West Virginia. Tours had ended by the time we arrived, but as it can be a long trip, we were happy for an excuse to stop and wander around the Moundsville, West Virginia landmark to stretch our legs.

Goofily enough, though Hubby and I lived in the wonderful Mountaineer State for many years, whenever we visited it was raining, so this was the first real opportunity I’ve had to photograph the six-foot-thick hand-carved sandstone Gothic Revival walls of the Penitentiary despite the rain that was threatening (what is it, Moundsville? Do you not like me?).

Aerial 8th Street

Aerial view, 8th St. Photo courtesy Willy Nelson, who has a nice set of Moundsville photos. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Moundsville is named for the 2,000 year-old Adena/Hopewell people’s burial ground in the town’s center; part of the prison is rumoured to be built upon the burial ground, and the namesake burial mound is right across the street from the prison. Thus the men or women occupying cells at the Pen’s front had quite the concrete reminder of death added to the prison-life reminders.

Surrounding the prison, believe it or not, is the town of Moundsville itself—oodles of residences and small businesses, right across the street. As you can see from these aerial shots (circa 1950s-1970s, the date is uncertain), it’s a charming little all-American town! But there’s the state prison, big as life.

Aerial View of Moundsville 2

Note the prison at the upper right-hand corner. Aerial View of Moundsville 2, courtesy Willy Nelson. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 From Nelson’s set of aerial views of Moundsville.

The Moundsville prison was birthed during an upheaval that shook the entire nation. When West Virginia seceded from the state of Virginia and thus the South in 1863, the dual-panhandled new state found itself short of prisons. Local jails could not handle the increasing inmates, and after some political wrangling, ground was broken in 1866. The architecture of the Pen is understandably arresting (so to speak) and not without purpose. According to AbandonedOnline.com,

The design that both the director and warden aspired to was the Northern Illinois Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois. It was built in Gothic Revival architecture using convict labor, to which the exterior was modeled to “exhibit as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.”

West Virginia State Penitentiary

Today I suppose we could just toss them into any office building or shopping mall erected since about 1964 and get the same effect. But moving right along… Though it is imposing, Moundsville’s new prison was apparently considered handsome enough for postcards right through the 1940s. Now, who would you send that “Wish you where here!” note to with that postcard?

From 1876 through 1995, the West Virginia State Penitentiary contained criminals, some of them violent, within its walls; ninety-four of these were executed for their sins against God and man (most by hanging—in 1905, one warden argued passionately against electrocution, but to no avail).

West Virginia State Penitentiary, 1876-1995Through the beginning of the twentieth century, inmates were actually quite industrious within prison workshops, producing works of carpentry, painting, wagon-making, even a blacksmith and tailor! Photos of some of these shops can be seen here (the ladies’ ward photo is interesting as well). Some prisoners worked in a local coal mine, supervised by a non-prison employee.

Truly fascinating to me is the fact that at the WV State Pen, education of the inmates was considered very important, with prisoners attending regular classes in the prison’s school and studying in the library! (If you ask me, a few good-old fashioned humanities courses in art, literature, history, and science might not hurt today’s inmates, either.) Inmates also had a band which gave performances, and enjoyed (one supposes) Indpendence Day activities and sporting events.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, though, the prison’s conditions worsened as the years went on. Originally meant to hold 480 prisoners, during the 1960s it contained 2,000 souls! Despite a 1929 expansion of the facility, overcrowding and the natural mental and physical consequences of jamming too many human beings (and those inclined to disobey the law to begin with, no less) into one place quickly started to become a problem. The Pen witnessed multiple riots, including a two-day riot in 1986, and several escapes, one in 1979 resulting in an off-duty state trooper being mortally wounded before his wife’s eyes (the perpetrator, having been recaptured in 1981, is serving “several life sentences” back in WV’s custody).

Murders, suicides, rapes, violent attacks, and truly cruel punishments occurred within the walls, earning Moundsville’s prison a very bad reputation (though none of this stopped Charles Manson from requesting a transfer to Moundsville due to its proximity to his family and his hope for better treatment here). Indeed, the West Virginia State Penitentiary found itself a fairly constant resident of the Department of Justice’s “Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities” list.

The Wall: West Virginia State Penitentiary, 1876-1995

Though overcrowding at the Moundsville prison was relieved by the building of additional state prisons in West Virginia, the state Supreme Court ruled that the facility’s non-air-conditioned, steam-heated 5×7 cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the Penitentiary closed. This did not fully happen until 1993, but in 1995, the Pen was shuttered, its inmates moved to the prison in Mt. Olivet.

After the closing

At this point, the city of Moundsville stepped in and purchased a quarter-century lease on the old prison. It is used for various training activities for local police and is even the location of mock prison riots for the purpose of training corrections officers and wardens! The prison has featured in quite a few history and ghost-hunting programs during and after is official use, and was also part of 1955’s terrific, Charles Laughton-directed The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum (with a special appearance by Lillian Gish). I’m telling you that mostly because it’s a very good movie, possibly one of the best from the 50s, but also yes, Moundsville does feature. Ahem.

West Virginia State Penitentiary

More famously, however, Moundsville’s prison is available to be toured, by the curious and paranormal hunters alike; speaking to the latter, Moundsville’s Penitentiary is reputed to be one of the most haunted prisons in America. Some stories date back to the Great Depression (and surely building the place so near, if not atop, a native burial ground helps move these tales along); the riots, executions, and even murders that happened within have only fueled the fire.

West Virginia State Penitentiary

Every review I’ve seen of the prison tours is just glowing, so if you’re in the area, you are probably going to enjoy yourself—though more than one review suggests going when it’s under 78 degrees. The roughly 90-minute tour is also wheelchair-accessible. You can also spend the night, head in for some Halloween mayhem (there’s a crumb-cruncher-safe version, too), or visit during Moundsville’s 1800s-loving Elizabethtown Festival for light-hearted distractions to the turrets and cell blocks of the prison.

West Virginia State Penitentiary

Taken with my rarely used (and usually at home) 75-300mm, no tripod. In other words, a minor miracle.

More about Moundsville’s former West Virginia State Penitentiary:

You may enjoy this amusing review of a night spent at the West Virginia State Pen, and as a former resident, I’m pretty sure his crack about the license plate motto is tongue-in-cheek.

Official site of the West Virginia Penitentiary, with tour information

West Virginia State Penitentiary at Wikipedia

West Virginia’s State Pen at Dark Destinations

TripAdvisor Reviews of Tours

Less amusing, more informative tour review

West Virginia State Penitentiary at AbandonedOnline.com

Moundsville Penitentiary at e_WV

2004, ’05, and ’06 photos of the WV State Pen at GraveAddiction

Flowers At The Gate

Flowers blooming right outside the prison’s gate.


3 thoughts on “A cheerful excursion to the WV State Penitentiary!

  1. Must have been the week for prison pictures — one of my photography students submitted photos she took of Eastern State Penitentiary when she was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as part of her portfolio last night! She said Al Capone was actually incarcerated there, and had quite the cushy digs with his sofa and other comforts of home.

  2. What an engaging, informative and thoroughly interest history lesson, dear Jen. I adore posts like this, which expand my historical knowledge and leave me seriously wanting to see the location at their heart.

    ♥ Jessica

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