West Virginia State Penitentiary Tour
Moundsville, West Virginia
The West Virginia State Penitentiary sprawls across 11 acres. The prisoners built it, heavy rock by heavy rock, beginning in 1866. When you watch someone sentenced to "hard labor" in a movie, this place is what the judge had in mind.
That approach to justice lasted until the mid-1980s, when the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the prison's 5x7 foot cells were cruel and unusual punishment -- particularly because two or more convicts were often crammed into them. It was the beginning of the end for the prison as a prison. The WV State Pen closed in 1995.
Now the penitentiary is open again -- as a tourist attraction. It also occasionally stages mock prison riots (for guard training), and hosts a surprisingly popular sleepover "ghost hunt" once a month, where people spend the night in the empty, unlit buildings.
Our guide, Tom, loves his job. He can easily stretch the standard 45-minute tour into one twice that length, peppered with stories of prison riots and revenge murders and of how the inmates in North Hall -- known as "The Alamo" -- would hurl urine and vomit onto the guards.
For such a vast, empty place, the prison is loud -- concrete and steel don't muffle sound. It's clean but ugly, even if some prisoners did try to spruce the place up a bit. We notice a framed painting on the wall depicting the world's longest single arch steel span bridge (which is downstate in Fayetteville). "Danny Lehman painted that," Tom tells us. "He got stabbed through the eye in North Hall. Punctured his brain."
Another prisoner, a "trustie," built a lifelike life-size Indian family out of paper-mache for an exhibit at the big Indian Burial Mound Museum across the street. It looks great, but itwas rejected because some Christians complained about the nearly-nude Indians. Now it's on display in the old cafeteria. "This cafeteria triggered the prison's last major riot," Tom tells us. The governor ended the standoff by striking a deal: 16 hostages for a new cafeteria with heating and air conditioning -- the only building in the whole prison that would ever have such luxuries.
Our tour continues, past the "protective custody" yard where the rapists, child molesters, "rats," and "snitches" would exercise; past the "old man colony" (you had to be at least 65 and in poor health to live in it), past the open-air toilets that used to be enclosed -- until an inmate was beaten in it. The warden ordered the outer walls knocked down as a punishment.
Tom takes us back to the Wagon Gate, the oldest part of the prison. This is where he likes to stop the tour, pull an inconspicuous lever, and watch the visitors scream in horror as a dummy drops through an overhead trap door, swinging by its neck from a noose. 85 men were executed by hanging at the prison -- a public spectacle until one was accidentally decapitated. From 1949 on, "Old Sparkie" the electric chair took over.
Tom shows us The Wheel House in the administration building, a revolving door with iron bars instead of glass, which separated the Warden and his family -- who by law had to live at the prison -- from the inmates (The law was finally abolished in 1959.) .
We then enter North Hall, where the "bad, bad guys" were housed, according to Tom. This is a classic prison nightmare -- a human warehouse where the men would freeze in the winter and broil in the summer -- tier after tier of tiny cells stacked to the lofty ceiling, open-air showers on the concrete floor, prisoners fed through slots in the cell doors called "the bean hole." Tom tells us that he likes to lock his tour members in cells, then let everyone out except the most skittish person. "When everybody else's cell opens up and theirs doesn't, they really do freak out."
We wind our way through several more cell blocks (the prison has ten) and yards and end the tour at the small prison museum, a fake-wood-paneled room that somehow seems more creepy than the rest of the penitentiary. Here is a display of confiscated hand-made weapons, a replica death cell, and a hand-written letter from Charles Manson, requesting a transfer to West Virginia. (It was denied.)
Here, too, is "Old Sparkie," built by a prisoner in 1950, and for which he had to be moved to another prison in order to prevent his being killed. You can't sit in it, although Tom admits that people always ask to. Above the chair is a glass-fronted box holding the leather bag that was dropped over the condemned prisoner's head. It wasn't just for privacy. "The electricity would go down through the head," Tom explains, "and then exit the cavities of the face: the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. It was gross to see."
Tom may enjoy his work, but he can't understand people who leave here thinking that they could handle life in a place like the West Virginia State Penitentiary. "You get people who think that, 'Oh, I could live like that'," he says. "Yeah, you could live like that for 90 minutes while you're with me. But you try it for 20 years and see if you can live like that."