West Virginia State Penitentiary

January 30, 2011 – The only night I ever spent in prison scared me, just not exactly straight. You see, it wasn’t the kind of scared where you change your life for fear of suffering bad consequences. It was the kind where you scream and run and flail your arms around like Kermit the Frog on the hand of a puppeteer with Parkinson’s.

This was a few years back, sometime in early 2006, if all the meta-information in that pic of me in the prison cell is correct. I can’t trust my own memory in the matter because every previous year in my mind is 1989. The prison where I served my micro-term was West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, also known as Moundsville Penitentiary.

Moundsville was built in the 1870s, only about a decade after West Virginia itself became a state. Back then, the prevailing notions on behavioral modification and punishment involved giant castle-like edifices with thick razor-wire-topped walls. In these more enlightened times, we know that fluorescent light, drop-tile ceilings, and cubicles are much better both for punishment and for crushing any kind of extreme passion out of a man, regardless of which end of the good-evil spectrum it lies.

Moundsville eventually closed in 1995 when it was ruled that its tiny cells—tiny cells that at one point in the history of the prison held three people per—were deemed the proverbial cruel and unusual punishment, a phrase that for some reason we never acronym’d as CUP. From now on, though.

Like other of its contemporaries such as Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Alcatraz in San Francisco, once Moundsville stopped detaining people within its walls against their will, tons of people wanted in of their own volition. So it became a tourist attraction.

However, Moundsville took it all one step further. I mean, sure, you could tour it during the day, and, sure, they threw a mean haunted house every Halloween, but you could also spend an entire night there, exploring the place more or less unchaperoned.

Of course, since this is the 2000s that we’re talking about here, they didn’t then and don’t now call it exploring. They call it ghost hunting.

Now, I’m a man who adores ghosts both in his fictions and in his cereals, but who finds them unevidenced in real life. However, if you’re of the idea that tragedy makes the electronically detectable souls of mankind knock over chairs in the middle of the night, you might as well act on that belief in a place like Moundsville Penitentiary.

After all, it’s got a pretty violent and macabre history, even for a prison. At its highest capacity it kept thousands of mankind’s worst out of civilized society, while inside it endured riots and inmate attacks, dozens of murders, and about 100 state-sanctioned executions. That’s a lot of heavy emotional baggage to have to lug into the afterlife. You might as well hang out on the earthly plane with it for a while and catch your non-breath first.

Heck, the place is even built on a Native American burial ground. Directly across the street from the prison is the giant ceremonial mound that gives the town its name. Plus, don’t forget this is West Virginia we’re talking about here, the state whose license plates read “America’s Heart of Darkness.”

I arrived at this massive foreboding building after dusk, so I don't have very many pictures of the night. All the daytime shots in this article were taken just a few months ago when we happened to be in that wood’s neck. The place hadn’t changed, hadn’t much to say, but, man, I still think that cat’s crazy.

It’s basically in the middle of town, right across from the aforementioned archeology site and a residential neighborhood. I can’t remember how many people were there for the ghost hunt. I think it was somewhere between 40 and 60. I entered, signed in, signed a waiver, and hung out in the vestibule awaiting direction.

The vestibule area had a small museum that included a handwritten letter from Charlie Manson, who had wanted to be transferred to Moundsville so that he could be near family, and the prison’s actual electric chair, predictably dubbed “Old Sparky,” which had been built by one of the inmates. It sent nine men into the electric blue beyond before being decommissioned when the state outlawed capital punishment in 1965 over fears of creating Mitch Pileggi’s character in Shocker, which was pretty forward thinking considering that movie wouldn’t come out for another 24 years.

Eventually, we were split into two groups for an official tour to kick off the night’s shenanigans, one of which was led by a paranormal investigator and the other by an ex-guard, who was a slight, affable man with grey hair and a matching moustache. I chose the latter’s group. The moustache only partially factored into the decision.

The tour was lit only by the flashlights that we brought. In that flickering darkness, the guide showed us the infamous “Sugar Shack,” a basement room that was the equivalent of the Saved by the Bell crew’s The Max for the inmates. On the walls was painted all kinds of cartoonish art, and apparently tons of Oz-types stuff took place there. And that’s as in “HBO’s” not “Wizard of.”

We were also taken down into a dark utility room where an inmate had been ambushed and brutally murdered. I remember this room particularly because he made us all turn off our flashlights to show how absolutely dark the area was and how absolutely trusting he was that none of us strangers were going to murder each other in the moment.

Of course, we saw prison cells. Like every other colossal prison there were floors and floors of them. He went so far as to lock us in the cells for a few minutes while giving us his best “I’m the guard and you’re the dregs of society” treatment.

Other highlights of the tour included a sculpture diorama featuring life-sized statues of Native Americans that some inmate had created and, outside, a small chapel and the location where all the executions by hanging took place.

After the tour, we were led back into the vestibule where we watched a documentary about the place and ate some pizza. Then, like Willy Wonka telling everyone to try his Chocolate Room, they told us we were free to move about the prison on our own. Other than that front area, there were no lights on in the prison all night, and if an area was off limits, it was locked. So pretty simple rules for dating that daughter.

Now, threescore people running through a dark prison in the middle of the night both takes the edge off of it being scary and then adds a whole new edge of scary. The screams of teenage girls reverberated floors away, and every once in a while somebody would run past you in utter terror at having spooked themselves in a cell or having disturbed a bat or something. In my experience, spooked is a contagious disease, and it’s most transmissible between the hours of midnight and 3 am, so every once in a while I did get infected. It was always short-lived, though, because you were pretty quickly reminded that you were being allowed to do this and that you were doing it with a flash mob’s worth of other people.

Every once in a while I’d stumble on visitors who were actually there to hunt ghosts and not just run around screaming like kindergartners at recess. They’d be in the areas of the prison with the darkest history, gathered around a glowing screen or waving some bit of electronica. I do miss the days when spirit contact was all about Ouija boards and séances instead of infrared digital cameras and EMF detectors. Simpler times.

Speaking of the dead, I’m going to break chronology here a bit. While we were there a few months ago, somebody pointed us toward a small 100-year-old graveyard a few miles away from the prison that had been established solely to bury unclaimed convicts. It’s located on Tom’s Run Road, and features rows and rows of white, metal, license-plate-like signs with the names, DOBs, and DODs of the detained-deceased. So after you see where they were life-sentenced, you can go see where they were death-sentenced.

Back in the past, sometime around 3 am I found myself ready to go. Turns out, if you’re not hunting for ghosts, there’s only so many times you can read the graffiti on the cell walls or shine your flashlight into dark corners before getting, well, not bored, but definitely done. Plus, I still had a five-hour drive home, so I signed out and left, pondering what to do with my new-found freedom.

These days, by the look of its website, ghosts are the main trade of the prison, with multiple types of opportunities for staying overnight and bugging the spirits of the badly lived. From my experience, it’s a sleepless night well spent.

11 comments:

  1. I went to West Virginia State Pent. close to 4 years ago for ghost hunting.. While I was reading this pg it brought me back to my night spent in lockdown with my sister.. The place was completely awesome and I would def. love to go back again. I remember riding a tour bus there with other ghost hunters and they had us watch "Ghost Adventures, and Ghost Hunters" both episodes was when those two teams where at this very location to let everyone know if the place was haunted. Which it very much so is.. Also, by watching them it gave us an idea of where would be good spots to investigate since the place was so big. Once I walked in the smell, feel, and vibe I could not even explain. All I can say is I have never felt that nor will I probably ever feel it again. Unless, I go back there. For sure the feeling wasn't a good happy feeling it was kinda like my body telling me that it wasn't in a good enviroment. My hairs on my body stood up the whole time and I constantly felt a presence around me. The psych ward in there was like no other. What some of the prisoners did in there you could not even imagine.. Plus, they gave lobotamies that would take no more then 10 min to the inmates so they would be like vegetables not to forget the bathtub full of ice that the term "cool off" came from. Because when someone was acting up they would give em a full body wrap and place them in the tub until their body temp got so low that they would almost die.. My sister had an encounter in the "Sugar Shack". She was leaning against a pillar that had a blue flower painted on it from an inmate and she felt ice cold like hands I guess on her back. After that we got alot of footage it was great. The Wagon Wheel waa where they would hang the inmates. It had two floors with a big flight of stairs that they would walk the prisoners up and put the rope around their neck and then they had an opening in the lloor which they then would make the person step in and drop through the ceiling which would put them to their deaths by hanging. Families from the town back in the day would come and watch it take place. There is just so much to say about the place. I can say it is just amazing and I would love to go back there one day.

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  2. Our License plates do not read America's Heart of Darkness. Never have never will. Get your facts straight. The license plates read Wild and Wonderful. Thats what its read all of my 35 years of life.

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    1. You are very rude Miss Priss

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    2. She is right though....West Virginia, wild and wonderful. Lol...I can tell its certainly wild in west Virginia. I live in a small town 10 mins to moundsville....I see this prison regularly. My boyfriends gram lived one block away. You can imagine how fun it was when they rioted in the 80s and had a prison break in the 90s. The adena burial mound is way cooler and in my opinion, of more paranormal inter re est than the prison seeing how it supposed to be a portal to the dead...

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    3. The author was being humorous with the "Heart of Darkness" comment.
      Relax, folks.

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  3. Check your facts regarding the state motto on our license plates.

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  4. Thanks for posting this. I am adding this, along with Waverly Hills Sanitorium, to my bucket-list of spooky and architecturally beautiful places to visit.

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  5. This really brought back memories of the prison and helped me understand why I had the feelings I did when I walked in. I don't even know how to explain it but what I can explain is that there was many spirits in our presence even during the day. At night the feeling was a lot more intense yes but I always had the feeling that something was there with us. As I walked into certain cells the feeling got stronger and in one cell I felt that I was sitting with the inmates that had gone through the cell. The people that were there seemed like they were just there to see a new thing but me, I was there to find something that no one else has seen and I did see some unusual looking shapes and things were happening that never happened to me and I would love to make another trip through there to get an even better understanding of the feelings and unusual things that happened.

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  6. First, WV became a state in 1863. Secondly, our license plates have never said Heart of Darkness. Other than that your articles is fairly interesting even though you blew your credibility with the obvious license plate lie.

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    1. It was a joke. Lighten up.

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  7. Im from wv ye lighten up she was in a bad place my uncle spent many years in that prison

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