The West Virginia State Penitentiary is an imposing, gothic style prison located in Moundsville, WV. It operated from 1876 to 1995. Now open for tours, it stands as a monument to a bygone era, and provides ongoing testimony to man’s inhumanity to man.
The town of Moundsville is interesting in its own right, having derived its name from several Adena Indian burial mounds constructed more than 2000 years ago that are located in the area — including the largest conical burial mound in North America, Grave Creek Burial Mound, right across the street from the penitentiary. Ironically, Moundsville is a land of sacred pasts.
|An example of inmate art decorating the dining hall. The inmate artist was incarcerated for brutally
killing his wife. A memorial to her is located just behind the truck cab.
In 1863, West Virginia seceded from Virginia at the height of the Civil War. Unfortunately, as a new state, it lacked public institutions, including prisons; After nine inmates escaped in 1865 from county and temporary facilities, the local press took up the cause, and the state legislature took action. On February 7, 1866, the state legislature approved the purchase of land in Moundsville for construction of a new prison.
The prison inmates themselves built the facility, taking a full 10 years to complete, in 1876. When completed, the total cost was of just over $363,000. In addition to the North Wagon Gate, there was now north and south cell blocks. South Hall had 224 tiny cells (7 ft. by 4 ft.), and North Hall had a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel. A four-story tower connecting the two was the administration building, and provided space for female inmates and personal living quarters for the warden and his family.
Conditions at the prison during the turn of the 20th century were good, but deteriorated by the second half of the century as the inmate population surged to more than 2000. Inmates were housed three to a cell. The North Hall cell block was particularly horrific and was where the worst of the worst were housed. Correctional officers wore riot gear to go about their daily jobs, and were pummeled by urine, feces, and miscellaneous other objects hurled at them.
For a great aerial tour of the facility, click here.
|Inmates were given a fair amount of leeway to decorate their cells. Some were painted quite vividly,
while others were covered with words, poems, and art.
Getting there: 818 Jefferson Ave, Moundsville, WV 26041
Dogs: Actually, surprisingly, yes!!
Hours: Open April 1st – November 30th, Closed on Federal holidays and Easter. Hours vary monthly, so please check the website.
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