The West Virginia State Penitentiary is a retired, Gothic style prison located in Moundsville, West Virginia. It operated from 1876 to 1995. Currently, the site is maintained as a tourist attraction and training facility.
In 1863, West Virginia seceded from Virginia at the height of the American Civil War. Consequently, the new state had a shortage of various public institutions, including prisons. From 1863 to 1866, Governor Arthur I. Boreman lobied the West Virginia Legislature for a state penitentiary but was repeatedly denied. The Legislature at first tried to direct him to send the prisoners to other institutions out of the state, and then they directed him to use existing county jails, which turned out to be inadequate. After nine inmates escaped in 1865, the local press took up the cause, and the Legislature took action.On 7 February 1866, the state legislature approved the purchase of land in Moundsville for the purpose of constructing a state prison.Ten acres were purchased just outside of the then city limits of Moundsville for $3000. Moundsville proved an attractive site, as it is approximately twelve miles south of Wheeling, West Virginia, which at that time was the state capital.
The state built a temporary wooden prison nearby that summer. This gave prison officials time to assess what prison design should be used. Northern Illinois Penitentiary at Joliet proved to be an attractive design. Its Gothic Revival architecture “exhibit[ed], as much as possible, great strength and convey[ed] to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.”
The first building constructed on the site was the North Wagon Gate. It was made with hand-cut sandstone, which was quarried from a local site. The state used prison labor during the construction process, and work continued on this first phase until 1876. When completed, the total cost was of $363,061. In addition to the North Wagon Gate, there was now north and south cellblock areas (both measuring 300 ft. by 52 ft. South Hall had 224 cells (7 ft. by 4 ft.), and North Hall had a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel. A 4-story tower connecting the two was the administration building (measuring 75 ft. by 75 ft. It included space for female inmates and personal living quarters for the warden and his family. The facility officially opened in this year, and it had a prison population of 251 male inmates, including some who had helped construct the very prison that now held them.After this phase, work began on prison workshops and other secondary facilities.
In addition to construction, the inmates had other jobs to do in support of the prison. In the early 1900s some industries within the prison walls included a carpentry shop, a paint shop, a wagon shop, a stone yard, a brickyard, a blacksmith, a tailor, a bakery, and a hospital. At the same time, revenue from the prison farm and inmate labor helped the prison financially. It was virtually self-sufficient. A prison coal mine located a mile away opened in 1921. This mine helped serve some of the prison’s energy needs and saved the state an estimated $14,000 a year. Some inmates were allowed to stay at the mine’s camp under the supervision of a mine foreman, who was not a prison employee.
Conditions at the prison during the turn of the 20th century were good, according to a warden’s report, which stated that, “both the quantity and the quality of all the purchases of material, food and clothing have been very gradually, but steadily, improved, while the discipline has become more nearly perfect and the exaction of labor less stringent.” Education was a priority for the inmates during this time. They regularly attended class. Construction on a school and library was completed in 1900 to help reform and educate inmates.
However, the conditions at the prison worsened through the years, as the facility would be ranked on the United States Department of Justice’s Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list. One of the more infamous locations in the prison, with instances of gambling, fighting, raping, and murder, was a recreation room known as “The Sugar Shack”.
A notable inmate in the early 20th Century was Eugene V. Debs, who served time here from April 13 to June 14, 1919 (at which time he was transferred to an Atlanta prison) for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
In 1929, the state decided to double the size of the penitentiary because overcrowding was a problem. The 5 x 7-foot (2.1 m) cells were too small to hold three prisoners at a time, but until the expansion there was no other option. Two prisoners would sleep in the bunks with the third sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The state utilized prison labor once again and completed this phase of construction in 1959. The construction had been delayed by a steel shortage during World War II.
In total, thirty-six homicides took place in the prison. One of the more notable ones is the butchering of R.D. Wall, inmate number 44670. On 8 October 1929, after “snitching” on his fellow inmates, he was attacked by three prisoners with dull shivs while heading to the boiler room.
In 1983, Charles Manson requested to be transferred to this prison to be nearer to his family. His request was denied.
January 1, 1986 was not only the beginning of a new year, but also the date of one of the most famous riots in recent history. The West Virginia Penitentiary was then undergoing many changes and problems. Security had become extremely loose in all areas. Since it was a “cons” prison, most of the locks on the cells had been picked and inmates roamed the halls freely. Bad plumbing and insects caused rapid spreading of various diseases. The prison was now holding more than 2,000 men and crowding became an issue once again. Another major contribution to the riot’s cause was the fact that it was a holiday. Many of the guards had called off work, which fueled the prisoners to conduct their plan on this specific day.
At around 5:30 pm, twenty inmates, known as a group called the Avengers, stormed the mess hall as Captain Glassock was on duty. “Within seconds, he (Captain Glassock), five other guards, and a food service worker were tackled and slammed to the floor. Inmates put knives to their throats and handcuffed them with their own handcuffs.” Even though several hostages were taken throughout the day, none of them were seriously injured. However, over the course of the two-day upheaval, three inmates were slaughtered for an assortment of reasons. “The inmates who initiated the riot were not prepared to take charge of it. Danny Lehman, the Avengers’ president, was quickly agreed upon as best suited for the task of negotiating with authorities and presenting the demands to the media.” Yet, Lehman was not a part of the twenty men who began the riot. Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. was sent to the penitentiary to converse with the inmates. This meeting set up a new list of rules and standards on which the prison would build. National and local news covered the story, as well as the inmates meeting with Governor Moore.
From 1899 to 1959, ninety-four men were executed. Hanging was the method of execution until 1949 with eighty-five men meeting that fate. The public could attend hangings until 19 June 1931. On that date, Frank Hyer was executed for murdering his wife. However, when the trap door beneath him was opened and his full weight was put onto the noose, he was instantly decapitated. Following this event, attendance at hangings was by invitation only. The last man to face execution by hanging, Bud Peterson from Logan County, lies in the prison’s cemetery, as his family refused to claim his body. Beginning in 1951, electrocution became the means of execution. Ironically, the electric chair used by the prison was originally built by an inmate there, Paul Glenn.[Nine men died in the chair until the state outlawed execution entirely in 1965. The original chair is on display in the facility and is a part of the official tour.
Source : Wikipedia
First Broadcast : 9th December 2008
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