West Virginia Penitentiary
Embark on a captivating 360-degree exploration of the West Virginia Penitentiary, also known as the Moundsville Penitentiary, located in the heart of West Virginia. This journey will guide you through the eerie, abandoned corridors and cells of this historic institution, which once housed some of the most notorious criminals. As you delve deeper, you’ll encounter the chilling silence and haunting atmosphere of the penitentiary, a place steeped in history and shrouded in mystery. The virtual tour provides an immersive experience, allowing you to discover the hidden corners and dark past of this intriguing and formidable structure. The Moundsville Penitentiary, now a relic of a bygone era, offers a unique glimpse into the complex history of criminal justice in West Virginia.
Image by: Moundsville CVB
Image by: Andrew
About the Abandoned Penitentiary
The West Virginia Penitentiary, a site with a storied and tumultuous history, stands as a stark reminder of the evolving perspectives on prison conditions and the justice system in the United States. This blog post delves into its origins, operations, challenges, and eventual closure, painting a comprehensive picture of this notable institution.
The Beginning of an Era
In the midst of the American Civil War in 1863, the newly formed state of West Virginia faced a pressing need for public institutions, including prisons. The initial reluctance of the state legislature to establish a state penitentiary shifted following a significant prison break in 1865. This event spurred action, leading to the purchase of land in Moundsville in 1866 for the construction of the state penitentiary. The location, just outside Moundsville and near the then-state capital Wheeling, was chosen for its strategic importance.
The first structure erected was the North Wagon Gate, built using hand-cut sandstone quarried locally. The state employed prison labor for the construction, which continued until 1876, culminating in a facility featuring Gothic Revival architecture, designed to convey a sense of strength and foreboding. The prison officially opened in 1876, housing 251 male inmates, some of whom had worked on its construction.
Operations and Development
The West Virginia Penitentiary was not just a place of confinement but also a hub of various industries. In the early 1900s, it housed a carpentry shop, paint shop, wagon shop, stone yard, brickyard, blacksmith, tailor, bakery, and hospital. The prison was almost self-sufficient, with revenue generated from a prison farm and inmate labor. In 1921, a prison coal mine was opened, further contributing to the penitentiary’s financial and operational self-sufficiency.
Challenges and Infamy
Despite its operational successes, the penitentiary was plagued by overcrowding and deteriorating conditions. By 1929, the need to double its size was evident, as the existing 5×7-foot cells, intended for two, often housed three inmates. This expansion was completed in 1959, delayed by a steel shortage during World War II. Over its operational years, the penitentiary witnessed thirty-six homicides, with one of the most notable incidents being the murder of inmate R.D. Wall in 1929.
Downfall and Closure
The final years of the West Virginia Penitentiary were marked by riots, escapes, and a significant decline in inmate population. The critical turning point came in 1986, when the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that confining inmates to the small cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment. This ruling set the stage for the penitentiary’s closure. By 1995, the prison population had dwindled, and the inmates were transferred to other facilities, marking the end of the penitentiary’s role in the state’s correctional system.
The closure was a direct result of a series of legal challenges highlighting the unconstitutional conditions within the prison. Inmate petitions, detailing inhumane conditions, led to a thorough investigation and a court ruling in 1983 declaring the facility unconstitutional. Despite attempts to remedy these deficiencies, the Supreme Court ultimately found that the conditions were irreparable, necessitating the closure of the penitentiary in 1995.
If you liked this blog post, you might like the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, the Union Trust Bank Company Building in St Louis, or the Devil’s Bunker in California. Also, you can check out other abandoned locations in West Virginia with our Top Abandoned Locations in West Virginia page.
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