Maximum Security at Moundsville Penitentiary
Welcome to a living hell! The most violent and vicious prison in the United States describes conditions at the original West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia. Maximum Security became home for the worst of those prisoners.
From 1866-1995, many deaths occurred within those prison walls. 9 prisoners died in the electric chair, 85 hung with a noose around their neck, and 998 documented murders occurred – two guards and the rest prisoners. Now you get a taste of their violence.
The most dangerous criminals were placed in The North Hall, called the Alamo. The worst prisoners lived here twenty-two hours a day, because of their unpredictable behavior. On a daily basis, they were given one hour in the Bull Pen, where they could exercise in an area enclosed with stainless steel razor wire. They showered with lye soap and often cold water – once a week under supervision.
Being in their cells most of the day gave them time to plan. One Maximum Security prisoner actually used dental floss and toothpaste to cut through the bars on his cell door. Another seemed to have a longing to become a writer, as he wrote stories on the walls of his cell. His being in prison resulted from his murdering his girlfriend.
Comfort was not known in Maximum Security cells, but prisoners wouldn’t have been there if their crimes had not been vicious. These cells were not pleasant temperature-wise either, as the furnace couldn’t possibly heat the prison adequately, and air conditioning didn’t exist. That meant that in the winter, cells were often around forty degrees, while in the summer they could be a hundred and twenty. Walking through the halls today you get a chilling feeling of the cold, hostile people who resided there years ago.
All the prisoners in Maximum Security always ate in their small cells, which measured 5’X7′. There was a small place through which the guard could place their meals on a paper plate with plastic knife and spoon. Inside the cell was a bed hanging from the wall, a sink, and a toilet. The bed had a thin mattress and a small pillow.
Once in a while, a prisoner would get special privileges for good behavior. Such was the case with a couple Maximum Security trustees, who were allowed to work in the greenhouse. These model prisoners planned their escape carefully.
As they worked in the greenhouse, they dug a four foot high tunnel from the greenhouse under the prison wall, which was six feet at its base. They lined the walls of the tunnel with plywood used in the greenhouse. What did they do with the dirt? They put the dirt in bags marked PEAT MOSS. This was the last escape ever attempted from the orginal West Virginia Penitentiary and the culprits were eventually caught.
If all of this wasn’t bad enough, when a prisoner became uncontrollable, he was placed for thirty days in what they called The Hole. The only thing in that hole was a bucket for bathroom purposes. These prisoners stayed there twenty-four hours a day on a dirt floor, with bread and water being sent down to them once a day. They obviously didn’t want to even be threatened with The Hole, a personal living hell.
Of course, the worst punishment was Old Sparky, the electric chair built by a prisoner in 1950. No surprise, that prisoner had to be placed in protective custody. A leather bag dropped over the condemned person’s head as electricity in this chair went through the head first.
As you have read the conditions under which these prisoners lived, is it any wonder that the State of West Virginia decided to close this penitentiary due to abusive treatment of the prisoners? Could you have survived the imprisonment? Maybe you would like to take a tour and experience the tortured souls that remain inside.
West Virginia Penitentiary is located in Moundsville, West Virginia just ten miles south of Wheeling along the east bank of the beautiful Ohio River. From Wheeling, follow Route 2 into Moundsville. Turn left on 8th Street and after two blocks turn right onto Jefferson Ave. The penitentiary is on the left side of the street. You can’t miss it!