West Virginia State Penitentiary, located in Moundsville, West Virginia, is the prison designed in a Gothic style that remained open until 1995. This prison is quite similar to the 1858 state prison in Joliet, Illinois as they both bear a striking resemblance with their turrets and battlements. West Virginia State Penitentiary, though, is only half the size of the state prison.
Because of the American Civil War, in 1863, West Virginia withdraws from Virginia. As a result of this withdrawal, West Virginia was short of many public institutions; a prison being one of them. For this reason, the state saw it reasonable to built a temporary wooded prison that would satisfy the state’s needs at the time.
North Wagon Gate, constructed with hand-cut sandstone, was the first building that was built. Just like many other prisons worldwide, prison labor was used during the construction of West Virginia State Penitentiary.
The construction of North Wagon Gate was only the first phase of the prison. This one continued until 1876 and it cost around $360,000. After that, it was time for building the north and south cell block areas.
The South Hall consisted of 224 cells in total. Meanwhile, in the North Hall was located the kitchen, dining area, hospital and the chapel. These halls were connected together by a 4-story tower that served as the administration building.
Inside this building, there was also a space solely for the female prisoners and the personal living quarters for the warden and his family. At first, the prison received 250 inmates in total. After opening its gates for the inmates, the next phase of construction began.
Among the industries that could be found inside the prison, these ones can be mentioned: a carpentry shop, a paint shop, a workshop, a stone yard, a brickyard, a blacksmith, a tailor, a bakery, and a hospital, a school and also a library.
As it had all these sorts of facilities, the prison was quite self-sufficient when it was all put together. It even had a coal mine that reduced the electricity bill by as much as $14,000 a year!
According to the Warden’s report “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.”
Unfortunately, the prison didn’t continue to gradually improve its quality throughout all the years. In fact, there came a time when the conditions of the prison worsened so much that it made it get enlisted at the United States Department of Justice’s Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list. Over a span of 60 years, 94 men were executed at the prison.
What’s more, the inmates had even renowned a place they called “The Sugar Shack” where gambling, fighting, and raping was done. As the prison was becoming too overcrowded and a small cell 5 feet by 7 feet had to be shared between three prisoners, it was decided to expand the facility using prison labor once again.
Still, it became close to impossible to keep the prisoners in order. A total of 36 homicides took place in the person. The things were getting so out of hands that on November 7th, 1979, a prison break happened and 15 inmates escaped. In January of 1986, what is known to be the most infamous riot in history took place inside the prison.
As a result, the West Virginia Supreme Court had to take the decision to close down the facility in 1986. Now, the prison is nothing more than a faded memory and an occasional tourist attraction.
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