Life inside one of Americas most notorious prisons

The West Virginia State Penitentiary was regarded as being amongst Americas top 10 most violent correctional facilities. The huge gothic maximum security prison operated from 1876 up until 1995. It’s now used for training programs, tours and mock riots – mind you the marines aren’t welcome back after a member shot the face of a handmade native statue one of the prisoners had made. To explore the prison we had to go on a tour which cost $12 and took two hours, our guide was a chap named CJ and we were delighted that it was only us and one Ozzy lady in our group.


The prison is considered to be haunted and along the tour we were told lots of stories regarding paranormal activity which I just loved hearing about. There are records for 998 deaths and then at least another 300 unrecorded deaths. Amongst the murders and suicides there were of course executions for those on death row, 85 people were hung until the electrocution chair, affectionally named ‘Old Sparky’, was brought into action as a more humane way of killing people. Old sparky was actually made by a prisoner and needless to say he wasn’t very popular amongst the other inmates afterwards so had to be transferred to another prison. The hangings were originally done under a large arched entranceway, CJ said one man’s rope was too long so he fell right down and broke both legs, only to be carried up and hung properly, and another chaps head popped right off!! The chair was used 9 times, one lady was actually strapped up and ready to go when the phone beside the chair rang and the governor called off the execution. Now that’s a close call. On the plus side she would of had whatever meal she wanted before sitting in that awful chair and lived to tell the tale. There were three buttons on the back of the chair, the first would basically fry the brain, the second coagulate the blood and the third stop the heart.


We sat on the chairs where the inmates would talk through phones to visiting family and friends visible through scratched and sometimes smashed screens. All calls were monitored and a guard would stand in a caged fence with a 12 gauge shot gun. There was another visitation room where contact was allowed and a few inmates had painted big murals on the wall. In fact paintings covered the communal rooms in the prison and some inmates were particularly skilful with a paintbrush. It was in this room that a huge riot set out one day (one of many). Members of a biker gang held 16 officers hostage in a protest against foul canteen conditions and demanded a new one with air conditioning. There were cockroaches everywhere and the rats were described as small dogs! Some officers were kept safe in a room while others were tortured by the gang. The bikers also took advantage of the lockdown to murder three people. One man was decapitated, another burnt all over his body with anything from cigarettes to lighters…this went on for 52 hours, in that time another man was tortured, thrown four stories down, he survived only to slowly have parts of his body chopped off.

I was shocked to hear all these stories, they were how prisons are depicted in movies but it was all real life here. The prison was built for 480 people but by the 1930’s it housed 2400 men and a few women. There wasn’t enough officers to control them so if a fight broke out between the inmates the officers would wait till it was over, till people died, and then they’d clean up the mess. The inmates were in charge here, they ruled the prison and it sounded bloody brutal, I have no idea how they got any staff members.


As we walked down a white and red hallway CJ pointed out two concrete guard stations where an officer would poke his gun through a hole, lots of deaths had occurred around that area as they had orders to shoot anyone that stepped past the red line. Further down the hall he said to keep an eye out for Shadow Man and take some photos of the hallway as this shadowy man frequently appears in photos as he passes through.


The riot I talked about paid off as a new canteen was built. It was now an empty room with a wall partitioning off a section for staff to eat – a lot of which didn’t due to the fact that it was the prisoners making the food. The well behaved prisoners had jobs like cooking, cleaning, industry, painting, leather making, laundry, woodwork etc. We then entered the kitchen which still had the metal units and hand prints smeared the walls. There was a dark, short hallway leading off the kitchen where CJ said Shadow Man is often spotted and near it was a broom cupboard which is always locked as they don’t even have the keys for it. Not so long ago he came through the kitchen with a group of 30 or so and they found the door wide open. He had a peak inside and said how bizarre it was, he’d never seen inside the room as its always locked. So he left it open and walked off with the group but was quickly called back “my mums trapped in the room!” There was a lady inside the cupboard screaming and banging on the door! The door had locked itself and CJ didn’t have any keys to get her out, he managed to frantically use a knife and ease the lock open and the women was very shaken and angry…so he didn’t dare ask her if Shadow Man had been in there with her. That story creeped me out a lot.

From the canteen we were led outside to an open area surrounded by stone buildings and high stone walls. These walls around the prison were actually built by the inmates, funny to think they built their own prison. Outside was the industry buildings, a chapel and recreation areas for maximum security inmates. Lots of escapes took place at the penitentiary, some people made metal tools with a hook on the end to climb walls with and a group of inmates managed to make an epic tunnel system. It really was like a movie! They even put lighting through the tunnel and after planning a group exit two guys got itchy feet and made a run for it. They made it out and a child leaving school nearby spotted a ladder leading down a hole labelled ‘West Virginia State Penitentiary’ and told his mum. Eventually the men were found, one was watching cable tv in the mountains nearby and the other got caught when he entered a golf competition! Craig asked how they managed to hide all the soil and rubble they removed to make the tunnel; when the prisoners sold plants and produce from the garden to members of the public and staff, they kindly gave away a free bag of soil with every purchase! So audacious that no one even realised what they were up to.

We saw the hatch door where hangings took place and CJ said we could go without him into the haunted boiler room. It was like a dark, damp cellar and creepy as hell. Our shadows stretched like we were wearing stilts into the dark corners of the room. I didn’t like it much in there, especially after CJ told us a story about a ghost hunter program filmed in there. They recorded the noise as they entered and ran straight back out, saying whoever it was that used to be in charge of the boiler room had threatened to kill him!


As we entered the recreation areas we walked past a k9 police car which came alive with barks and scared the shit out of me. The rec area was small and only 6 men used them at a time. A door led us to the cells of the worst people imaginable. The worst of the worst were kept in a fenced off area where there were four tiny cells. Opposite the cells was one cruddy shower where they could spend 30 minutes, which we thought was quite long! And then they’d have an hour outside, the rest of the day, for about 22 hours they were trapped in the cell. The conditions were awful and somehow they put three men in each cell. There were two Indian train style bunks attached to the wall, then a metal toilet next to it with a sink by the tank. The weakest chap was the very unfortunate sod who had to sleep on the floor. They couldn’t sleep with their heads by the cell door as someone could stab their head, so the poor fucker had his head next to the toilet. As if that didn’t sound bad enough, these men would throw shit, vomit and piss at passing guards. Then they’d be delivered their food through a gap in the door and all eat amongst the faeces, cockroaches and germs.


The prisoners were pretty ingenious and they’d make weapons from anything. A display at the start of the day showed confiscated weapons, they’d sharpened toothbrushes till the point could stab you, some used oven racks which they sharpened to a kebab stick and wrapped the handle in shoe laces, and lots of knifes were made from using dentil floss on the metal plates of their cell doors or beds, they’d slowly but surely cut a 1 inch wedge off and sharpen it on the concrete floor. Amazingly at one time prisoners even had guns! Unknowingly to the guards, guns were being hidden in crisp packets and sold in the commissary.


In these four cells was a man named Red, who we’d heard a lot about. A female guard who I’ll call Maggie got on alright with him and he looked out for her. Maggie now works as a guide so I was gutted we didn’t have her taking us around. One day someone from the first cell ran out and stabbed Red to death. Years after his death and after the prison had closed down Maggie walked past his cell and heard “morning Maggie” so she replied “morning Red” only to realise he wasn’t there, and the cell block was empty of anyone. She didn’t go near his cell again for a long time but one of the ghost hunter channels asked to interview her inside his cell and she agreed. They got her to ask Red questions that only he would know the answer to, sadly there were no replies but when they listened back on the tape he’d answered every single question and it was Red’s voice.


A thick metal-barred door led us from the four worst cells to a huge caged section with three stories of cells. The bottom two levels were for the very dangerous men and the top one for the slightly less dangerous. A guard would be inside the area where the cell doors were to escort the prisoners in and out, another guard with a shot gun would mirror the guard on the other side of the cage. Any prisoner to step past the red line was shot on the spot. No excuses here.


Summer was unbearably hot for the prisoners and one time a thermometer was put on the third story cells and read 130 Fahrenheit!! Inmates would throw stones to break glass windows and get a slight breeze but that plan backfired when the prison didn’t fix the windows till the next year, therefore when it was well below zero in winter the prisoners were freezing cold and CJ had actually seen a photo of a cell with 2-3 inches of snow inside that had blown through the windows. We then entered the main entrance to the prison where there was a post office and up some steps was the wardens apartment where he lived with his family…I can’t imagine the things his kids must of seen and heard. There was also a barbers in the entrance area and one prisoner cut hair and close-cut shaved members of the public! Apparently he’s out of prison now and owns a hairdressers in Texas…if your ever down that way and need a trim!


There were a few fake walls put up where a recent Netflix series was being filmed and further along the hall we entered the newer area of the prison where the less dangerous inmates were kept. Their cells weren’t much better than the ones we’d just seen and three people would be put in these cells too. The only difference would be that these guys weren’t spending 22 hours a day inside their cell, this lot had quite a bit of freedom with their jobs and large recreation area outside. We could wander in and out of the cells and there were lots of interesting graffiti, sexual artwork and even a couple of satanists who had creepy motifs on the walls of their cell. The far cell was where Lucky Lucy slept, in a round about way CJ suggested she/he was a transvestite, and extremely popular amongst the inmates. I can only presume it was a very feminine looking male willing to please any man, apparently she crafted the prison uniform into a skirt, but I’d of thought the inmates would beat her up for being gay and not masculine enough, but one cell actually had a glory hole so I guess they really didn’t care. CJ said the sugar shack which was the indoor recreation area had a lot of gay activities going down. He also said the prisoners would be in their completely un-supervised, guards wouldn’t even go down there, if they did there’s no doubt that the inmates would kill him. There was also murders that took place amongst inmates and they’d dispose of the body on the steps leading out the sugar shack, otherwise if an officer found a body in the shack it would be closed down.

CJ asked who wanted to be locked up so we all agreed to see what it was like. He listed some numbers for the cells we could enter so we all picked a separate one. I was sure he said number 5 so I went into that cell on my own…well it was me and Frank, a stuffed dummy with legs made from pillow stuffing and a creepy as hell mask. It was the only cell with a demonstration of how life in the cell would be. CJ shouted down the hall for us to step away from the door and then said “IN THE HALL” and the doors all made a loud shift to the left and a big clunk shut. Imagine the first night in prison and hearing that awful noise and then turning around to see your sharing your cell with a crazy devil worshipper and a man that had murdered his wife and painted a heart on the wall with her name in it…and then you realise your ‘bed’ is on the floor next to the poop and urine droplets. So, anyway, I’m in the cage and I have nowhere to look but at Frank’s creepy wrinkled face and CJ shouts out that he’ll let us out if we answer three questions about the penitentiary correctly…we all failed miserable but he let us out anyway “IN THE HALL”. The doors all made the loud noise again but mine didn’t open…I figured maybe none of the cells had opened either until Craig and the ozzy walked past and saw me in the cell. CJ asked if everything was ok and I laughed, it was a joke, right? He said “wait what cell are you in? Your not in 5 are you? Nooo!! That door doesn’t work properly!” I let out a confident laugh like ‘you ain’t foolin’ me’ while quickly trying to rewind the conversation where he said what number cells we could go in…then I started questioning it. Maybe number 5 was a dud cell and that’s why Frank was in it. I tried to look on the plus side; I could decapitate franks scary head and shove it in the glory hole, his cushioned legs could be sat on and a sandwich could easily be passed to me through the metal bars of the door. Plus I might get a refund for the tour…but of course it was a hoax and I was finally released. We all laughed afterwards although my tone was a little different from everyone else’s “HAHAHA, very funny you fucker”. CJ told us he did that door trick to a couple of sisters once. The dad came out another cell and was so panicked to see his daughters trapped in the cell and was shaking on the bars and screaming for CJ to do something about it. So CJ explained that it had never happened before and he didn’t know why it wouldn’t open…he was about to let them out when the man said “IM GONNA SUE YOU!” So CJ decided to play along with them a while longer.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit, I wouldn’t say we had any paranormal activity on our visit but I did capture a photo with some weird coloured lights in it, almost like an energy and if my imagination really runs wild I can see a face in it…but maybe it was something already on the wall that I hadn’t noticed, who knows!

At the end of the tour we saw this board with photos of every man executed at the prison. The chap in the middle is the one who’s head popped off when he was hung. The one to the right of him was a reaaaal nasty man who put ads in a paper and murdered two women and three children, and the chap on the bottom right was hung for having a relationship with a white women!! It was a really sad story as CJ said a visitor asked about that inmate one day and when he saw this photo at the end the man broke down in tears saying he knew the man and he was innocent. If he’d admitted that they were in a relationship then they’d both be punished, but if he said she didn’t consent then he’d be hung…and that’s what happened. All for being in love with someone with different colour skin. I wonder how many other innocent men were hung here.


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