The West Virginia Penitentiary, located in Moundsville, West Virginia, was opened in 1876 and closed in 1993. The Penitentiary’s ten-acre complex was the second public structure constructed in the then-new state of West Virginia after the Civil War in 1876 and was well known across the nation for having housed some of the most violent offenders in the United States.
In 1863, Governor Arthur Boreman asked the first state legislature to “make provisions for the construction of a penitentiary or for the confinement of these persons in some secure place where they might be required to labor (….).” Faced with a daunting task, the legislature stated that the convicts would be better suited to “remove convicts to the penitentiary of any other State of the Union.” This plan did not pass.
The next year, Governor Boreman requested for a state penitentiary only to have it rejected in the state legislature. Instead, the Governor was instructed to utilize the space in county jails – with an exception. All men convicted of felonies were to be placed in the Ohio County Jail in Wheeling, which was at the time, the capital of West Virginia. This county jail even had its own appointed board of directors and a warden, however, it lacked funding. The first 22 felons were placed in the Ohio County Jail in 1864, but due to a lack of improvements to the jail and because the warden was receiving inadequate pay, the warden resigned.
In 1865, the capacity of the jail was reaching its maximum. With no workshops or convict employments, the inmates became a “troublesome financial drain on the new state.” In that year, Governor Boreman once again requested for a state prison, stating that the existing facility was a “place of confinement, not a penitentiary.” The state prison idea was denied once again. Late in 1865, nine inmates escaped from the jail never to be captured. This led the ”Point Pleasant Register” to write in January 1866 that “at the rate at which the rogues have lately made good their escape from the Ohio County jail, it will soon become vacant.” The ”Wheeling Register” went on to state that the “authorities should rectify our would-be penitentiary immediately.”
This, and Governor Boreman’s plea in 1866 led to the passage of a bill, granted West Virginia its first state penitentiary. The bill was passed on February 7, which allowed the state to purchase land and construct a prison utilizing prison labour. It also allowed the government to appoint a board of directors and a warden. The locations for the prison were centralized on Wheeling, Charlestown, Grafton, and Moundsville. Moundsville won the election contest with just over 50% of the popular vote.
Ten acres of land just outside of Moundsville city limits were purchased for $3,000 on June 1, 1866 for the new prison.
A temporary wooden prison was built nearby in the summer, which allowed the board of directors and the warden time to visit other prisons to see which design would work best. The design that both the director and warden aspired to was the Northern Illinois Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois. It was built in Gothic Revival architecture using convict labor, to which the exterior was modeled to “exhibit as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.”
Two permanent structures, measuring 300-feet by 52-feet were constructed as North and South Halls housing the male inmates. They were flanked by a four-story administrative and staff residential structure measuring 75-feet square which had cells for females. South Hall featured 224 cells at 7-feet by 4-feet North Hall featured the dining hall, kitchen, hospital, and chapel. All cells were 5-feet by 7-feet.
There were three other walls circling the grounds that featured six-foot deep foundations, each 24-feet high, 5.5-feet wide at the base, and 30-inches at the top which featured a catwalk for the guards. A large double-gated sallyport along the north wall offered access for freight wagons.
Prison workshops, among other structures, were constructed in later dates beginning in 1876.
It was determined in 1986 by the West Virginia Supreme Court that the small cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Given that the cell blocks had no air conditioning and steam heat, and that much of the facility was substandard, the prison was forced to transfer the inmates to other facilities in 1993. Most were moved to the new Mt. Olive Correctional Complex and some were transfered to a smaller but new facility in Moundsville.
After the facility closed its doors in 1995, the Moundsville Economic Development Council received a 25-year lease on the old prison. The West Virginia Penitentiary was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now utilized for historical and educational tours, as well as serving the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center.
- Name: West Virginia Penitentiary
- Location: Moundsville, West Virginia
- Years of Significance: 1876
- Status: Tourist Attraction
- Do hard time, tour the former West Virginia Penitentiary. Moundsville: Moundsville Economic Development Concil, n.d.
- Larner, John William. Locked in time. 2004.