The story of a forgotten America.

West Virginia Penitentiary

West Virginia Penitentiary is a former prison that operated between 1876 and 1995 in Moundsville, West Virginia. It is currently a tourist attraction and training facility.


The state of West Virginia was formed during the Civil War and became the 35th state in 1863. 11 County jails were initially utilized to incarcerate prisoners. Starting in 1864, the state legislature directed Governor Arthur Boreman to have all felons confined to the Ohio County jail in Wheeling, which was, at the time, the state capital. 1 2 Boreman lobbied the legislature for a state penitentiary but was repeatedly denied. 10 After nine inmates escaped in 1865, causing a flurry of negative press, the legislature took action.

An act of legislation on February 7, 1866, directed the Board of Public Works to select a site of not less than 10 acres of land near Moundsville for a state penitentiary. 11 They appropriated $50,000 to buy land and to start construction. The same amount was appropriated in 1867 and 1868 because of higher-than-expected costs.

The state erected a temporary wooden stockade that summer, giving prison officials time to study various prison designs. 11 They ultimately settled on the circa 1818 “Auburn Plan” developed in Auburn, New York, with barred cells stacked in tiers inside the enclosing stone walls. 10 11 The cell blocks were large, airy, and sanitary, where inmates could work together during the day and be separated at night. This differed from the “Pennsylvania System,” where prisoners were always separated. The building design selected was based on a modified Gothic Revival-style prison modeled after the design of the Northern Illinois Penitentiary at Joliet that conveyed “great strength and convey(ed) to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.” 1

The North Wagon Gate was the first permanent building to be constructed 1 and may have housed male and female prisoners. 11 It also incorporated a wooden trap door on the second floor for hangings. South Hall cellblock was built of stone with a slate roof in 1868, with the interior cells completed in 1869. The foundation for the outer wall, the Administration Building, and the North Hall cellblock was begun in 1869 and completed by 1876–which is when the West Virginia Penitentiary officially opened with 251 male inmates. 1

The first floor of the Administration Building, which linked North and South Halls, was used as a visitor’s room and for offices, while the second floor housed the offices of the warden and a hospital. 11 The third floor featured 32 cells for female inmates 1 while the and fourth floor included the residence of the warden and his family. 11 The wooden floor on the first floor deteriorated quickly and was replaced with tile in 1886, and stone steps were installed outside in 1888. An elevator was installed in 1894, followed by a double circular cage in 1896. A porch was added by the Wheeling architectural firm Giesey & Paris in 1908. 11

The exterior stone walls, 24 feet in height and extending six feet into the ground, were built by convicts and citizens of hand-cut sandstone that was quarried from Marshall and Wetzel Counties. 11 The walls featured a dressed stone on the western exterior facade and random course ashlar on the three other sides and the interior walls.

Upon the recommendation by the prison doctor, steam heat was installed in the penitentiary in the mid-1870s. 11 Small coal oil lamps were used in the cells by 1898, which was replaced with electricity in 1900.

A strip of ground along the south side of the penitentiary wall, intended for a street, was used as a temporary burial site for prisoners. 11 The graves were relocated in 1890 because of drainage problems. Five acres adjoining the prison were purchased for a cemetery, but in 1898, an act of the legislature forced the prison to provide grounds outside Moundsville for burials. Ten acres were purchased about a mile from the prison along Tom’s Run (today’s Whitegate Cemetery).

Convict Labor

The earliest workshops allowed prisoners to manufacture brooms, whips, and men’s clothing for state use. 10 11 By the early 1900s, prisoners could work in various workshops, including a bakery, a blacksmith, a brickyard, a carpentry shop, an infirmary, a paint shop, a stone yard, a tailor, and a wagon shop. 1 Prisoners could also toil at the 200-acre prison farm, which provided fresh produce for the kitchen for canning. 11

A coal mine, operated with prison labor, opened a mile away in 1921. It helped fulfill some of the prison’s energy and heating needs and saved the state an estimated $14,000 a year. Some inmates were allowed to stay at the mine’s camp under the supervision of a mine foreman who was not a prison employee.

By the 1930s, production had mainly changed to soap, paint, tobacco, and men’s clothing. 10

Overcrowding and Construction

Overcrowding became a chronic problem throughout the 20th century. By the 1920s, female inmates were located in a two-story building in the northeast corner of the North Recreation Yard, which included a separate dining room and kitchen. 11 Women were employed in the shirt shop making collars and cuffs for the shirts made by the men prisoners. In contrast, others were employed in miscellaneous domestic work.

In 1929, the state embarked on a southward expansion, referred to as the “New Wall,” as the 5×7-foot cells were considered inadequate and held up to three prisoners at a time, with two prisoners sleeping in the bunks with a third sleeping on a mattress on the floor. 2 11 Construction was delayed because of a steel shortage during World War II, with work finally being completed in 1959. 1 The new addition featured two cell blocks of four tiers with 20 cells each, plus an honor hall with one tier of 20 cells. 11 Above the honor hall was a gymnasium with hardwood floors marked for basketball. North Hall was renovated for maximum security, which featured four tiers with 20 cells on the lower two tiers and ten cells on the upper two tiers.

In 1947, female prisoners were transferred to the new state women’s penitentiary in Pence Springs. 10 11

In 1950, the Control and Administration Building was built across the street from the southern wall of the Penitentiary. 11 The L-shaped building was designed to blend with the Gothic architecture of the prison complex and was built of complimentary sandstone. A separate Warden’s House was built adjacent in 1951.

In 1965, prison inmates requested that the Death House, a separate building used exclusively for executions by hanging or electrocution, be removed. 11 Other original penitentiary buildings within the North Recreation Yard were removed over the next decade as the facility was modernized.

A combination mailroom and laundry building were built in 1973, followed by the erection of new buildings for the correctional industries, a chapel, and boilers in 1975. 11 The chapel, located in North Hall, featured semi-circular seating around a stage holding a pump organ. The local Pastors Association donated a building in the South Recreation Yard. A new dining hall and kitchen were built in 1986-87, and the former Captain’s Office was converted into a television repair shop in 1986.

Building or AreaDatesUse
Administration Building1876-1995Offices, personal living quarters for warden and family, cellblock for women.
Boiler House1975-1995
Captain’s Office-1986
Central Receiving and General Maintenancec. 1970s-1995Former Prison Industries warehouse.
Control and Administration Building1950-1995
Dining Hall1987-1995
Mail/Laundry Building1973-1995
North Hall1876-1995Cellblock, kitchen (until 1987), dining area (until 1987), infirmary, chapel (until 1975).
North Recreation Yard1876-1995
North Wagon Gate1876-1995
Old Man’s Colony (OMC)1985-1995Used for living quarters for men aged 55+ with good behavior.
Prison Industries1975-1995
South Hall1956-1995Cellblock and gymnasium.
South Recreation Yard1959-1995Featured a baseball field, basketball courts, and a Protected Custody Yard (“Rat Row” near the South Wagon Gate.
South Wagon Gate1959-1995
Television Repair Shop1986-1995Formerly Captain’s Office
Warden’s House1951-1995

While the Penitentiary was regarded as a well-run institution in the early 1900s, eventually being ranked by the federal Department of Justice as one of the most violent correctional facilities. 2 By the 1960s, the prison had reached a peak population of about 2,000 inmates. Deadly riots in 1973 and 1979 promoted Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht to place the facility under judicial control. 10 Another riot on New Year’s Day in 1986 led to a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court that ruled that the confinement of prisoners in the 5×7-foot cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment. 2 10 A gradual reduction in inmates at the Penitentiary began. By the time of its closure in 1995, it only had about 600 detainees. Most of the inmates were transferred to the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, while others were sent to a smaller facility elsewhere in Moundsville. 1 10

After the prison closed, the Moundsville Economic Development Council obtained a 25-year lease on the complex to utilize the facility for training law enforcement and corrections officers with regular mock-riot drills. 3 Later, other training programs for law enforcement officials, including the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center, were held. 4


  • A double circular cage, or wheel, was installed in the Administration Building in 1894. 11 There was a single entrance to the center cage that spun from the front of the hallway to the rear hall. It prevented prisoners from dashing for freedom down the hall and out the main doors.
  • Between 1899 and 1959, 94 men were executed in the prison. Hanging was the method of execution until 1949, with 85 men meeting that fate.
  • Beginning in 1951, electrocution became the method of execution, with nine men meeting that fate. The electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky,” was built by inmate Paul Glenn. 2 On April 3, 1959, Elmer Bruner became the last person executed in the state. The state outlawed capital punishment entirely in 1965.
  • Public executions were open to the public until June 19, 1931, when Frank Hyer was hanged for murdering his wife. When the trap door opened beneath him and his total weight settled into the noose, he was instantly decapitated. Afterward, attendance at hangings was by invitation only.

Notable Events

  • On November 7, 1979, 15 prisoners escaped from the prison. One of the escapees was Ronald Turney Williams, serving time for murdering Sergeant David Lilly of the Beckley Police Department on May 12, 1975. Willaims managed to steal a prison guard’s service weapon in the escape. Upon reaching the streets of Moundsville, he encountered off-duty state trooper Philip S. Kesner who was driving past the prison with his wife. 5 6 7 8 Kesner saw the escapees and attempted to take action, although the prisoners pulled him from his car with Williams shooting at him. Kesner returned fire despite being mortally wounded. 6 Williams remained at large before being apprehended at the George Washington Hotel in New York City in 1981. He was returned to West Virginia to serve several life sentences.
  • At 5:30 PM on January 1, 1986, inmates began rioting over the poor conditions of the prison. Twenty inmates stormed the mess hall and tackled and handcuffed six officers and a food service worker. 9 Over the next two days, three inmates were killed, but no others were seriously injured. The spectacle led Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. to drive to the penitentiary to talk with the inmates, which led to a new list of rules and standards for which a new prison would eventually be constructed.


Further Reading


  1. History.” WV Penitentiary.
  2. Moundsville’s Haunted History.” Ghost Adventures.
  3. Mock Prison Riot.” Worldwide Corrections Training Foundation.
  4. Rich, Stacy. “National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center Closing in Moundsville.” State Journal, 18 Sept. 2008.
  5. James, Michelle. “Beckley Fallen Heroes Fund: David Lilly.” Register-Herald [Beckley], 26 May 2007.
  6. Trooper Philip S. Kesner, West Virginia State Police.” The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc.
  7. “Ronald Turney Williams.” Arizona Central, 4 Sept. 2003.
  8. Fugitive injured in shootout.” Rome News Tribune, 9 Jun. 1981.
  9. Useem, Bert and Peter Kimball. States of Siege: U.S. Prison Riots, 1971–1986. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, 1991. pp. 179–181.
  10. Bumgardner, Stan. “Moundsville Penitentiary.” West Virginia Encyclopedia, 28 Jun. 2022.
  11. Jourdan, Katherine. “West Virginia State Penitentiary.” National Register of Historic Places, 22 Apr. 1996.

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