4. West Virginia State Penitentiary
Dubbed among the “Scariest Places on Earth” by the ABC Family show of the same name, and ranked by the United States Department of Justice as one of the top 10 most violent correctional facilities during its operation, the abandoned West Virginia State Penitentiary leaves behind a shady past.
Built from 1867 to 1876, immediately after the Civil War, the West Virginia State Penitentiary initially had no heat and no electricity. Encased within stone walls and metal bars, inmates suffered from freezing cold conditions during the winter months.
An absolutely massive architectural achievement (both for its time and when compared to modern efforts), Cindy didn’t run into any of the other six photographers allowed into West Virginia State Penitentiary for more than two hours during their unsupervised exploration. Like other enormous prisons of this time, its cell blocks continue as far as the eye can see, seemingly without end — perhaps reminiscent of the feeling with which the inmates here were all too familiar — an endless future trapped as sardines in a can.
Overcrowding was a tremendous problem, and sometimes as many as four people would be forced to share a single cell. Built at exactly half the size of the prison after which it was modeled in Juliet, IL, its 5 x 7 cells, which were eventually ruled as cruel and unusual, served as living quarters for over 2,000 inmates during its peak in the 1960s. In addition to being dangerously overcrowded, prisoners here experienced no personal privacy; those using toilets and showers were completely exposed to not only the guards, but other inmates as well.
As a photographer who has shot some less-than-kosher locations, Cindy found this to be the most disturbing of them all. Inmates’ “angry graffiti” as she put it, etched into many cells, spoke volumes of the conditions and hardships they were forced to endure during their time here.
Though it may not look it, thanks to artificial and digital lighting enhancement options available today, many of Cindy’s abandoned prison photos are taken in complete darkness. She often moves from room to room with only a flashlight to guide her steps. This can be particularly unnerving, considering the fact that most of these prisons have become home to incessant rats, mice, feral cats, and “enormous spiders”, as she described them, all vying to chill the spines of intruders.
Deep in the dungeons of West Virginia State Reformatory, one such dark room exists. The one-time recreational room nicknamed the Sugar Shack offered inmates the opportunity to play ping pong and other table games. More often than not, however, this room was used for other purposes such as gambling, fighting, and other unmentionable behavior. Today, it exists in complete darkness, with no visible light; this, of course, serves as a more-than-compelling deterrent for all but the most fearless urban explorers and photographers.
Cindy described moving through the blackness with only a small light-painting flashlight and her camera as especially frightening; perhaps it was the realization that she was sharing the very same air space that once enveloped the prison’s cruelest inmates; perhaps it was a fear of what she might discover amidst the nearly-tangible darkness of the room; perhaps it was a little of both.
A number of prisoners escaped over the years, with the worst instance occurring in 1979 when fifteen people managed to get free. Sadly, many of these criminals went on to murder again before being recaptured, including Ronald Turney Williams, who is currently living out multiple life sentences in a newer West Virginia prison.
West Virginia State Penitentiary served as death row for many inmates and executed ninety-four men from 1899 through 1959 via either hanging or electric chair. The state eventually outlawed execution in 1965, but the prison’s infamous electric chair “Old Sparky” was never removed, and remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.
With all of the heinous activities that took place in this prison over the years, it’s no wonder that TV shows such as ABC Family’s “Scariest Places on Earth” paid it a visit. As was typical with prisons built at this time in history, the facility offered inmates a spiritual safe haven in the form of a standalone chapel accessible within the walled-in prison yards.
The prison was closed down in 1995 after its compact living quarters were deemed inhumane. It remains a popular tourist attraction, however, and has also been a popular location for several movie shoots over the years, the most recent being “Out of the Furnace”, which stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, and Woody Harrelson.
NEXT PAGE: Check out Philadelphia’s abandoned Holmesburg Prison