Why Did Moundsville Penitentiary Close?

In 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the confinement of inmates to cells smaller than 5 x 7 foot was unacceptable and constituted inhumane treatment. This effectively marked the doom of West Virginia Penitentiary which at its peak, had over 2,000 inmates and was forced to hold as many as three inmates in a single cell.

At the time of its closing in 1995, only 653 were housed in the penitentiary. Most of the inmates were transferred to Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County, West Virginia.

West Virginia Penitentiary cells
Cell rooms in West Virginia Penitentiary | Image credits: Sideonecincy @ Flickr

Escapes From Moundsville Penitentiary

Over the course of Moundsville Penitentiary (also known as West Virginia Penitentiary) 119 year history, a series of daring escapes have been made by inmates of the prison, many of which have succeeded.

The most notable prison break occurred on November 7,1979 when fifteen prisoners overpowered the guards and made an escape from the penitentiary. The escape was initiated by convicted murderer Ronald Turney Williams who with a smuggled gun, gain control of an armed guard and led fifteen other inmates out of the prison to Jefferson Avenue, a residential street to the left of the prison.

Ronald Turney WIlliams West Viriginia Penitentiary
Ronald Turney WIlliams | Image credits: MetroNews

Off duty officer Phillip S. Kesner happened to drive past the prison and attempted to respond to the situation. Unfortunately, Kesner was pulled over and fatally shot by Williams; he had previously killed police officer Sgt. David Lily on May 12,1975.

Road blocks were soon set up across major highways along West Virginia and four neighbouring states in an attempt to trap the fifteen prisoners within the state. Eight of the fifteen inmates who had escaped were recaptured on November 8 while a ninth prisoner was killed during a shootout with the police. Meanwhile, WIlliams remained at large for over a year and a half and became one of FBI’s Ten Most Wanted criminals. He was eventually apprehended at the George Washington Hotel in New York City in 1981. Today, Williams (who turns 78 years old in 2021) is serving mutiple life sentences at the maximum security prison at Mount Olive in Fayette County.

Cell block in West Virginia Penitentiary
Cell block in Moundsville Penitentiary | Image credits: Carol M. Highsmith

Another prison break happened on February 20, 1992, when Tommie Mollohan, David Williams, and Fred Hamilton escaped the penitentiary via a 32 feet long tunnel that linked to the greenhouse in the prison yard to the outside. The three convicted murderer were believed to have gotten help from the outside to complete the tunnel. Mollohan and Williams have previously escaped from the prison on April 3, 1988 but were recaptured a month later.

The Infamous Sugar Shack

Located at the basement of Moundsville Penitentiary is a recreation room named “Sugar Shack”. Opened and run solely by inmates of the penitentiary, Sugar Shack served as an exclusive rooms where illegal activities like gambling and fighting can take place without any repercussions.

Sugar shack reception at Moundsville Penitentiary
Sugar Shack front door | Image credits: West Virginia News

The lawlessness of the recreation room have also made it a ‘popular’ spot for gang fights and murders.

Sugar Shack Moundsville penitentiary
Inside of Sugar Shack at Moundsville Penitentiary | Image credits: popmalt.com

It is here where the infamous murder of inmate R.D. Waller took place. Waller was stabbed, killed, and butchered into pieces after snitching on several inmates.

Ghosts of Moundsville Penitentiary

Due to the numerous murders and suicides that have happened within the walls of West Virginia Penitentiary, the prison is now said to be haunted by spirits of those who have died inside; a total of 998 documented death have happened within the prison compounds.

An alternate version suggests that the penitentiary was built on the grounds of the Adena tribe’s scared burial site, and that spirits of the ancient tribe linger within the walls of the prison.

West Viriginia Penitentiary dark figure
Shadow Man in Moundsville Penitentiary | Image credits: paranormalstateillustrated.com

Like many historical prisons including the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary, paranormal activities have become a common occurrence. Many who tour the compounds have reported seeing shadow figures roaming along the hallways and hearing loud bangs on the cell doors. The Sugar Shack is also said to be an active spot and is purportedly haunted by the ghost of R.D Waller. Many who visits the basement where the Sugar Shack is located claimed to have experienced cold spots and malfunctioning equipments.

Other experiences reported by visitors and staffs of the penitentiary include unpleasant odors, feeling of being watched, and ghostly mists.

William red synder
William Red Synder | Image credits: 12 WBOY

Visitors on the tour may also encounter Moundsville Penitentiary most popular apparition, the ghost of William “Red Synder”. Synder—nicknamed because of his frequent appearance in a red jumpsuit— was a leader of the neo-Nazi prison gang Aryan Brotherhood and was feared by many including the prison guards. Synder had played a vital role in the 1986 prison riot as well as several deaths that happened in the penitentiary. In the early morning of November 16, 1992, Synder was stabbed to death in his cell by his good friend Rusty Lassiter who had sought to take over leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood. Today, many who venture to the penitentiary claimed to have heard the raspy voice of Synder.

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