by Barb Stern
The Pitt Greensburg Criminal Justice Club will celebrate Halloween this year in a rather unique way—by touring the former Moundsville Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia to understand better the experience of the former inmates there. The bus for this trip will depart from Smith Hall at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, October 25.
Annie Fiffick, president of the Criminal Justice Club, was inspired to arrange this tour while watching the show ‘Ghost Adventures’. “The group on the TV show were doing an investigation about the paranormal activity that occurs there. They had remarked that so much paranormal activity occurred due to the violent past that the prison had, so after watching the episode, I decided to do some research of my own,” she said. “I thought that doing a paranormal tour of the facility would be interesting for university students during the October month with all of the Halloween festivities. Unfortunately, due to a poor lack of communication from the Penitentiary, we were told that we could not take a paranormal tour, and instead were offered the haunted house tour at a dramatically less cost. It was too good to pass up and decided that we could still go on the haunted house tour. The Penitentiary has stated numerous times their encouragement for our return for a history or paranormal tour in the future.”
Fiffick believes that even though the penitentiary no longer houses prisoners, it still brings to light some crucial issues in the area of criminal justice. “One of the main points I have tried to focus on in some of my discussion with some members is treatment of the prisoners,” she said. “The facility was built to house 480 prisoners when in reality over 2,400 were kept there; the over-housing of prisoners led to other issues such as: harsh punishment, violence between inmates, and ultimately the death of hundreds of persons. Although extreme in its history, Moundsville is an excellent portrayal of the wrongs that have occurred with our prison system. The penitentiary shows light on the wrongs that are still occurring in some prisons throughout the world and how much the Criminal Justice System still has to learn.”
Tim Holler, adviser to the club, says that the trip will help the club members build a sense of comraderie through this shared experience. “It is a chance for students and faculty to do something that is completely out of the ordinary,” he said. “It is not everyday that you can experience the thrill of the Halloween season in a prison that is known for its connection to the paranormal world.”
The Moundsville Prison was opened in 1875. West Virginia had seceded from Virginia during the Civil War. As a result, West Virginia had no provisions to house prisoners.
For many years, the prison was a model facility. Inmates had access to academic education and to vocational training. There even was a prison farm and a nearby coal mine that employed prisoners, making the Moundsville Prison virtually self-sufficient.
After World War I, overcrowding became an increasingly volatile issue at the prison. Discipline broke down and riots became increasingly common.
Things came to a head on January 1, 1986, when a group of inmates called the Avengers, stormed the mess hall. The prison was short-staffed because it was a holiday. The riot lasted for two days, until then Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. was sent to the penitentiary to converse with the inmates. This meeting set up a new list of rules and standards for the prison.
The prison was decomissioned by the West Virginia Supreme Court in 1986 on the basis that the small cells constituted ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for the prisoners.
The site still serves as a training facility for law-enforcement personnel. It also is open for tours under the management of the Moundsville Economic Development Council.
The trip costs $15. People can register at student services or at the secretary’s office in FOB.
“The main focus for many persons still going to Moundsville is its unique and horrific history which leads for many to believe that the facility is haunted,” said Fiffick. “The penitentiary is known to be one of the most paranormally active prisons in the United States and many who visit are known to have their own paranormal encounter. It is our hope that after going to the Penitentiary this month all who attend will not only be able to discuss the importance of the facility, but come back with a paranormal story of their own.”