West Virginia Penitentiary was once considered the most violent prison in the USA. Which is one hell of a statement. During its last years in service the place was one big turf war between The Avengers motorcycle club and the Aryan Brotherhood. Yeah, it was pretty damned rough. The worst of the fighting stopped when the two top Avengers gang members were stabbed to death, thus putting an end to the struggle. (This was just a bit of the information I picked up while on the tour.)
The prison is about 140 years old. It's a really foreboding structure, intentionally created to appear as intimidating and uncomfortable as possible. Its outer walls were constructed of sandstone blocks mined and hacked out by the prisoners who were to inhabit the building upon its completion. Thus began a truly hideous bit of American history.
They filmed the Jimmy Stewart/George Kennedy/Strother Martin film FOOLS' PARADE in and around the prison in 1971. You can see the first ten minutes and forty-five seconds of the movie here. Kurt Russell was also in it...he was around 17 at the time.
One of the first things on display where you pay admission for the tour is this old style machine gun, which was part of the security landscape at the prison for some time.
This was our guide in the prison. I think her name was Doris. She did a really good job.
The relatively modern room where inmates spoke with visitors. Since the prison was so old, it was constantly being upgraded when possible. Upgrades were obvious in some of the much older parts of the prison.
Wherever prisoners had to pass, there were generally armed guards with the ability to fire their weapons through bars and grills. This was about as bright and inviting an area that we saw while in the prison.
There were paintings throughout the prison. All of the art was produced by inmates. This room had been converted into a cafeteria where inmates could dine with their families. Since there were always children about, all of the art in this room were fantasy and cartoon oriented.
This was one of the main cafeterias. This place was strictly segregated by the inmates. One end was all-white. The other end was strictly black. Hispanics could use the area in the middle. (No, I'm not making this shit up.)
More inmate art. The art was done right over the concrete walls. The fellow who did this one (and many others) was color blind. Another inmate would mix the colors for him and he would do the paintings.
Then we were out of the prison and into the central yard area. If possible, this part of the prison was uglier than the inside.
When this gate was built, it was horse-drawn wagons that came and went. The doors that locked it down were of steel and weighed fourteen tons. (They're still in there.) This must have been a frustrating sight for the inmates who were able to look through that door into the outside world from time to time. It was heavily guarded and armed to the teeth. Anyone trying to escape through there would have been cut to pieces by gunfire.
Then we were headed through more gates and fences and into the main section of the prison where most of the prisoners were housed.
Tomorrow: Part III (and B).