Moundsville Penitentiary Reconsidered: Second Thoughts on Hyperreality at a Small Town Prison Tour

By Mendenhall, Allen | Libertarian Papers, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Moundsville Penitentiary Reconsidered: Second Thoughts on Hyperreality at a Small Town Prison Tour


Mendenhall, Allen, Libertarian Papers


I site and lay in my bed, and hear the words running throu my had'. I think some time's I mite be dead, but death can't be this bad.

I sity and lay on my bead, I can fill the blad running throu my chest

Some time's I'll weak in a swat thinking

It's blood running down my chest, some time I think

It's Hell but Hell can't be this bad ...

I was 17 teen wine I did the crime, I 19 teen not hafe way throu the time, I fill the blead runing throu my chest.

--Cell marking, Moundsville Penitentiary (1)

ON A COLD, WINDY DAY IN OCTOBER, equipped with nothing but a pen and some 3x5 inch notecards, I toured Moundsville Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, bent on writing an article. Enrolled in a graduate course on prison literature, I'd spent the last two months reading a wide variety of works by authors like Richard Wright, Jeremy Bentham, Albert Camus, Piri Thomas, Etheridge Knight, and Henry David Thoreau. I'd read dozens of articles on America's incarceration culture, and watched at least two chilling documentary films. At some point, curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to see for myself how one local prison was dealing with its fraught history of escapes, riots, abuses, and executions.2 I took the official tour, explored the grounds for some two hours, and chatted with other tourists, all the while cobbling together observations on my notecards. That night I dashed off brief reflections, which I later willed into something of a narrative. The result was a short essay, which, after two months of revision, became a long essay accepted for publication in The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. (3)

Moundsville Penitentiary, sometimes called West Virginia Penitentiary ("WVP"), is no longer operational except as a tourist attraction. Built in 1867, it stopped functioning as a prison in 1995. In 1986, after a highly publicized prison riot, Chief Justice Thomas B. Miller of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled the prison conditions unconstitutional. (4) His opinion opened by saying, "It is difficult to accurately summarize the deplorable conditions that were found to exist at WVP." (5) At Miller's writing, prisoners were living in 5 x 7 foot cells filled with feces. (6) During hot summer months, the stench of baking excrement, both human and animal, permeated these cramped spaces.

During its active years, the prison carried out 94 executions, 85 by hanging. Its final hanging resulted in accidental decapitation. Afterwards, executions were accomplished by electric chair until West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965. From its inception, the prison oversaw hunger strikes, beat-downs, and murders. It was a violent place. It's now a theme park extravaganza, a place where parents take small children to delight in cheerful recreation. Announced by Gothic towers and tall, formidable walls, it's an anachronistic, symbolic structure whose architectural message amounts to one word: power.

As a libertarian, I support the autonomy of the individual, but I believe that individuals forfeit moral rights when they violate or interfere with rights of others. For that reason, I believe that murderers and rapists (and the like) surrender some degree of control over their person. Whether and to what extent citizens should delegate coercive authority over criminals to an amorphous and omnipotent sovereign is another issue altogether. Should the state, for instance, enjoy the power to eliminate a human life without consequence? Is state-sanctioned killing revenge or justice when its agents aren't intimately connected with the victim or the victim's family? Are mass incarceration and maximum security prisons the best way to deal with criminals? And is the goal of prison to punish, deter, or rehabilitate? I leave these and other related questions unanswered in this article but hope that readers will have them in mind as they proceed. …

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