Tourists Can't Escape the Brutality of Notorious West Virginia Penitentiary

By Crowe, Kevin | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 15, 2007 | Go to article overview

Tourists Can't Escape the Brutality of Notorious West Virginia Penitentiary


Crowe, Kevin, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


When prison guards at the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville opened the doors to two cells one afternoon in 1992, Russell "Rusty" Lassiter rushed out of his cell with a shank and attacked William "Red" Snyder in a cell not 10 feet away. Before a guard drew his gun and ordered Lassiter to stop, he had stabbed Snyder 37 times.

"That was a nasty stabbing," former guard Maggie Grey says. "But that was nothing."

Before it was closed by court order in March 1995, the West Virginia Penitentiary, which opened in 1876, saw the deaths of 995 inmates -- at least 36 of which were homicides -- and three guards.

Now, the Moundsville Economic Development Council is using the prison's infamy to attract tourists.

Soon after inmates were removed from the prison, the council obtained a 25-year lease for the building and reopened it to the public six days a week from April through November with guided tours.

But the tours are not for the timid. Guides, some of whom worked at the prison as corrections officers, supplement the 90-minute walk around the prison with stories of shanked snitches, drugs, prison gangs and riots -- of which there were four.

"There's not many places around here where something didn't happen," says Donna Richards, a tour guide.

While tour guides fill in the details, the prison itself offers colorful narration.

The Gothic sandstone structure was, itself, a form of punishment. Starting in 1866, about 150 prisoners worked in rock quarries to extract and hand cut the stone that, 10 years later, would cut them off from the outside world.

"They built their own prison," Richards says.

The facade and original entrance that loom over Franklin Street, just a few blocks south of Moundsville's business and cultural district, might, at first glance, appear more fitting on the campus of an old university. But the turrets and the high walls betray the structure's true purpose.

The inmates did a good job of sealing themselves in, Richards says. The walls aren't merely tall; they also extend six feet below the ground to deter escape artists from tunneling out.

That worked until 1992, when three inmates who worked in a greenhouse dug their way out during the course of a couple of months.

"They worked in shifts," says Joe Frey, who worked as a guard at the prison for six years and now works as a tour guide on weekends. "While two of them were working in the greenhouse, a third would be down in the tunnel."

It was no ordinary tunnel. The group of inmates, which included an electrician and a coal miner, wired the four-foot-high tunnel with lighting and placed wooden planks along the walls for support.

The three escaped unnoticed, but all eventually were caught.

"Some of these guys were so smart, you wondered why they were in here," Frey says.

While some inmates tried to escape, others spent their days making the prison more habitable by covering some of the walls with paintings and murals -- some more intricate than others.

A favorite artist of the guards was Billy Foster, an inmate who first entered the penitentiary around 1960 at the age of 18 and, during the course of three different sentences, spent 28 years within its walls.

One of Foster's works, "Blackwater Falls," greets visitors in one of the front hallways of the prison. The large painting smoothly captures the amber waters of the Blackwater River as it tumbles down a set of falls.

Foster also did pen-and-ink drawings and oil paintings on canvas, many of which he gave to guards. Grey has an original drawing of an old mill, and Frey has drawings of coal miners at work.

The intricate nature of Foster's paintings contrasts almost humorously with some of the other murals in the prison, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and unicorns that cover the walls of the visitation area. …

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