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Jan. 1, 1986 - Inmates Riot At West Virginia State Penitentiary In Moundsville
By Heath Harrison
September 15, 2013


In operation for nearly 120 years, the West Virginia State Penitentiary was the site of one of the most infamous prison riots in state history in January 1986.

Construction on the gothic style prison began in 1867 to house inmates in the new state of West Virginia. Since seceding from Virginia, the state suffered from a lack of government facilities and the Legislature ordered the construction of the new prison to handle West Virginia’s prisoners.

The penitentiary opened for service in 1876. It was expanded to twice its size, using prison labor, from 1929 to 1959, in order to deal with overcrowding.

Throughout its history, the prison would be known for a series of riots and escapes and the United States Department of Justice listed the facility as one of the 10 most violent correctional facilities in the nation.

Moundsville was also the site of 94 executions, by hanging and the electric chair, until the state outlawed capital punishment in 1959.

Worsening conditions at the prison reached the tipping point in the mid-1980s.

On New Year’s Day of 1986, a group of 20 inmates, who called themselves the Avengers, took over the prison’s mess hall, taking six guards and a food service worker hostage at knifepoint. More hostages were taken during the standoff.

In the ensuing chaos, three inmates were killed by their fellow prisoners. The standoff ended two days, when the hostages were released and Gov. Arch Moore agreed to go the prison to meet with inmates, leading to an agreement for improved conditions at the prison.

The riot was a key factor in the prison’s eventual closing. Shortly after, the West Virginia Supreme Court declared that the prison’s 5x7 foot cells were a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Nine years later, the facility was shut down, with most of the 700 prisoners transferred to the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County.

Today, the prison is popular as a tourist attraction and is open to the public. It's especially popular with so-called "ghost hunters," who frequently visit the prison, leading to its use as the setting of a number of paranormal-themed TV shows, such as ABC Family’s "Scariest Places on Earth," MTV's "Fear" and SyFy's "Ghost Hunters."

This week's video contains two vintage WCHS reports from the 1986 riot by Alan Cohen and Carl Ayers , followed by a three-part series from 1987 by Bob Aaron detailing conditions at the prison a year after the riot. (There are some audio issues with some of the voiceovers in the latter half, but it's included here, as the visuals give you a good look at what the prison was like during its operation)

Remember When: Jan. 1, 1986 - Inmates Riot At West Virginia State Penitentiary In Moundsville

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