We watched them gamble, fight and rape in the “Sugar Shack,” the underground room where most people now fear to even enter.
We watched the state cram 2,000 prisoners into a prison built for half that number in the 1960s and all the suffering and violence that resulted.
We watched 15 prisoners escape in 1979 and kill an off duty state trooper on the street outside in the process.
We watched them riot in 1986, kill three of their own and get the state’s governor to come in to negotiate.
By 1995 they finally moved all the living prisoners out and we had little to watch.
We were astonished when they began to use these rotting old halls and cells to train cops and guards about how to handle prison riots after the living prisoners were moved out. They came in with all their modern weapons and tactics and practiced how to subdue make believe rioters who were hired to play the rolls of evil men.
More astonishing still to us was when they began to give children tours of our prison. Now, they use the sites of our misery as a Halloween joke and laugh with glee when they pretend to lock each other in our old wretched tiny cells.
Through all that, we watched—and, we watch still.
Last night, hundreds of people came in through the old North Gate where our earthy remains were once removed from the prison for burial. They came in for a massive alcohol infused party that they called a steak fry.
As moonlight reflected off razor wire atop fences inside the weathered stone walls, they rolled massive charcoal grills into our old prison yard. People grilled thick juicy steaks by the glow of flashlights where men once traded cigarettes for simple comforts.
Odd loud music erupted from the big open building they built in the later years of the prison as a cafeteria and then modified to be a teaching facility and party room for hire.
There were kegs of beer set up where men used to be fed slop on metal trays.
Intoxicated young people danced and sang with their arms in the air and their voices raised in song where men were once humiliated and abused.
And we watched.
The people we watch will never know the terror, fear, and death that once dominated these grounds. It is all locked away in little-studied public records and in the fading memories of the few men who survived this particular brand of hell. But it also survives among those of us who wander this site undetected, unremembered and unknown forever.
Photos of the Moundsville Pen by Steve Novotney: