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When a Prison Becomes a Haunted House

Some former prisons now cater to haunted-house enthusiasts and people who believe in the paranormal.

by Deonna Anderson
Jul 5 2016, 2:50pm

In this April 12, 2016 photo, a visitor makes a photograph of a cellblock at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This story was co-published with the Marshall Project.

When a prison shuts down, it doesn't necessarily stay empty for long. Some—most notably, Alcatraz—transform into museums dedicated to the history of the facility. Others are ­repurposed in less expected ways, becoming hotels, recording studios, and even summer camps.

And then there's the crop of prisons that play to an even more niche subset: haunted-house enthusiasts and those who believe in the paranormal.

Critics, for their part, believe the haunted tours are a distraction from the grim realities of the criminal justice system. "There's no discussion about the current state of affairs with prisons," said Michelle Brown, a criminologist and associate professor at the University of Tennessee, who has written about penal tourism. "It's appalling."

But the upside for most states is simple: Tourists flock to old prisons and pay to get spooked, which helps provide the money needed to maintain these historic buildings. Below, a sampling of prisons that have opened their doors to thrill-seekers. While most of them also offer historic tours, the main attractions tend to be the ones that scare.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Why it shut down: In 1970, the state closed the penitentiary, which opened in 1829, because the structure was crumbling and upkeep was too costly. The National Historic Landmark is best known for its medieval façade, its wheel-shaped layout, and for housing notorious criminals, including Al Capone. The prison has also provided the backdrop for such films as 12 Monkeys and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The audio tour is narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.

About the haunted tours: The penitentiary—which is run by the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc.—earns most of its income during prime haunted-house season, according to Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation and public programming at the site. The haunted season starts on September 16 and extends to November 5. During its VIP "After Dark" tours, for example, visitors learn about riots and escapes in the prison, and tour the cell blocks, underground punishment cells, and the operating room. They are then taken to a separate tour called "Terror Behind the Walls," where actors scare visitors by jumping out of dark corners. "It has aura here at night that I don't really like to be around," said Lauren Rowland, an Eastern State guide who is trained to facilitate "paranormal investigations," or tours in which visitors walk the hallways on their own in hopes of encountering paranormal activity.

Ohio State Reformatory

Location: Mansfield, Ohio

Why it shut down: Opened in 1898, the exterior resembles a castle and still has its original stained glass. In 1978, the facility was subject to a federal lawsuit by the Counsel for Human Dignity due to overcrowding, resulting in the prison's eventual closure in 1990. The reformatory is perhaps best known for being one of the filming locations for The Shawshank Redemption.

About the haunted tours: One of the tours, called the "Ghost Walk," takes visitors to the east cell block, which two ghosts are said to regularly haunt. "We have a ghost named Frank, who was a guard killed by an inmate in the barber shop and still haunts the bull pen area," said Rebecca McKinnel, president of the board of trustees for the reformatory. "We have Mr. Salts, who was the guard in charge of the hospital, and he generally is found in the east cell block."

But the most popular attraction is the overnight stays, where visitors are given a guided tour of the facility—including the third floor administrative area, where people have claimed to have heard mysterious voices and footsteps—and then sent on an "investigation" in hopes of having their own ghost encounter.

West Virginia Penitentiary

Location: Moundsville, West Virginia

Why it shut down: West Virginia Penitentiary, erected in 1868, is partly known for its electric chair, which was built by an inmate. Nine men were electrocuted in the chair between 1951 and 1959. In 1995, the state called for the closure of the prison after it was determined the cells were too small.

About the haunted tours: Visitors are led on guided, flashlight tours or can opt for overnight stays. Among other areas, they are taken to the "sugar shack," the penitentiary's recreation area, where R. D. Wahl, an inmate who other prisoners claimed was a "snitch," was murdered.

Visitors and staff have claimed to come in contact with him and the ghosts of other inmates during their time in the penitentiary. "I've had the footsteps walking behind me, and I've had doors close behind me," said Chuck Ghent, 63, who provides historical tours of the site.

Ghent worked as a correctional officer in the facility between 1986 and 1995. When visitors ask him about the details of working at the prison, he says, "In here, there wasn't a day when you didn't wonder if today might be your last day." While on the job as a guard, Ghent said an inmate tried to poison him by putting mercury in his coffee.

Missouri State Penitentiary

Location: Jefferson City, Missouri

Why it shut down: The prison was 168 years old when it was closed in 2004 year due to deteriorating conditions. Before earning his title as National Heavyweight Champion, Charles "Sonny" Liston learned to box here, according to the prison's website.

About the haunted tours: In 2011, when the site began offering paranormal tours, staffers decided to interview former inmates to learn more about the prison's history. One of the inmates is a man named José. "He talked about the shadow people and the guys walking around," said Tom Wells, a guide who worked as a corrections officer for 28 years, 15 of which were at the penitentiary.

Some believe the voices are a result of an attempted escape in 1907, when inmates tried to break out using explosives. Prisoners, the warden, and his dog died in that explosion. Wells, fellow guides, and visitors claim to have seen the ghost of the dog near Cell 3D. Wells added that when he whistles and says, "Come here, boy," the dog comes closer. "If the light is just right, you can see its tail wagging."

This article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

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