The 10 Most Interesting Abandoned Prisons of America

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The tale of crime and punishment in our country is fascinating. As attitude towards incarceration and crime has changed over the years, many historic penitentiaries fell silent. Deserted buildings are eerie enough on their own, but these abandoned prisons are equal parts creepy, heartbreaking, and hauntingly beautiful. There are abandoned prisons where inmates were held in solitary confinement, tortured, and even executed that feel particularly chilling. For true crime fans, many former jails are open to the public and offer tours. Excluding Alcatraz, because we’ve all either seen or heard about it, here are 10 abandoned prisons around America and the stories behind them.

  1. Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
    Time of Operation: 1829 to 1971
    When first built, this prison was the largest and most expensive public structure ever built. Many parts of the prison remain the same. The prison’s old barber chair is still pinned to the floor of the barbershop. Worth mentioning is that Al Capone’s cell is one of the most fascinating spots in this prison.
  2. Ohio State Reformatory, Mansfield
    Time of Operation: 1886 to 1990
    The East Cell Block remains the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world. This was the prison used to film a massive part of “The Shawshank Redemption,” and the restoration of the prison is ongoing, but much of the structure is still in a state of decay.
  3. West Virginia State Penitentiary, Moundsville
    Time of Operation: 1876 to 1995
    Ninety-four men were executed at this Gothic-style prison. The prison’s electric chair, “Old Sparky,” was actually built by inmate Paul Glenn. Besides offering tours, today, the prison is also a training facility for law enforcement officials.
  4. Wyoming Frontier Prison, Rawlins
    Time of Operation: 1880 to 1981
    This prison contained about five hundred medium-security prisoners. Inmate Henry Ruhl was executed here in 1945. He is the only individual to be put to death by the Federal Government in Wyoming. The building is now a museum and has exhibits and guided tours of the old prison.
  5. Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Boise
    Time of Operation: 1872 to 1973
    Fun Fact: This prison is only ten years younger than Idaho itself. The place was built to hold around 600 people and saw over 13,000 inmates over its lifetime.
  6. Tennessee State Prison, Nashville
    Time of Operation: 1898 to 1992
    Most of the penitentiary was built using inmate labor. Prisoners worked up to 16 hours a day on very little food. Riots and uncontrollable prisoner violence are what contributed to the facility’s downfall.
  7. Fort Delaware, Delaware City
    Time of Operation: 1859 to 1944
    Fort Delaware was built as a Union Fortress during the Civil War but used as a prison for the captured Confederate soldiers. It held up to 12,595 prisoners at one time. The fortress became a state park in 1951. Tours are available on the isolated island but only accessible by ferry.
  8. Pottawattamie County Jail, Council Bluffs
    Time of Operation: 1885 to 1969
    This Iowa jail with three floors of revolving cells inside cages was designed by William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, rotating jail cells aimed to minimize the contact between inmates and guards. Tours are available, where you can still see inmates’ signatures carved into the walls.
  9. Wyoming Territorial Prison, Laramie
    Time of Operation: 1872 to 1903
    This prison was home to 1,063 criminals of the wild west during its operation, including Butch Cassidy. It began as a federal prison but became Wyoming’s State Penitentiary in 1890. Inmates were required to be quiet at all times, perform hard labor, and wear striped uniforms. It closed down in 1903 and was used by the University of Wyoming to do livestock and crop field research. The prison was renovated and turned into a museum in 1990.
  10. Penitentiary of New Mexico, Santa Fe
    Time of Operation: 1885 to 1998
    This is where one of the most violent prison riots in American history occurred in 1980 when inmates took 12 guards as hostages, killed 33 other prisoners, and injured 100 more in 36 hours. Signs of a beheading and charred outlines of bodies are still noticeable on the concrete ground. This place was closed for repairs after the riot and reopened for 18 years before closing again in 1998. The New Mexico Corrections Department has been offering tours since 2012.

Our Takeaway? America’s discarded prisons and decaying correctional facilities tell a sobering and sometimes chilling story of how people have been incarcerated throughout the times, often in harsh, cramped conditions and for crimes that no longer exist. From so-called ‘squirrel cage jails, where small cells were revolved using a carousel system, to eerie cell blocks said to be haunted by ghosts of former inmates and staff, if you’re planning on visiting any weird spots, be sure to check out some of the places on our list.

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