This prison was in use from 1867 to 1995. In 1863, West Virginia seceded from Virginia at the height of the American Civil War. Consequently, the new state had a shortage of various public institutions, including prisons; the Wagon Gate was the only building at this site during the Civil War. The first building constructed on the site was the North Wagon Gate. It was made with hand-cut sandstone, which was quarried from a local site. The state used prison labor during the construction process
The conditions at the prison worsened through the years, as the facility would be ranked on the United States Department of Justice's Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list. One of the more infamous locations in the prison, with instances of gambling, fighting,and raping, was a recreation room known as "The Sugar Shack".
In total, thirty-six homicides took place in the prison. One of the more notable ones is the butchering of R.D. Wall, inmate number 44670. On October 8, 1929, after "snitching" on his fellow inmates, he was attacked by three prisoners with dull shivs while heading to the boiler room.
In 1983, Charles Manson requested to be transferred to this prison to be nearer to his family. His request was denied
1986 Riot January 1, 1986 was not only the beginning of a new year, but also the date of one of the most infamous riots in recent history. The West Virginia Penitentiary was then undergoing many changes and problems. Security had become extremely loose in all areas. Since it was a "cons" prison, most of the locks on the cells had been picked and inmates roamed the halls freely. Bad plumbing and insects caused rapid spreading of various diseases. The prison was now holding more than 2,000 men and crowding became an issue once again. Another major contribution to the riot's cause was the fact that it was a holiday. Many of the officers had called off work, which fueled the prisoners to conduct their plan on this specific day.
Executions From 1899 to 1959, ninety-four men were executed. Hanging was the method of execution until 1949 with eighty-five men meeting that fate. The public could attend hangings until June 19, 1931. On that date, Frank Hyer was executed for murdering his wife, however, when the trap door beneath him was opened and his full weight was put onto the noose, he was instantly decapitated. Following this event, attendance at hangings was by invitation only. The last man to face execution by hanging, Bud Peterson from Logan County, lies in the prison's cemetery, as his family refused to claim his body. Beginning in 1951, electrocution became the means of execution. Ironically, the electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky", used by the prison was originally built by an inmate there, Paul Glenn. Nine men died in the chair until the state outlawed execution entirely in 1965