Haunted Penitentiaries

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Individuals who seek novelty also like exploring unfamiliar environments and stimuli that deviate from everyday experiences. People’s novelty-seeking behavior may explain why others like putting themselves in frightening situations.

With fear, adrenaline rush, and the knowledge that there is no real danger, people can enter haunted houses and watch horror movies for entertainment.

Adrenaline seekers and ghost hunters associate ghost stories and paranormal activities with the most haunted places. If you’re looking for a good scare, you may find visiting decommissioned jails alluring.

Although old and abandoned penitentiaries can be inevitable hotspots for supernatural activity, these places don’t need ghosts to be horrifying.

The crumbling cellblocks, the empty guard towers, the pain prisoners endured, and the horrible events behind prison walls are enough reasons to call these places haunted.

Are there haunted penitentiaries and jails in the U.S.? What are the most haunted prisons in the world? What should you expect from prison tourism?

This article discusses the most haunted penitentiaries and jails in the U.S. It also includes the world’s top five most haunted prisons and gives insights on what to expect from prison tourism.

LookUpInmate.org lets you access pertinent information regarding inmates and correctional facilities across the United States. If you’re interested in knowing more about haunted penitentiaries, read on.

America’s Most Haunted Prisons and Jails

Penitentiaries are usually high on the list of the most haunted places in America. Aside from ghost stories, the atrocities inside these facilities make prisons and jails even creepier.

10 Most Haunted Jails and Prisons in the U.S.

Most inmates experience their darkest moments within prison walls. The trauma, terror, and pain associated with these prisons are so severe that even the sweet release of death may not be enough to free some of the prisoners’ souls.

Here are the top 10 most haunted jails and prisons in the United States:

Missouri State Penitentiary (Jefferson City, Missouri)

The Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) in downtown Jefferson City became inoperative in 2004. MSP opened in 1836 and housed inmates for 168 years.

Time magazine named MSP the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” due to the high number of serious assaults on the grounds between 1963 and 1964.

In addition, about 40 inmates were executed in the gas chamber between 1937 and 1989. One of those 40 prisoners was a woman. Bonnie B. Heady was 41 years old at the time of her execution.

In 1953, Heady and Carl Austin Hall kidnapped six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of a wealthy automobile dealer from Kansas City, Missouri. The duo demanded $600,000 in ransom, the largest ransom money in the history of the nation at the time.

The Greenlease family paid the duo in exchange for Bobby. Unknown to the family, Heady and Hall killed the boy soon after the abduction.

On December 18, 1953, Heady and Carl Austin Hall were executed in the MSP’s gas chamber.

With the frequent violence inside MSP’s walls and the executions inside its gas chambers, it should not be surprising that staff and visitors have reported various eerie encounters with lingering spirits in the facility.

The A-Hall, a solitary confinement chamber and the oldest part of the MSP, is one of the most haunted locations in the facility.

Meanwhile, the most infamous ghost lingering in the site is in cell 48, where a prison informant was bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer.

Wyoming Territorial Prison (Laramie, Wyoming)

The Wyoming Territorial Prison opened in 1872 and housed violent outlaws during its operation until its closing in 1903. This facility’s claim to fame is the two-year imprisonment of Butch Cassidy from 1894 to 1896.

Butch Cassidy, the Robin Hood of the West, moved from a rustler to a master planner of banks, mine payrolls, and train robbery. His gang had dubbed themselves the Wild Bunch in 1896.

The most talked about ghost story is that of Julius Greenwald, an inmate who died of heart failure in 1901.

Greenwald, who murdered his wife, used to make cigars for his fellow inmates. Visitors to the site have reported smelling tobacco wafting from Greenwald’s old cell.

West Virginia Penitentiary (Moundsville, West Virginia)

The West Virginia Penitentiary is an ominous gothic structure built in 1876. The facility stopped operations in 1995 and has since been a tourist destination in Moundsville, West Virginia.

During Halloween, visitors test their mental limits against the supernatural while inside the five-foot-thick walls of the facility.

The West Virginia Penitentiary gives its visitors a taste of its rich history and chilling mystery. This former prison once held some of the most notorious inmates in the U.S.

Before 1950, all executions in the West Virginia Penitentiary were carried out through hangings. The practice of hanging inmates from the gallows at the facility often drew local crowds who watched the condemned prisoners meet their death.

However, in 1951, Paul Glenn, an inmate of the facility, built an electric chair called Old Sparky to carry out future executions. Aside from brutal executions, the inmates also lived like cage animals. The pressure and their inhumane circumstances led to deadly riots.

On October 8, 1929, R.D. Wall, a prisoner informant of the West Virginia Penitentiary, went down to the basement, where he met his end. Three other prisoners attacked and butchered Wall with a dull shiv, a handcrafted bladed weapon that resembles a knife.

The ghost of R.D. Wall allegedly haunts the halls of the facility. Visitors also claimed they’d heard ghostly voices, footsteps, and unexplained noises.

Guests also experienced cold chills and overwhelming feelings of panic.

Pottawattamie County Jail (Council Bluffs, Iowa)

Better known as Squirrel Cage Jail, the Pottawattamie Jailhouse is a three-story rotary jail constructed to minimize the interaction between the convict and jailer by twirling the cells around.

The design of the Squirrel Cage Jail allowed the officials to continuously watched all prisoners from one location. Much to the lament of the jailers, the huge metal turntable was not faring well and would frequently get stuck.

Squirrel Cage Jail only had one opening. So jailers would have to revolve the pie-shaped cells around until the desired inmate’s cell pointed to the door. Suppose inmates died in their cells. Their bodies would be trapped inside those small rooms for days.

Squirrel Cage Jail finally closed in 1969. The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County took over and turned it into a museum. Many staff and volunteers have heard whispers, voices, and footsteps. They’ve also seen doors moving in the old jail turned-historic site.

The notion that the Squirrel Cage Jail is haunted may be attributed to the four known deaths in the building:

  • An inmate who died of a heart attack
  • An inmate who died from a three-story fall when he tried to carve his name on the jail’s ceiling
  • An inmate who hung himself
  • An officer who was accidentally shot when a gun misfired during a gun training

Lake County Jail (Crown Point, Indiana)

The authorities boasted that Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, was “escape-proof” until John Dillinger, a notorious and vicious thief, broke out on March 3, 1934.

Dillinger cowed the jailers with a wooden gun he had whittled, forcing them to open the door to his cell. He then grabbed two machine guns, locked up several guards and trustees of the facility, and fled.

Lake County Jail remained active until the 1970s and has since become a historic site. Visitors and volunteers have claimed that they spotted apparitions in the cells. They’ve also seen doors open and shut on their own.

Maxwell Street Police Station (Chicago, Illinois)

Located at 943 West Maxwell Street, the Maxwell Street Station tells the story of the evolution of a police department and Chicago’s early immigrants. This police station also garnered a corrupt reputation because of the crime organizations surrounding the area.

Many believe that the station’s basement was used for torture because several arrested individuals never returned once police officers took them to that area.

The T.V. series “Chicago P.D.” filmed its scenes in the police station. Visitors have claimed that they’ve heard screams coming from the basement. Guests have also heard crying, moaning, and rattling handcuffs.

Ohio Penitentiary (Columbus, Ohio)

The Ohio Penitentiary began its operation in Columbus in 1834. The facility continued to house prisoners until 1979.

In the 19th century, the Ohio Penitentiary reflected the common notion that prison was more for punishment than rehabilitation. Hence, conditions in the facility were primitive. Inmates initially slept on straw mattresses, and food options were simple: bacon, beans, and cornbread.

The inmates had to work in one of the prison industries, from making shoes and harnesses to brooms and barrels. Diseases also spread quickly. In 1930, a fire swept through the penitentiary and killed 322 people.

Prisoners complained of eerie happenings and ghostly sightings in the facility. Although the building has since been torn down, many individuals still claim that they’ve seen apparitions among the ruins.

Ohio State Reformatory (Mansfield, Ohio)

The Ohio State Reformatory became famous for the film “The Shawshank Redemption”. In 1890, the facility was an intermediate penitentiary for first-time offenders who were too violent for industrial schools.

As prison populations grew in the 20th century, the facility began accepting prisoners convicted of more serious crimes. The Ohio State Reformatory became overcrowded in the 1960s. Overpopulation bred diseases and began conflicts.

The once humane prison quickly became a place of murder, abuse, and torture. Prisoners eventually filed a lawsuit for their inhabitable conditions. Meanwhile, visitors to the facility have claimed that they’ve heard footsteps and seen apparitions. They’ve also experienced eerie encounters inside the cells where prisoners once lived.

Alcatraz Penitentiary (San Francisco, California)

Alcatraz, a small island in California, was once a fort, a maximum security federal penitentiary, and a military prison.

Also known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz was a dumping place for the worst criminals. Its famous inmates include George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone.

George Kelly was infamous for abducting a wealthy oil magnate in 1933.

Meanwhile, Al Capone led an empire of crimes in the Windy City, including prostitution, bribery, gambling, narcotics trafficking, bootlegging, robbery, protection rackets, and murder.

Many believe that Al Capone’s spirit still resides in the facility. The notorious criminal learned to play the banjo during his time in prison.

Al Capone feared the other inmates would kill him if he went out in the yard. So he negotiated with the jailers to allow him to spend his recreation time in the bathroom. Even after Al Capone’s death, many reported hearing a banjo playing from the shower.

Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia)

The Quakers who built the Eastern State Penitentiary thought the facility would be where outlaws could ponder their crimes.

The prison opened in 1829 and became instantly famous worldwide for its grand architecture and radical philosophy.

The Eastern State Penitentiary implemented strict isolation to reform criminals. Inmates lived in windowless rooms without any human contact. Hence, suicide became common.

The facility closed its doors to inmates in 1971 after 142 years of operation. Paranormal encounters have become commonplace inside the building, including disembodied footsteps, apparitions, and strange sounds.

5 Most Haunted Prisons in the World

Old and abandoned prisons have gory histories. With all the pain, torture, and torment former inmates endured during their confinement, several decommissioned penitentiaries have become extremely haunted and are now a locus for ghost hunts.

Alcatraz is a famous island for ghost tours and ranks at the top list of the world’s most haunted prisons. Here are the other five most haunted prisons in the world:

1. Bodmin Jail (Cornwall, England)

In 1779, Bodmin Jail was built for King George III. About 55 executions happened within the formidable walls of the facility for crimes ranging from arson to murder.

One of Bodmin Jail’s famous inmates was Elizabeth Osborne. She exacted revenge on her former employer by setting fire to the latter’s mow of corn. Osborne told several individuals about her crime, showing no remorse.

Arson was a capital felony then, and on September 6, 1813, Osborne met her end when she was hanged in public before a large crowd.

Visitors of Bodmin Jail have claimed that they’ve seen the ghost of an agitated and grumpy woman wandering around the grimy cells of the old facility. Bodmin Jail’s paranormal manager said that the apparition is the kind of woman to avoid.

2. Santo Stefano Prison (Ventotene, Italy)

Although there have been no accounts of paranormal activity in Santo Stefano, its dark history will horrify you.

Originally built to be an ideal penitentiary, Santo Stefano saw a prisoners’ coup and several revolts throughout its operation. The facility stands atop a tiny volcanic island in an archipelago off the west coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Santo Stefano was a hellish prison from which nobody could escape. During the 1930s and 1940s, many prisoners were drowned or tortured. The prison eventually ended its operation in 1965.

3. The Tower of London (London, England)

The Tower of London has been a symbol of fear and awe, where kings and queens of old incarcerated their enemies and rivals within its walls. The Tower of London became England’s most important state prison during the Tudor age.

The historic castle is believed to be haunted as it has seen numerous executions, murders, and tortures in its history. The Tower’s most famous ghostly apparition was Anne Boleyn, beheaded on Tower Green in 1536.

Witnesses have claimed that they’ve seen Boleyn’s ghost carrying her severed head.

4. Tennessee State Prison (Nashville, Tennessee)

Tennessee State Prison was a maximum security facility that held notorious criminals of the 19th and 20th centuries. The facility operated from 1898 to 1992.

Tennessee State Prison stopped its operation for inhumane conditions. Still, the disarrayed building earned notoriety for its spooky paranormal activities.

5. Shrewsbury Prison (Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England)

Shrewsbury Prison was built in 1793. The facility was a place for public execution, engaging a massive crowd in an unwholesome festive atmosphere.

Shrewsbury Prison prides itself in the title “second most haunted jail in the world.” Ghost tours run every Wednesday evening, offering guests the opportunity to experience what lurks behind the high prison walls.

Rethinking Prison Tourism

Prison tourism uses the eerie and gruesome attractions of old and abandoned penitentiaries to attract tourists seeking a good scare. Organizers of these defunct prisons offer everything from haunted tours to the chance to stay overnight in a prison cell.

Unfortunately, the entire industry is built mainly on entertainment at the expense of the prisoners’ dignity.

The struggles of incarcerated individuals are real, and they’re not for amusement. Hence, prison tourism should turn visitors into potential allies for transforming the current prison system and not detached spectators or, worse, voyeurs of the imprisonment experience.


1. Why do we like to be scared? USC experts explain the science of fright
2. Horror movies and haunted houses — why do we enjoy fear on Halloween?
3. Greenlease Kidnapping
4. Do Time With Us
5. Cassidy, Butch
6. West Virginia
7. John Dillinger
8. Maxwell Street Station History
9. Ohio Penitentiary
10. Island of Incarceration, Island of Freedom
11. George “Machine Gun” Kelly
12. Al Capone

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