Markings at Moundsville

Elsewhere in this issue is a story about Darlene Veltri ’76, warden of a federal prison with 1,500 inmates. Veltri earned a master’s degree in West Virginia and did research at a prison there.

A West Virginia prison also figured prominently in the recent past of retired IUP history professor Jack Larner and alumnus Michael Rydeski. The pair spent seven sweaty days last summer, stooping, stretching, and crawling through cramped, damp, long-abandoned prison cells to inventory and reproduce various types of art. 

The site was the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville, closed since 1995 (nearly a decade after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that incarceration in the five-by-seven-foot cells—housing up to three prisoners each—constituted cruel and unusual punishment). Built with convict labor in the mid-nineteenth century, the ten-acre, fortress-like structure once held nearly three thousand prisoners. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination that draws more than twenty thousand visitors a year, many of them especially interested in its paranormal aspects.

Jack Larner and Michael Rydeski

Jack Larner, foreground, and Michael Rydeski

Larner and his wife, Bernadine (“She has a fascination with jails”), visited last June. “The writings and drawings on the cell walls captivated us both,” he said. “We only got to see about forty cells on the tour, and I wanted to see the rest.”
Larner, who lives in Altoona, enlisted Rydeski, a Pittsburgher with IUP bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history. With a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council and financial support from the Moundsville Economic Development Council, which manages the prison site, they set about inventorying seven hundred cells and photographing much of what they found there.

Without electricity and with precious little daylight, Larner and Rydeski relied on a high-powered flashlight, laptop computer, and digital camera. They were given free run of the huge facility—and a walkie-talkie radio.

“My biggest fear was getting lost,” Rydeski said. “We’d have been lifers.”

They found and recorded art, writing, and interior décor, most of it created on a background of government-issue, 1950s-era, turquoise wall enamel. They called what they found “markings,” a term they believe implies territoriality.

In the introduction to a booklet on the subject, they write “The markings are the works of felons; a fact that is not forgotten and one for which no excuses are made…. That being so, what felons have to say to themselves on the cell walls at Moundsville leads us to a new dimension of human understanding, if we want it!”

About a quarter-mile away from the rest of the prison population, the North Hall housed what Rydeski characterized as “the really bad people. They were felons compounded.”

“In that part,” Larner said, “the cell walls tended toward subjects of violence and racism, but there was some of the best artwork there, too, including an image looking down on the head of Christ.”

Empty and still though the prison was, there was an eerie sense of clamor. “You always had a feeling a lot of people had been there before,” Larner said. “You tried to imagine how overwhelming the noise level must have been.”

On the cover of the project’s booklet is an image of freedom—a bird, photographed through the steel webbing of a bunk bed.

“The dichotomy is overwhelming,” Larner said. “It’s what you think the whole time you’re in there. You wonder, what could these people have been, had they taken different roads?”