Old Wyoming State Penitentiary

Rawlins, Wyoming

Imagine yourself confined to a room five feet by seven feet with only a bare cot and toilet for amenities. Down the hallway terrified screams and sadistic laughter echo throughout the night, reminding you that your residence is in one of the rings of Hell. You’ll be all right, you tell yourself, so long as you keep to your work and tasks and do not make eye contact with any of those who live nearby. Your neighbors are Death and Pestilence, their children the diseased and dying. Now imagine that same five-foot by seven-foot room but shared with up to five other men. No, it is not a Manhattan flat filled with aspiring actors; it is a prison cell in which every breath drawn might be the last, and every setting sun heralds new terrors that come in the night.

Prisons are notorious spots for hauntings. There are few other places that can match the level of negativity and human suffering on the planet. Particularly with those built before the induction of prisoners’ rights, there are none that have a happy history. While the prisoners are gone and the old fortresses have become tourist spots, they are never truly empty. Scars of sins past stain the concrete and brick, and those cells in which inmates spent their furtive nights lay yawning open for a fresh new soul to be taught the meaning of “penitent.” There may be tours given, there may be happy guides, but in some areas the stagnant air grows cold, and the shadows dance of their own accord. Visitors can feel the eyes of the past watching them, loathing them for their freedom. In Rawlins, Wyoming, it is difficult to tell just who is imprisoned and who is running the facility.

By 1873 the prison in Laramie, Wyoming, was filled to capacity and more. Home to convicts from the surrounding areas, they could no longer accept new inmates, but still they came. It was decided that a new prison was needed, one that could accommodate the high number of miscreants that seemed to roam the state. Construction began in 1888 of what would be an enormous structure, designed to protect the public from the worst of society. It took twelve years, but on December 12, 1901, the Wyoming State Penitentiary opened its doors. The prisoners were to engage in meaningful duties to not only provide money for the prison and state but also instill within themselves a sense of work ethic. Over the years the prison manufactured brooms, shirts, processed wool, and even stamped out license plates.

The new facility featured tiny cells, each without running water or toilets, and bare concrete walls that bred more than a sense of punishment. It bred madness. Fights were common, as were stabbings and near riots. In just three years the penitentiary saw many bloody battles between prisoners, one of which involved a prisoner attempting to cut another’s heart out. The guards, who often felt themselves to be the real prisoners, often did nothing out of fear. However, such violence could only be tolerated for so long, prompting the construction of "The Hole" in 1906. This single windowless room was the punishment for anything from refusing to eat dinner to murder. The guilty were chained to a wall in the room and left in total darkness. During their stay they were attended only briefly, fed miniscule amounts of bread and water.

It wasn’t until 1914, a full thirteen years after the prison had already come dangerously close to its capacity, that the penitentiary received toilets and washbowls in the cells along with running water. It would be another sixty-four years before inmates got the luxury of hot water.

After several escape attempts by inmates, the wooden stockades that surrounded the buildings were replaced by high concrete walls in 1915. The convicts themselves were made to erect the walls and guard towers, giving them a sense of building their own prison and letting them know that escape was not possible.

Executions were commonplace, either by hanging or by gas, but it wasn’t just the state doing the executing. Prison guards often enforced their own brand of justice or simply turned a blind eye to prisoner-performed hangings. In one case the person hanged did not die immediately, prompting his executioners to haul him up by the rope and toss him over the rail again. The second time the prisoner died, and the guards said nothing.

By the late 1970’s tales of abuse and overcrowding reached the state. Stories involving "The Hole" and other tortures, including thumb cuffs and the insidious "Oregon Boot" (a steel shoe that was heavily weighted), reached the proper ears, prompting an investigation. In 1981 the Wyoming State Penitentiary closed its doors for good, leaving behind decades of abuse and agony within its walls.

It is impossible to identify the restless souls that never left the “Old Pen” as they are simply too numerous. What is clear, however, is that in many places what remains is angry and resentful ? and not at all shy about showing its feelings.

Phenomena such as phantom voices in empty cells and cold spots are common, as are other sounds and feelings of hostility. Tour guides and tourists alike have reported seeing shadowy figures disappearing around corners and malicious presences throughout the structure. There are, however, a few places deemed hotbeds of activity. The showers, where countless inmates were attacked, violated, or even killed, have been the source of many a story. Some tour guides won’t even enter the area anymore. Also on the list of to-be-avoided places are the former “Death Row” and the gas chamber. However, most agree that the worst hauntings occur in the black pit called The Hole. Whatever lurks there, according to those whose job it is to walk the halls, is angry and crazed, threatening to anyone who enters. There are also specific cells in which voices are heard and presences felt. Also well known is Guard Tower No. 9, in which a guard committed suicide.

Present Day:
The buildings stand as they did with cells that still bear the artwork of those contained within. On Death Row cells are adorned with photos of those prisoners who spent their last moments inside. The old prison cemetery is visible on the grounds, many of the tombstones laying broken or propped against a fence. It looks no less ominous for the lack of new prisoners? and perhaps looks more so for its reputation.

In what has become a trend with such old prisons, the Wyoming State Penitentiary has become something of a tourist attraction. Public functions are held on its grounds and within its walls, including a bazaar and a “Haunted Halloween Tour.” Those interested can follow the paths of the damned all the way to the gas chamber, which still sits open and waiting for business.

Best Times:
Guides are always willing to share their experiences in the building, and while some may sound unbelievable, there are always corroborating witnesses, both employees and strangers. Tours geared toward the paranormal enthusiast are best experienced during one of the evenings of Halloween. But that doesn’t mean that All Hallows is the only time to experience something unexplainable. As the guides themselves will tell you, there’s always something happening, and you never know when something will catch you out of the corner of your eye.

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

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