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West Virginia Penitentiary, 1894

West Virginia Penitentiary, 1894line



--from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 31, 1894.


Said to be a Mild Description of the West Virginia Pen.


In Charging Gross Cruelty, Insufficient and Improper Food, and a State of Affairs in General Which is a Disgrace to Civilization -- The Lives of Convicts Shortened -- Inmates of the Pen do not Dare to Complain.

The management of a prison is the hardest thing in the world to get at. Convicts are at the mercy of the superintendent and guards, and the word of an ex-convict is naturally discredited to some extent. But when unusually intelligent men, with no personal grievance, agree in certain statements, after observation for several years, it must be considered that there is some foundation for these stories.

Recently, it will be remembered, Capt. James H. Pine was released from the Moundsville penitentiary after serving a short term as an United States prisoner. He had a comparatively easy time of it, being most of his term teacher of the prison school. He is an educated man, a keen observer, and had access to sources of information beyond the reach of the ordinary convict. He told the INTELLIGENCER some horrible stories of cruel treatment of prisoners and of other discreditable facts about the administration of the prison.

His successor as teacher in the school was a man known as J. W. Holmes, serving twenty months for forgery. Holmes is a highly educated man, a keen oberver, and he, too, had the best facilities for observing the conduct of affairs by Superintendent Van Pelt and his subordinates.

Mr. Holmes's term expired last Saturday. Yesterday he was in Wheeling and an INTELLIGENCER reporter had a long talk with him. He confirms and emphasizes all that Capt. Pine said, and says much more in the same line.

Mr. Holmes said that the expression "Hell upon earth" would be mild as applied to the Moundsville penitentiary. The treatment of inmates is cruel, the food is insufficient and bad, and the management generally weak and incompetent. There are guards who cannot read or write, and who get convicts to write letters -- even love letters -- for them.

He says the weak and sickly prisoners are put in the shops and given the worst jobs, while able-bodied colored men are allowed to lounge about the "idle room." One man who had hemorrhages and was spitting blood was ordered to work, and Holmes interfered, when the guard knowing his term would shortly end, let the sick man reman off duty. Holmes said he himself was nearly dead with rheumatism before he was allowed to stop work, and no physician ever saw him.

As to the food, he says the beans actually rattled, they were so badly cooked. The meat was often wormy. Once, a convict took a wormy piece to the superintendent, who said it was all right and ordered the cook to serve it again for supper. The food for the sick is a bad, only differing in that they get less of it.

A minister, an old friend of Holmes's, sent him a large lot of books and magazines. Van Pelt refused to allow him to receive them unless he would present them to the library, and as he declined they were sent back. When the minister wrote about it Van Pelt denied all knowledge of the affair.

The supply of books, slates, and pencils for the prison school is so inadequate as to make the school a farce.

But thse were minor charges, as Holms tells his story. He tells of a man named Johnson who was bucked and gagged till his eyes actually bulged out and he fell in a faint. When he came back to his cell his neck was raw and bleeding. Another man was kept in the dark cell seventeen mornings in succession, and told if he offended again he would be killed. His offense was being unable to finish the task assigned to him, sewing eight dozen brooms a day.

Frank Bush was kept in solitary confinement, Holmes says, for eleven months, never being let out except to bathe. A colored prisoner who resented the treatment of a guard had been kept in solitary confinement over a year when Holmes left.

Van Baker's case has been spoken of before. Holmes says he was in the office as an assistant, and detected some "clerical errors," to which he very indiscreetly called the attention of the board of directors. He was sentenced to ten days' solitary confinement on bread and water, but at the end of eight days had to sent to the hospital, which he never left alive.

An effort was being made at one time to secure a pardon for Mike Lee, of Logan county, who took part in one of the outbreaks of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. His brother, a county official of Logan county, wrote to Van Pelt for his prison record and it was refused.

When Holmes entered the penitentiary he had a good watch and a very valuable fountain pen, which he had made to order. When he came out his watch was restored, but the pen could not be found, and there was no record of it.

The brief account here given of the charges Holmes makes is but a fragment of the sickening story he tells, which makes out a state of affairs which is a disgrace to the state and an outrage on humanity .

|W. Va. Penitentiary

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