Monday, June 13, 2011

lead to death


Two things stand out about West Virginia State Penitentiary, even before i arrive, based on a sort of common knowledge amongst the morbid set: it’s the home of our nation’s crowning achievement in punishment, “Old Sparky”; and, Charles Manson made very public (and very unsuccessful) attempts to get himself transferred to this, his hometown, prison. When faced with the physical presence of the institution i cannot fathom the latter. but as the birthplace of Old Sparky, it seemed absolutely perfect. 

The foreboding stature of the stone walls and turreted watchtowers were cold and intimidating on a grand scale. once inside the cell blocks, the oppressive theme continued with seemingly endless rows of cages on top of cages - surrounded by razor wire. I had never witnessed such a spectacle before this. the original cell block, rising three stories, had all the bars any other prison of its time enjoyed, but here they covered the bars with cage wire. then they wrapped the walkways below with layers of more cage wire, then they tied it all together with miles of razor wire... you know, just in case.


As a bizarre juxtaposition to it all, WVSP employed a unique (for the time) device to promote a sense of calm amongst the inmates - something that I would see much more of in the asylums to come: Color. In the infirmary and psychiatric wings of the prison, the walls were decorated with soft pastels of pink (commonly known later as “drunk-tank pink”), rose and blue. even the whites were more creamy in tone than a stark hospital white.

WVSP went even further with the idea of color-calming techniques, and commissioned “soothing” paintings for the walls. not only were the paintings garish and strange for a prison, but they were also painted on the walls. the reason being, i assume, was due to safety concerns. i can imagine inmates taking framed paintings of pheasants-in-flight from the prison walls and smashing them over the guards -  the canvas tearing over their heads, the frames confining their arms like a cartoon character as the inmates seize the opportunity to snatch the keys to the kingdom and make their art-inspired escape...

The interesting thing about this model of prison color is that while the color pink does bring a sense of calmness and peace to inmates - it is only during initial exposure. in fact, after prolonged exposure to drunk-tank pink humans actually become more agitated and more aggressive. possible because of this effect, WVSP has a rich history of riots and murder. from vigilante inmate justice (locking cell doors and burning child-molesters with fire bombs) to state-sponsored executions via hanging and electric chair, this house of correction has seen it all. one such example i learned about took place in the psych ward.

it was around 2am and my team of paranormal investigators staged themselves in the large common room/dorm. adjacent to this room was a nurses station, a small medical facility and two “holding rooms” each equipped with two small solid steel cells for those in need of a time-out. the investigative team place a Mel Meter on the floor in front of them and started talking into the stale air. after a few moments, we made contact. remarkably, this team used some clever techniques to communicate with the beyond and were even able to get a name from one particular spirit. the communique lasted for quite some time, during which a great deal of information was given by the spirit. for a time, i truly believed we were in a natural conversation with this entity. and then, abruptly, the mood shifted. the air in the room got heavy and the tone of the responses from the Mel Meter became dark. we decided to move on to another part of the prison, but the Mel Meter was going crazy - something didn’t want us to go. we started walking away, and it followed - the meter still peaking off the charts when asked a direct and relevant question. there was no denying the urgency of the signal. the team had a choice: walk away now, or take this through to the end... we decided to follow it.

The spirit, the entity, the ghost, the wind, the electrical charge, the whatever you want to believe it was took the lead. we walked back through the large hall of the psych ward, past the procedure room and past the nurses station. the METER lead us to a small room, painted pink and blue and white like a saccharine-sweet grocery cake. within this room was a terrifyingly claustrophobic cell, no bigger than a broom closet, behind a solid steel door. we were then lead into the cell - all the while the meter was telling us where to go, achingly desperate to tell us one thing:  it was in this grotesque room where our guide had died.


The next day, it was revealed to me that one particularly damaged inmate had cut off his own scrotum and bled to death - in that very cell.

After my experiences at WVSP i was eager to explore not only more of West Virginia, but also the theory of color psychology on institutional inmates. luckily (?) for me, our next location took these practices to a surreal level - with horrifying results.