America's 10 Most Haunted Prisons & Jails

Published July 24, 2021
America's 10 Most Haunted Prisons & Jails
For more information on any of these locations, see Troy’s DEAD MEN DO TELL TALES series of books!

When compiling a list of America’s most haunted places, prisons and jails are usually high on the list. The amount of syok, pain and terror experienced by the men who are incarcerated often leaves a lasting impression behind and horrible events that occur behind the prison’s high walls tend to cause the spirits of the men imprisoned to remain in death, just as they were in life. There is no escape – even after death.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Founded by the Quakers in 1829, who envisioned the stone castle as a place where criminals could become penitent for their crimes (hence the name, “penitentiary”), the prison was a place of total isolation. Inmates were confined in windowless rooms and allowed no contact with any living person. Many of them were driven insane by the solitude. Punishments for breaking the rules were extreme and suicides became common. Solitary confinement was ended in the 1870s and a century later, the prison was closed down. Since that time, ghost stories and paranormal encounters have become commonplace. Apparitions have been seen, mysterious footsteps heard and strange sounds reported.

San Francisco, California

The “Rock,” the name given to Alcatraz Penitentiary, was the ultimate American prison. It was the place where scores of the country’s worst criminal offenders, bloodletters, badmen and escaped artists called the end of the line. Although it started as a military prison, for 29 years the prison kept the country’s most notorious lawbreakers – including Al Capone, Doc Barker, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and others – confined behind stone walls. The initial prison was built in 1859 but fell into disuse by the 1920s. It was then re-opened in 1933 to be an escape-proof federal prison. It was a brutal place of punishment and confinement with few privileges. Suicide, murder and even insanity became common. In 1946, several inmates attempted a violent and bloody escape from the Rock, but failed. There were a handful of other attempts, but only one successful escape in 1962 when three bank robbers, using handmade rubber rafts and dummies with real human hair, vanished into the dark waters of the bay. Alcatraz was closed down one year later, in 1963. Regarded as one of America’s most haunted places, ghosts have been widely reported ever since, even by staff members of the National Park Service, which now operates the property. Ghosts have been sighted, along with strange sounds, screams, yells, weeping and eerie music.

Mansfield, Ohio

The Ohio State Reformatory (made famous in the film, “The Shawshank Redemption”) was opened in 1896 as a prison for criminals too old for juvenile facilities and not hardened enough for the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. It saw untold thousands of prisoners during its years of operations and while once applauded as a place that could humanely reform first-time offenders, the conditions deteriorated to the point that it became known for abuse, torture and murder. Already considered overcrowded and inhumane by the 1930s, the massive prison was kept open until 1986, even after a federal lawsuit was filed by the inmates that cited that it was unfit for human occupation. Since the closing of the reformatory, stories have circulated that it is haunted by the tormented spirits of former inmates, guards and prison officials who have simply never left. Apparitions have been reported, footsteps have been heard and unsettling encounters have taken place in the cells where the inmates once lived, suffered and sometimes died. One of the resident ghosts is reported to be Helen Glattke, the wife of Warden Arthur L. Glattke. She died in 1950, in an apartment in the administration wing of the prison, when a loaded handgun fell from a closet shelf and went off. Her spirit has remained in the apartment ever since, often manifesting as the smell of perfume.

Formerly in Columbus, Ohio

The Ohio Penitentiary opened in 1834 and while first condemned by reformers in the early 1900s, it was not closed down until 1979. The prison has since been demolished, but haunting memories of it remain. During its years of operation, the prison saw scores of deaths from fire, cholera outbreaks, murder and executions in the state’s electric chair, but nothing matched the horror of the fire that engulfed the prison in April 1930. The blaze swept through the west block of the penitentiary and killed 322 inmates in a single night. While the prison was still open, inmates complained of ghostly sightings and eerie happenings but when the buildings were finally torn down, tales quickly spread of apparitions among the ruins. Eventually, the prison was replaced by a sports arena – which is also rumored to be haunted.

Chicago, Illinois

The police station in Chicago’s Maxwell Street neighborhood – known as “Bloody Maxwell” because of the escalating crime rate in the area – was constructed in 1889. At that time, the surrounding part of the city was home to thousands of Italian immigrants, including the Genna Brothers, who partnered with Al Capone’s organization during Prohibition to make bootleg liquor within blocks of the police station. It became a notorious police station, known for corruption, bribery, brutality and torture. Many lawbreakers never left the basement “dungeon” alive. The station was closed down in 1997 and became to be used by the security officers for the nearby University of Illinois Chicago campus. It’s currently being used for filming for the television show, “Chicago PD.” Although the cops and criminals of the station’s past are long gone, stories say that they still linger here, especially those who were brutalized and killed in the “dungeon.” Screams have been reported coming from the basement, along with moaning, crying and the sounds of rattling bars and handcuff chains.

Crown Point, Indiana

The Lake County Jail, located in the county seat of Crown Point, was built in 1908 and enlarged twenty years later. At that time, county sheriffs were required to live at the jail and so the combined residence and jail included all the facilities needed for its purpose as a law enforcement institution. Located within the walls were the family’s living area, warden’s residence, department offices, 150 cells, maximum security accommodations, institutional kitchen, food storage, heating and cooling systems, barber shop and a garage. It was considered to be one of the finest in Indiana and thought to be escape-proof. However, on March 3, 1934, gangster John Dillinger proved it to be otherwise when he made a daring escape that gave the jail its continuing infamy. The jail remained in operation until the 1970s, when it became a historic site. As restoration has continued over the last two decades, stories have emerged about a haunting at the jail. Apparitions have been seen in cells and corridors, strange photographs have been taken, doors open and close by themselves, lights turn on and off and disembodied footsteps and voices have often been reported by volunteers and visitors alike. 

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Built in1885, the old Pottawattamie County Jail is one of the most unusual houses of incarceration in America. The jail has a three-tier cell block with ten cells on each tier. It was originally designed to rotate continuously throughout the night by means of a water wheel in the basement, earning it the nickname of the "squirrel cage jail.” In this way, all of the prisoners could be watched from a central location. Unfortunately, the 45-ton cell block was simply too heavy to work right and it became stuck frequently. Eventually, the jailers gave up on the plan and a night guard had to be hired. The cylinder continued to be used until 1960, when a prisoner died in his cell and the cell block jammed, trapping the body in the cell for several days. After that, cell doors were cut into every cell. The jail was closed down in 1969 and during its history, four deaths occurred within its walls. One man died of a heart attack, another in a fall when he tried to write his name on the ceiling, another hanged himself in his cell, and the last after an accident when an officer accidentally shot himself in the confusion of protecting the jail from an angry mob during the Farmer's Holiday Strike of 1932. It's no surprise that these unlucky individuals -- along with others -- are believed to still linger at the old jail.  

Moundsville, West Virginia

The prison was built on the edge of Moundsville in 1866. The prison remained open for 129 years, finally closing down in 1995. During that time, the structure housed thousands of prisoners. Many lost their lives here, through both state sanctioned executions and during prison violence. Since its closure, the prison had become known as one of the most haunted sites in the country. Staff members and visitors alike have reported ghosts in North Hall, where the most dangerous inmates were housed, in the execution chamber – where “Old Sparky” sent many to an early grave – and the “Hole,” a brutal solitary confinement area that often drove inmates to insanity and suicide. With death, violence, murder and horrible conditions combining to make a terrifying haunting, ghost hunters have flocked to the former penitentiary over the years. Visitors claim to have experienced the sound of phantom footsteps, voices and noises that have no explanation, inexplicable cold chills, overwhelming feelings of panic and more.

Laramie, Wyoming

The westward expansion of the railroad brought more than money and high times to the people of Laramie, Wyoming. It also brought a score of unsavory men and women and a crime rate that rivaled much larger eastern cities. As a result, the Wyoming Territorial Prison was built as a federal penitentiary in Laramie in 1872. The facility was plagued with problems from the start, with a fire in 1873 and a number of escapes. Of the 44 prisoners accepted in the first two years of operation, 11 escaped. By 1877, the prison was overcrowded and as its reputation worsened, changes were made and a second cellblock was constructed. It became a state prison from 1890 to 1901. There were at least five cells for female inmates, and several solitary confinement cells. Soon-to-be-famous outlaw Butch Cassidy was incarcerated here from 1894 to1896. After its closure in 1903, the prison was given to the University of Wyoming, which used it for livestock breeding experiments until 1989. It opened to the public as a historic site two years later – and stories of ghosts began to circulate. With more than 1,000 inmates housed there over the years, it’s too be expected that some of the prisoners or guards might linger behind. However, there is one prisoner who reputedly is more active than the others. His name is Julius Greenwald and he was sent to prison for the 1897 murder of his wife. Prison lore states that Greenwald was adept at making cigars and convincing prison staff to allow him to make and sell cigars while incarcerated. He allegedly made the cigars from his cell on the third floor – a cell that was removed during a renovation of the site. Allegedly, Greenwald’s spirit did not appreciate this and has manifested as a phantom cigar smell at the prison ever since.

Jefferson City, Missouri

The Missouri State Penitentiary, known as “The Walls,” was constructed in the early 1830s to serve the newly admitted state of Missouri. The earliest prisoners made the bricks that the first walls were built from. The initial prison population consisted of one guard, one warden, fifteen prisoners, and a foreman for the brick-making operation with an assistant. Eleven of the fifteen prisoners were from St. Louis, and all were incarcerated for larceny except for one, who was imprisoned for stabbing a man during a drunken brawl. Needless to say, the prison grew many times over the years until it closed down in 2004. During its operation, it saw many infamous prisoners, including Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, James Earl Ray and Bobby Greenlease kidnappers Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady. They were executed at the prison. In 1954, there was a major riot at the penitentiary. The Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri National Guard, and police departments from Jefferson City, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri were called in to help quell the disturbance. When it was all over, four inmates had been killed, 29 had been injured and there had been one attempted suicide. Four guards had been seriously injured and several buildings had been burned. During its operation, forty inmates were executed in the gas chamber and Time Magazine once called it the "Bloodiest 47 acres in America" for the frequent violence inside its walls. It probably comes as no surprise that since its closure, the penitentiary has become a hotspot for paranormal activity. Staff members and visitors have reported dozens of eerie encounters with lingering spirits, which have been seen, heard and encountered first-hand.


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