Unveiling the Mysterious History of Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, PA

The History of the Western Penitentiary

Whispers of history seem to echo through the solid walls of the Western Penitentiary. This Pittsburgh landmark has stood the test of time, silently witnessing the unfolding tale of the city and nation.

Established in 1826, the Western Penitentiary’s origin story is rooted in the same soil that grew the city we know today. This facility was the first prison located west of the Atlantic Plain, a testament to the westward expansion of the young United States.

The original site of the prison is now home to the National Aviary, but the echoes of its past remain. In the winter of 1863, the prison housed 118 Confederate soldiers captured in Morgan’s Raid. Despite the harsh winter, conditions were relatively good for the time, reflecting the evolving standards of prisoner treatment.

The Western Penitentiary was moved to its present location in 1882. It symbolized the maturing penal system, housing maximum-security inmates, and becoming a key institution for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

However, history is a pendulum, and in 2005, the facility was mothballed as inmates were transferred to SCI-Fayette. By 2007, it had re-opened, accommodating low and medium-security inmates who required substance abuse treatment, until its eventual closure in 2017.

Architectural Significance and Recognition

As with any historical site, the architecture of the Western Penitentiary speaks volumes about its era and function. Its imposing structures, designed to be intimidating and secure, are a testament to the time’s architectural trends and penal philosophies.

The recognition of the Western Penitentiary as a historic site, with its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2022, underscores its architectural and historical value. This accolade adds a new dimension to the facility’s story, recognizing its integral role in the evolving fabric of Pittsburgh’s identity.

Western Penitentiary
Western Penitentiary” by joseph a is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Role in Sociopolitical Events

The Western Penitentiary has not just been a silent spectator in history. It has also been an active participant in shaping the sociopolitical fabric of the region. Its role in the 2009 G-20 Pittsburgh summit is a stark reminder of its versatility.

Serving as the central processing facility for detained rioters and protesters, the prison was thrust into the global spotlight, highlighting its significance beyond just a correctional institution.

Notable Inmates and Events

The Western Penitentiary‘s walls have housed several notable individuals, each adding their unique narrative to the prison’s rich tapestry of history.

From George Feigley, the leader of a sex cult, to Alexander Berkman, the anarchist who attempted to assassinate businessman Henry Clay Frick, these inmates, and their stories provide a human perspective on the prison’s history.

One of the most riveting tales from the Western Penitentiary involves an attempted breakout. The escapade of Nuno Pontes and five others were dramatic enough to feature in the National Geographic TV docudrama series “Breakout.”

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Not to be forgotten is Gerald Mayo, who filed a lawsuit against Satan and his servants, adding a touch of the surreal to the prison’s history.

The Penitentiary in Pop Culture

The Western Penitentiary has also found its way into popular culture, adding a layer to its multi-faceted identity. The 1978 film “The Brink’s Job” sentenced the character Stanley Gusciora to 20 years at the “Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh.”

The Future of the Western Penitentiary

As we look forward, the question arises – what lies in store for the Western Penitentiary? Even as it stands empty, it still holds a firm place in Pittsburgh’s landscape and the collective consciousness of its people.

The site, up for sale since its closure, has attracted interest from potential buyers. In June 2023, the state received three viable proposals for reusing Pittsburgh’s former Correctional Institution. While these proposals are under review and remain undisclosed, the site’s future is a subject of eager anticipation.

Western Penitentiary
Western Penitentiary” by joseph a is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This historic site has numerous possibilities, from total demolition to total preservation. Ideally, the future would preserve the prison’s main building, two guard towers, and the North Wall to honor its historical value and as a draw for film productions.

Accompanying this, a vision for green spaces and industrial use could provide a sustainable future for the site, in line with the city’s zoning goals.

The Western Penitentiary has been an integral part of Pittsburgh’s history, shaping and being shaped by the city’s evolution. As we await the next chapter in its story, we remember the prison not just as a correctional institution but as a piece of living history, a participant in global events, and a symbol of Pittsburgh’s resilience and adaptability.

Western Penitentiary
Western Penitentiary” by joseph a is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The future holds promise and potential, and the Western Penitentiary is ready to write its next chapter.

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Comments: 2
  1. Avatar of Michelle

    What about the murders or suicides that occurred at the Wall? You didn’t even mention that the Western is known as the Wall. No mention of the violence that occurred inside the facility. No mention of the poor conditions. You mention Pittsburgh G20 but you don’t mention how arrestees were released from the prison without a means to get back to the city. The piece is soooooo whitewashed. Sanitized version of history. Thank you!

    1. Avatar of Spencer Walsh
      Spencer Walsh (author)

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! You’re right, it’s crucial to acknowledge all aspects of the Western Penitentiary’s history, including the violence and poor conditions. Your viewpoint contributes significantly to a more comprehensive understanding of its past.

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