At the end of the Fall 2015 semester at California University of Pennsylvania, Christopher Carabotta—my partner from last year—and I were told that we might have an opportunity to work at a shut-down penitentiary for Honors Composition II. We were stoked to hear that news and immediately started thinking along the lines of the paranormal. After all, penitentiaries and prisons are hotspots for ghostly activities and it would be extremely easy to dig into the history of the facility and craft a story on our findings. However, the West Virginia State Penitentiary had much more to offer aside from paranormal stories than either Chris or I could have ever expected.
The beginning of the next semester came around, introducing a few more faces into our classroom. My one classmate from a prior class— Danica Pils—joined our group of two, and together the three of us were to explore the depths of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. After talking to Dr. Fisanick about what we initially wanted to focus our story on, we eventually came to the conclusion that a ghost story would be too cliché and that there were other stories to explore. On February 25, 2016, the whole class received a special night tour of the penitentiary, which highlighted both the paranormal activity of the prison and the life of the prisoners within the facility. It was a very tough living environment, especially considering the minuscule cells and constant threats faced by inmates each and every day. As the tour progressed, I started to formulate different ideas regarding a feature film on the prisoners, especially when we were introduced to the lifestyle of the Aryan Brotherhood, which was a prominent gang during much of the prison’s history.
The day after our classroom tour of the prison, Danica, Chris and I went back to the penitentiary during daylight hours to conduct independent research. Upon our arrival, we were introduced to two former correctional officers of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. Chuck Ghent and Maggie Gray had two very different personalities; Chuck was more laid-back while Maggie was extremely lively and vibrant. We talked to each of them separately for over two hours and learned much more about the penitentiary than we thought we would. After the interviews, we were certain that we should focus our film on the lives of correctional officers in the penitentiary. The way we saw it, few people ever think twice about officers when it comes to prisons, focusing more on how those who are imprisoned make a living and interact with one another. When we got back to the university, we immediately started production of our film and formulating ideas on the best possible way to convey the level of uncertainty and mental strength it would take to be a correctional officer in such a harsh environment.
The final results of our research and dedication to the stories we produced were incredible. The feature film was very well received by numerous people, and I personally had many long-lasting conversations with the people around me regarding how we created the story that we did. Projects like these really influence the communities you visit and work with. It opens your eyes to the importance of local and regional history, and why it is crucial that extensive work is done to preserve these stories and pieces of history that could potentially be forgotten. Digital storytelling is a great method of exposing history and boosting awareness of events within communities and should be taught in a more widespread fashion. After having learned about so many aspects of Moundsville history from the West Virginia State Penitentiary to the Marx Toy Factory to the Grave Creek Burial Mound, we strongly encourage readers to become more active within their communities and learn more about the importance of local history. In the words of Heinz HCAP coordinator Mr. Robert Stakeley, “When it comes to history, whether it’s local, regional, or national history, everything has value.”by Chris Carabotta, Felix Rivera, and Danica Pils
California University of Pennsylvania Honors Writing Class
Dr. Christina Fisanick, Associate Professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, and Robert Stakeley, Education Outreach Coordinator at the Heinz History Center, have been collaborating for over three years with historical societies throughout Western Pennsylvania to tell their stories. First-year students from Dr. Fisanick’s Honors writing courses work with several different sites each semester to create digital stories that spotlight their vast and diverse collections. In 2015 they decided to come to Wheeling, where Dr. Fisanick lives, to explore the city’s rich heritage. They worked with five different sites: Oglebay Institute’s Glass Museum, West Liberty University’s Rare Books Room, Oglebay Institute’s Mansion Museum, West Virginia’s Independence Hall, and the Ohio County Public Library’s Special Collections. This is one of those digital stories, along with a brief narrative written by the student creators exploring their creative process and thoughts about making stories about Wheeling.