Creepy tales of prison ghosts

There are many theories and approaches to what prisons are supposed to do — that's why there are so many different names to describe a building where men and women convicted of a crime go to serve a judge-ordered sentence. They can be correctional facilities, penitentiaries, detention centers, and more. But whether such places are meant to reform or rehabilitate inmates or not, it has been almost universally historically understood that prisons are a place where people who did very bad things are sent to atone for their actions, their freedom to live their lives as they see fit taken away from them for a certain period of time, if not forever. Prisons then become stark, frightening, and even horrific institutions of punishment and, if they conduct executions, torture and death.

The shadow of misery and death haunts a lot of prisons, some so much to the degree that the ghosts of inmates reportedly stick around for decades. Here are some of the scariest prisons in the world, made all the more scary by the fact that they're almost certainly haunted.

Eastern State Penitentiary is haunted by victims and murderers alike

It's always sunny in Philadelphia? Not at the City of Brotherly Love's behemoth of a disused prison, Eastern State Penitentiary. In operation for more than 140 years, according to the Travel Channel, the institution began as an experiment in a correctional philosophy where prisoners were hooded upon arrival, placed in solitary confinement for more than 23 hours a day, fed via a slot in the door, and expected to remain silent at all times, lest they face even more torturous practices, like being strapped to chairs for hours at a time. 

It was a place of unease and unhappiness, and the ghosts only seemed to make it worse. Famous gangster Al Capone served an eight-month stint at Eastern State, during which time he told a guard that the spirit of a victim of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre wouldn't leave him alone. After the prison closed and was being converted into a place of interest, locksmith Gary Johnson claims to have seen a few ghosts — and he felt the clammy hands of one such being try to reach into his body.

There's also the matter of Joseph Taylor, already an inmate at Eastern State when he fatally bludgeoned a prison employee in 1884. Visitors have reported seeing his figure calmly walking through the halls, just like he did the night he killed a man and then quietly returned to his cell.

Alcatraz is home to some chatty spirits

No prison looms more infamously in the collective consciousness than Alcatraz, the island prison separated from San Francisco by choppy ocean water. This severe monument of incarceration was decommissioned in 1963 and has since become a popular tourist attraction, where visitors can make a day of seeing how some of the most notorious criminals of the mid-20th century (including Al Capone and "Machine-Gun" Kelly) spent their prison terms. "The Rock" is as spooky as it is isolated, which naturally means it's going to invite some ghost stories. 

On a 2010 episode of the SyFy series Ghost Hunters, paranormal researchers captured an audio recording of a distinctly human whisper. When played back, it seems to say, "Harry Brunette 374." Indeed, that's the name and prisoner number of an inmate who did a spell at Alcatraz for bank robbery. Additionally, ghost hunters from Discovery's Ghost Lab claim to have captured audio of a human voice down in Alcatraz's extra brutal "dungeon" level of cells ominously uttering, "I want you," and, "I got you now."

James A. Johnston, the first warden of Alcatraz, organized tours of the prison while it was still home to hardened, sentenced criminals. According to Legends of America, it was during one of these walkthroughs that he and his guests heard the unmistakable sound of a woman sobbing. Johnston and company traced the source of the cries to the dungeon. Suddenly, it was reported, the crying stopped, only for a chilly wind to blow past the group.

Idaho State Penitentiary forever repeats one man's execution

According to the Travel Channel, the Idaho State Penitentiary began life as a one-room frontier jail in 1870 before growing into a 600-bed prison built from sandstone mined by inmates from the surrounding Idaho countryside. 

One of the most infamous of the Idaho State Penitentiary's 13,000 total residents was a man named Raymond Allen Snowden, nicknamed "Idaho's Jack the Ripper" for his heinous crimes. In 1956, he murdered a woman named Cora Dean after a tussle, stabbing her 35 times. Convicted of that murder, Snowden confessed to more killings and resided at the Idaho State Penitentiary for only a brief while before he was executed by hanging in October 1957. However, prison authorities botched the hanging — the noose didn't break his neck, and Snowden suffered on the rope for 15 minutes before he finally perished. 

The only inmate to ever hang in the prison's Cell House #5, according to The Dead History, Snowden is evidently doomed to repeat his final, agonizing moments for all eternity. Visitors have reported the sounds of cell doors loudly closing (with nobody around to close them), apparitions of full human bodies, and, most tellingly, the panicked gasps of a man struggling to breathe.

See, hear, and smell the ghosts at Burlington County Prison

Robert Mills is one of the United States' most famous architects and one of the country's first native-born individuals in the profession. He made the plans for many structures of note, including the U.S. Treasury Building, the Washington Monument, and the Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly, New Jersey. According to Roadtrippers, it's among the most haunted locales in the entire Garden State. The sedate, mostly gray brick building was an operational prison for a very long time, from 1811 to 1965, and a year later, it was revamped into a prison museum. Tour guides say that unexplained paranormal events are a matter of course at the former penitentiary, including cold spots and glowing green orbs floating in the air. When the former prison was renovated in the 1990s, construction workers claimed they had tools go missing, only for them to turn up later ... in locked cells.

Weird stuff is nothing new at the facility — according to the Burlington County Prison Museum Association, reports of hauntings date all the way back to 1833. That year, a condemned, convicted murderer named Joel Clough (also spelled Cough) spent his last night on Earth in a solitary confinement cell before Burlington officials executed him and buried his body in the prison yard. They evidently couldn't keep him down. Before long, guards and prisoners alike heard strange sounds coming from his old cell, including moaning and the rattling of chains. Some could even smell Clough's telltale cigarette smoke drifting from the cell.

The real prison from The Shawshank Redemption is full of shadows and ghostly voices

The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield is probably the most famous prison in the world not called Alcatraz. But that's because it's a movie star — it's where Frank Darabont filmed the classic, Academy Award-nominated 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. Closed down as a working facility in 1990, the massive, imposing penitentiary made a convincing stand-in for the fictional, soul-killing Shawshank State Prison of Stephen King's source novella. And according to the Ohio State Reformatory Preservation Society, the place is thoroughly haunted.

Most nights, staff report, shadows of human beings not actually present can be spotted in the East Wing's showers and toilet room. "Shadow people" also lurk in the former administrative area on the third floor, along with audible footsteps and human voices. Ghosts in the chapel are particularly aggressive, with some visitors reporting the sensation of being grabbed. A BBC Travel reporter says it's perfectly normal to hear the doors of long-unoccupied cells opening along with the anguished cries of ghostly prisoners.

Face it: Old Charleston Jail is haunted

The Old Charleston Jail, known to South Carolina locals as just the Old Jail, has certainly earned its name. Built in 1802, according to Ghost City Tours, it was a functional prison until 1939, making it one of the United States' oldest and most continually used penitentiaries. In its heyday, it stood an impressive four stories high and kept secure many distinctively 19th-century criminals, including pirates, captured Civil War soldiers, and Lavinia Fisher, one of America's first female serial killers, hanged for her misdeeds (along with her husband and accomplice, John) at the jail in 1820. 

There are so many minor unexplained phenomena going on at the Old Jail that tourists can take group ghost tours. In 2012, a woman named Christiane accepted that challenge and visited the second floor, where the Fishers stayed in a pre-execution holding area. Christiane took some photos without a flash, and they appeared totally black. When she got home and was looking through them again, those photos revealed the images of two ghostly faces — the Fishers, one would assume.

Things also got really spooky after some renovations and upkeep in 2000. To cut down on workers coming into contact with toxic lead paint, parts of the prison were completely closed off. When they were opened back up, there, on the dusty floors, were human footprints. On another occasion, construction workers saw what seemed to be the spirit of a rifle-toting prison guard patrolling the third floor. When it saw the (living) workers, it ran toward them and then disappeared.

There's a ghost shepherd in the mists of Dartmoor Prison

In deep southwestern England sits the county of Devonshire. That's the location of Princetown, founded by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, who, in the early 1800s, convinced his friend, the Prince of Wales, to hand over some land to be used as Dartmoor Prison. In 1816, after the wars finished, the prison closed down, and the inmates were expelled, only for the establishment to reopen in 1850 as a place to keep regular prisoners. 

According to the Paranormal Database, a man named David Davies was an inmate at the facility for a very long time, 1869 to 1929, and his prison job was to herd and attend to Dartmoor's large flock of sheep. He died not long after his release, but his ghost apparently returned to the place his corporeal self had reluctantly taken residence in for 60 years. On nights where the weather is wet and misty, Davies' ghost can be seen walking around the prison's grounds, seemingly attending to his also long-dead sheep.

The old executioner never left Manchester Strangeways Prison

The U.K. abolished the death penalty in 1965, placing into permanent disuse the execution unit — the hangman's gallows — at the century-old Strangeways Jail in Manchester, where more than 100 convicts had been executed with quick and fatal precision by executioners like John Ellis. Before they met their fate, the condemned would occupy a particular cell near the chamber, and according to a Psychic World piece by a former guard who worked at Strangeways in the 1970s and '80s, the image of a man appears in that cell, and by the gallows, late at night. The figure appears to be a man wearing a dark suit and carrying a briefcase, and when he walks up to an iron staircase leading to the prison office, he vanishes. 

Staff say that's the ghost of Ellis, who executed countless prisoners in the 1920s before taking his own life in 1932. The spirit of Louisa May Merrifield also reportedly stalks an area of the prison's mental health ward. The guard claims that a short ghost wearing dark clothing who bore a resemblance to the convicted murderer (executed in 1953) drifted past him, caused a "noticeable drop in the temperature," and then dematerialized.

Tuol Sleng is home to many toirtured ghosts

Decades ago, according to Atlas Obscura, Chao Ponhea Yat High School was a multistory educational facility in Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh. Then Pol Pot's brutal Khmer Rouge regime took control of the country in 1975 and, within months, had converted the building into a devastatingly cruel and violent prison and torture chamber to house thousands of people deemed a threat to the new government. By decade's end, about 15,000 people had passed through the gates of the renamed Tuol Seng prison, where they were shackled to the walls of their cells and forbidden from conversing with one another. And then they endured beatings, electric shocks, burnings with irons, and waterboarding. Today, the Khmer Rouge is gone, and the prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a stark reminder and memorial of the horrors of the past. Also acquainting visitors with the atrocities that once occurred within its walls are the ghosts that supposedly haunt the grounds.

According to The Phnom Penh Post, museum guards have to appease the ghosts of prisoners left starving in the horrific prison, leaving out food and taking other measures. "The ghosts always haunt us if we don't invite the monks to pray and offer them food," said guard Keo Monyroth. Those hauntings take the form, reportedly, of voices screaming in torture rooms, chains dragging on the floor, or balls of fire traveling through the building.

Lawang Sewu is Indonesia's spookiest spot

According to TripCanvas, Lawang Sewu has a reputation as one of the most haunted locales in the entirety of the southeast Asian archipelago nation of Indonesia. Per Travel + Leisure, the palatial building in the city of Semarang went up during the Dutch colonial period in the early 1900s as a local headquarters for the Dutch East Indies Railway Company. When Japan occupied the country during World War II, its military took over Lawang Sewu and used it as a prison. The tunnels of Building B were the primary location for storing inmates — and also torturing and beheading them. 

According to Mashable, it's some of those prison victims who still haunt Lawang Sewu today. Video footage has been captured by TV crews of what are allegedly headless ghosts. Adding to spooky legend, rumors spread that days after the sighting, one of the members of the crew died mysteriously and unexpectedly. Lawang Sewu's tower is also purportedly the home of another ghost. A young Dutch woman is said to have jumped off the peak to her death, but she couldn't get away. Her ghost still roams around the tower and has been spotted floating above the ground near the site of her fatal leap.

Stay and play with the ghosts of Ottawa Jail

Today, the Hostel International Ottawa Jail is one of the quirkiest places to spend the night in Canada's capital city. When they converted the jail into a hostel, organizers left a lot of the prison elements intact, including offering tiny cells (about 27 square feet) with iron bar doors, and the solitary confinement cells and gallows are well-persevered from the facility's days as the Carleton County Jail, its official name upon its opening in 1862. 

Along with the remains of at least 140 other unidentified individuals, local murderer Patrick J. Whelan was buried on the grounds, and he's been spotted numerous times hanging out in his cell at night, if not pacing through the hallway of death row accommodations. It's not clear if it was the ghost of Whelan or some other literally lost soul spoken of in an online review: "My friend woke up screaming 'Let me go!' And said she felt like someone was holding her arm. And I wasn't anywhere near her ... and there was no one else in the room."