It’s a pretty universal feeling, really. Prison scares most people onto the straight and narrow, scared straight with the conditions of a place of incarceration. In the wild west days, outlaws did nearly everything they could to avoid being thrown in the slammer. Paranormal experts say that the amount of anger, despair, and haunting activities found within the walls of old prisons make them hotbeds of paranormal activity. The prison we’re looking at today was not just a big house for the outlaws of the day, it was infamous for its inhumane conditions and the suffering that may have happened behind the barbed wire fences. 

The Old Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana is one of those places, where incarcerated souls still wander and make their displeasure known. Is that whisper you heard while touring the property a call from beyond? Was that scratching noise coming from that empty old jail cell? Do the spirits of the worst of society stay in their prison long after they leave the mortal coil? 

The old prison opened in 1871 with its first prisoner. It began its life as the Montana Territorial Prison before statehood was accepted by the big sky state. Known afterwards as the Montana State Prison, it was an imposing brick building with towers, bars on the windows and more than a few infamous prisoners from years passed. The prison would operate in that capacity for nearly a century, closing its doors in 1970. For its entire life as a prison, it was plagued with overcrowding and underfunding, leaving the living conditions in the prison lacking. 

The abysmal conditions led to dozens of riots, including the most infamous one in 1959, when 12 prisoners stole the rifles from the guards and kept 26 prisoners as hostages. They would shoot and kill one of the deputies in the prison before being subdued by the Montana National Guard, called in specifically to help resolve the situation. Escape attempts were also common from the underfunded and overcrowded prison, with one attempt ending with the theft of a prized racehorse to race off of the grounds and spirit the incarcerated man away from the prison. He would later be caught, and as they say in the west, “We hang horse thieves.” 

Throughout the life of the prison, those living in cells at the prison were given difficult and backbreaking work to keep them docile. A warden with a particular penchant for penny pinching put the prisoners to work building parts of the complex themselves, including a 12 foot sandstone wall around the enclosure, replacing the wooden fence that once stood there. Hard work, little funding and abysmal conditions left the prisoners in the Montana State Prison anguished and mistreated. 

In the 1970s, after the prison had been shuttered, it was purchased for the purpose of turning it into a museum. The paranormal stories began almost immediately in the prison turned museum. Unexplainable cold spots throughout the prison perplex and terrify guests, but not as much as the shadowy figures that seem to still walk the halls and cells, darting across the vision of those touring the facility, sometimes following just behind them and peeking around corners. Strange mists have also been reported throughout the prison, especially in the cells that were used for punishment. 

The solitary confinement room known as “The Hole,” is the most active and terrifying part of the museum today, with paranormal experiences reported by staff and guests alike. The hole was responsible for as many deaths as the gallows, with dozens succumbing to the cold and isolation. Today, it is reported that a violent spirit will shove you in the darkness, then whisper in your ear. When you turn to see where it came from, the hole is just as lonely as it was when the prison was operating. Your hair might even stand on end if you’re brave enough to enter alone. 

Paranormal Evidence captured by ghost hunters

A much more friendly spirit is that of the beloved “Turkey Pete,” a prisoner in the 1950s and 1960s who was always trying to “sell” the prison’s turkeys to other inmates. The guards and inmates humored Pete, even printing their own fake money to help him with his fictional transactions. Eventually Pete would “buy” the prison and pay the guards a fictional salary. Well-loved in life, Pete was the only inmate to get a full funeral on the grounds when he died in 1969. It’s reported that Pete’s good humor and innocence continues in the walls of the museum to this day. His cell was converted into a barber shop, where playful pranks have been reported as coming from the jovial Pete in the afterlife. 

The museum embraces its past as a house of incarceration with a few haunting presences, with many employees having their own ghost stories. A ghost tour is even offered seasonally in the Old Prison, so you can get up close and personal with the specters in the jail cells. Just don’t forget your flashlight when you enter the Hole. You might come back with more than just a story, but a shove and a scream from unseen hands. 

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