Kentucky State Penitentiary

Kentucky State Penitentiary
A gray stone, castle-like building
Location Eddyville, Kentucky
Coordinates 37°02′53″N 88°04′35″W / 37.048111°N 88.076387°W / 37.048111; -88.076387Coordinates: 37°02′53″N 88°04′35″W / 37.048111°N 88.076387°W / 37.048111; -88.076387
Status Operational
Security class Maximum, Supermax
Population 856 (as of 2015)
Opened 1889
Managed by Kentucky Department of Corrections

The Kentucky State Penitentiary, also known as the "castle on the Cumberland," is a maximum security and supermax prison with capacity for 856 prisoners located in Eddyville, Kentucky on Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River, about 3 miles (4.8 km) from downtown Eddyville.[1] It is managed by the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Completed in 1886, it is Kentucky's oldest prison facility and the only state-owned facility with supermax units. The penitentiary houses Kentucky's male death row inmates and the state's execution facility. As of 2015 it had approximately 350 staff members and an annual operating budget of 20 million dollars.[2] In most cases, inmates are not sent directly to the penitentiary after sentencing, but are sent there because of violent or disruptive behavior committed in other less secure correctional facilities in the state.


Former Confederate States brigadier general and Eddyville native Hylan Benton Lyon was the moving force behind the Kentucky State Branch Penitentiary being located in what is now Old Eddyville. A hill overlooking the Cumberland River was chosen as the site for the new prison. Construction of the Kentucky State Branch Penitentiary began in 1884, using massive granite blocks quarried from a site down the Cumberland. Italian stonemasons were recruited to erect the original buildings, which resemble medieval castles. The prison officially opened in 1889. It was the second prison built in the state, the first being the Kentucky State Prison in Frankfort, which was opened in 1798. When the Kentucky State Penitentiary was built, the Kentucky State Prison was renamed the Kentucky State Reformatory. Kentucky State Penitentiary - Kentucky Department of Corrections


Before the penitentiary was built, prison life in Kentucky was horrific. An 1875 study showed that 20 percent of the inmates in the Kentucky State Prison had pneumonia and seventy-five percent had scurvy. The prison was a place of "slime covered walls, open sewage, and graveyard coughs [4]." Approximately seventy of the one-thousand prisoners had died in 1875. Prison life was something that Kentucky officials had really never focused on until Governor Luke P. Blackburn. He was elected governor in 1879[3] and immediately got the legislature to approve of a new prison.


By 1889, the penitentiary was overcrowded. The General Assembly allowed some inmates to work outside of prison walls, sometimes even unsupervised. In the first few years, around half of the fifty inmates working outside of the prison managed to escape. Abuse rates by the guards and over-seers against the prisoners were at their highest ever, mainly because no one was supervising the handling of the prisoners. Finally, in the early 1890s, this law was abolished and all inmates were forced to stay in the penitentiary. It was almost full immediately.


In 1909, a law was created so that the inmates were no longer required to wear stripes. Inmates would wear baggy denim pants and jackets, cloth hats, and cotton shirts. They also would have numbers stenciled on their backs. Although this was passed, the ball and chain would still be used as punishment for prison offenders until 1940. In the 1940s, the prison began to get rid of all of the convicts under age eighteen. Most of them were sent to the reformatory. The main issue with the Kentucky State Penitentiary in this period was the correctional officer force, always low in numbers and low-paid.

From 1988

On June 17, 1988, eight convicts, three being murderers on death row, escaped from the Kentucky State Penitentiary. This occurred at about 2 a.m. sneaking around the fires set by other inmates. The inmates sawed through cell bars, walked through the cell-house doors, and climbed approximately thirty feet to a window using an electrical extension cord. On July 1, 1997, Kentucky executed its first inmate in thirty five years. Harold McQueen, 44 years old, was convicted in 1981 of murdering Rebecca O' Hearn, a convenience store clerk, during a robbery that netted him 1,500 dollars. Harold McQueen was electrocuted at 12:07 a.m. Over one hundred death penalty opponents and twenty five supporters of capital punishment protested outside of the penitentiary.

On November 21, 2008 death row inmate Marco Allen Chapman, convicted of murdering two northern Kentucky children in 2002, was executed by lethal injection, the most recent at Kentucky State Penitentiary.

On January 13, 2014, inmate James Kenneth Embry, Jr., died of starvation and dehydration following a hunger strike. In March, following inquiries by the Associated Press, Kentucky Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson asked the state Attorney General's office to review Embry's death.[4] July 2016 author Steve E. Asher published Hauntings of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, a book of accounts of paranormal activity at KSP.


Five distinct custody levels make up the KSP inmate population. Inmates wear a specific color uniform based on their custody level. Those levels and their respective uniform colors are:

In addition to the main facility, there is a small minimum security unit outside the walls of the institution whose inmates have work assignments throughout the facility & grounds. Inmates in the minimum security unit are given additional privileges, including fishing in Lake Barkley in their spare time.


  1. "Home." Kentucky State Penitentiary. Retrieved on March 8, 2011. "266 Water St./PO Box 5128 Eddyville, Kentucky 42038"
  2. "Kentucky Department of Corrections - About KSP".
  4. ABC News. "U.S. News - National News". ABC News.

External links

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