RICHMOND, DEC. 14 -- Two robbers, a sex offender and a murderer walked out the front door of the Virginia State Penitentiary today, hopped in a van and rode off to become footnotes to history.
A few minutes later, Warden Raymond M. Muncy solemnly asked his security chief for the latest inmate count. Assured the count was zero, Muncy announced, "I now declare the Virginia State Penitentiary closed."
After 190 years of housing the Old Dominion's least-desirables, the place that inmates called "The Wall" is out of the incarceration business. The last four inmates, including Fairfax County murderer Paul Stotts, were escorted out in handcuffs to a new facility this morning. The prison and its 17-acre grounds -- one of the nation's oldest continuously operated penal institutions -- now belong to the Ethyl Corp., a Richmond-based chemical company that bought the whole spread for $5 million.
There still may be some unfinished business. Virginia's 82-year-old electric chair won't be moved to a new facility for four months, and any executions before then will take place at the penitentiary.
For the most part, though, "the old penitentiary has completed its mission," as Muncy put it at this morning's closing ceremony, which drew a crowd of 100, including a dozen former wardens.
Nearly everyone agrees that closing the penitentiary is an idea whose time has come. In fact, the idea first came 130 years ago. But the Civil War intervened, and a proposal to move the facility was scotched.
Despite numerous later proposals, said state corrections spokesman Wayne Farrar, the shutdown wasn't approved by the General Assembly until 1986.
The Wall has earned the scorn of corrections officials, who say it has an outdated and inefficient design. Civil libertarians agree, charging that cramped cells, failing plumbing, poor ventilation and exposed wiring made the prison an inhumane and dangerous tinderbox.
"It's a shameful place, and it has been for decades," said Kent Willis, of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who calls the prison "a dinosaur with gangrene."
It wasn't supposed to be that way. According to a Corrections Department history, no less a Virginian than Thomas Jefferson, while serving in the state legislature, first advanced the idea of a state penitentiary, with an accent on reforming convicts by giving them individual cells.
The building designed by Benjamin Latrobe, who later designed the U.S. Capitol, originally was viewed as a model of progressive thinking. Latrobe's building stood until 1928. The oldest building remaning at the complex dates from 1888.
Among the prison's more noteworthy inmates was former vice president Aaron Burr, imprisoned at the facility during his 1807 trial for treason.
One of the less impressive moments in the penitentiary's history came in 1865, in the form of what is believed to be the country's only state prison break in which every inmate escaped. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had descended on the Confederate capital, and when prison guards decided to flee, 287 inmates saw no reason why they shouldn't do the same.
Since 1908, all executions in Virginia -- including Thursday night's electrocution of rapist-killer Buddy Earl Justus -- have been carried out in the penitentiary's electric chair. In all, 246 men and one woman have been executed.
The same chair -- albeit with new wiring -- will move to the newly opened Greensville Correctional Center, 55 miles south of Richmond, as soon as construction of the execution chamber is completed. Many penitentiary prisoners have been sent to Greensville, others to the new Keen Mountain Correctional Center.
Despite the new facilities, inmate crowding remains a problem in Virginia. Total population at 16 correctional centers is about 15,500, about 3,500 more than official capacity. Also, 3,500 inmates currently in jails would be in state prisons if there were room.