Since the end of the Civil War, the residents of Jefferson Avenue and the surrounding side streets have existed within literal spitting distance of the state's most hardened murderers, rapists and kidnapers.

Most of these residents say they can't imagine a safer place to live or a better neighbor than the West Virginia Penitentiary.

"It's always been so quiet," said Mary Beck, a recent transplant from Ann Arbor, Mich., who likes the neighborhood because the school is close. "There's only been two or three uprisings in the last few years."

"Normally, this is a nice, quiet neighborhood," said Jerry Conners, a laid-off steelworker who was observing today's prison siege from the safety of his front porch across a narrow street.

"During an escape, this is the best place to be because they don't want to stay around," Conners said, looking at the prison's gate through a pair of high-powered binoculars. "They want to get as far away from here as possible."

The prison's neighbors have witnessed three prison disturbances since the early 1970s and one mass escape in 1979 that ended with a state trooper shot dead on Jefferson Avenue. But the longtime homeowners here say the prisoners were once were a nicer, gentler lot, although their crimes were no less heinous. There was Jitterbug Harris, English Winfield, The Brooklyn Bomber and Freeman Collins who came here in a horse and buggy from the state capital 50 years ago.

"In 1940, you could get a man out of there to work in your yard or paint your porch," said Jack Cunningham, a neighbor to the prison for the last 56 years. "Some of the best prize fights in the world were held inside those walls. Some of the best football games in the world were held right behind those walls."

He added, "You could take your children there on a Sunday afternoon and mingle with the convicts -- let me say inmates -- and they were the deadliest killers in the United States."

Now, this aging facility resembling an English Tudor castle houses the likes of Eugene Paul Clawson, the so-called "coed killer" who beheaded two college students in the early 1970s. There is Ron Williams, who killed one police officer before his imprisonment, one during the escape in 1979 and three more people while he was on the lam.

But it wasn't until this commotion brought scores of state troopers and an even larger contingent of reporters that Jefferson Avenue residents finally began to mutter, "There goes the neighborhood."

State police commandeered the bathroom of one house for troopers needing relief. The Associated Press paid one homeowner $50 for exclusive use of the telephone. And NBC took over an entire house for use of telephone, bathroom and electric outlets.

Conners considers moving, but concedes "We can't -- we're stuck. I got suckered into this deal because it was owned by my wife's relatives." He paused, adding, "I ought to shoot her."