Before leaving Idaho for a trip to Maine, where I am at the time being and will be for a couple more weeks, Maggie and I took a day to roam around Boise. A place in the city that I had been wanting to see for quite a while was the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, which at one time was the state’s largest penal institution, and is now a well-known museum managed by the Idaho State Historical Society.
The property’s original building opened for prisoners in 1870 back when Idaho was not a yet state, but instead known as the Territory Of Idaho. This was a time when the law was sort of made up as the people in charge saw fit, as the country was expanding too fast to be governed adequately. Not much at all was regulated within the territory, at least successfully, let alone the treatment of prisoners who were found guilty by a ramshackle court of law that was highly suceptible to error.
Just over 100 years after the first inmates set foot in the territorial prison, the original property, although expanded greatly, was still being used and housed prisoners of all types. It ended up closing for good in 1973. One major factor that brought the housing of prisoners inside the famed structure to a halt was a string of severe prisoner riots in the early 1970s. These riots were started as a way for the prison’s inmates to protest what they deemed to be inhumane living conditions inside the facility. After roaming the prison, I would tend to sympathize with their cause. Imagining that the place was still active in a time as early as the ’70s was pretty strange, as it would have undoubtedly provided a drastically less comfortable experience for inmates than virtually any other prison in the country at the time. Even to this day the structure seems almost medieval, so impenetrable and dominating that I could not even begin to imagine being a prisoner inside it at any time, let alone during decades when modern technology was advancing so rapidly outside its walls while time seemed to stand still inside. Attempts were always made to ugrade the facility over the years, but few of them seemed to accomplish much at all, at least to my admittedly untrained eye.
The dining hall, which was burned during one of the riots. The building was actually designed by an inmate.
A different view of the dining hall. Notice the smoke stains rising from the windows.
Like any prison, this one had its share of notorious residents. Harry Orchard was one that was highly talked about, as he assassinated the governor of Idaho in 1905. Two boys, aged 10 and 11, where also held at the prison for murders at one time.
Lyda Southard, a legendary serial killer, served time at the prison in its women’s ward for the murder of her husband. Over 200 women endured their sentences at the Idaho State Penitentiary during its operation. Southard was actually thought to have killed four of her husbands, but was only convicted of the one cases. She was also highly suspected of murdering her own daughter and brother-in-law.
The Death Row, solitary confinement, and execution gallows areas of Cell House 5 were especially chilling. These were the grim places where many inmates lived out their last days. Ten executions took place at the pentitentiary, most of them by hanging. The last one done in this fashion was in 1957.
The observation room that looked through a window into the gallows is above. The prisoners being executed could be seen through the window until they were dropped through trap door in the floor, where they would meet their end when the rope around their neck pulled tight. Maggie and I did venture down to the room where the bodies would drop down to before be taken away. It wasn’t the most cheerful place I’ve ever been, that’s for sure.
Many cells were still full of artwork done by those who lived in them.
Stacks of cells.
Walking out of the penitentiary after spending about two hours inside it, I felt lucky that our exit was both easy and under our own power as we went through a door that allowed us out of the castle-like, sandstone compound. An exit sign reading DON’T WALK, a network of heavy locks, and armed guards who were told to shoot to kill would have kept thousands of less fortunate visitors to the penitentiary, some more permanent than others, from doing the same.