During a recent visit to Boise, Idaho for a wedding I had an extra day available for site-seeing. So I asked my daughter, Amanda, if she would be willing to go on a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historic Site. “Yes! I love that sort of thing” was her enthusiastic reply. And on a very warm Sunday we took the tour of the “Old Pen.”
Free Tour of the Grounds
After paying the admission price we joined the free walking tour. Our guide, Andrew, was very knowledgeable, with many facts and anecdotes – and a few corny jokes! – to share about the penitentiary.
The 10-foot wide dirt area between the sandstone wall and the yard is called the “Dead Line.” Inmates were not allowed to step foot in this area. (Armed guards on the wall were ready to enforce the “dead” part of that designation.)
The sidewalks through yard are wide and reasonably accessible, and grass, poppies and rose bushes beautify this common area. Of course, these touches of beauty have been enhanced since the Old Pen’s active years, but roses were grown by the inmates.
“The inmates and staff experimented with vegetable and flower gardens, then they partnered with the mail-order rose company Jackson & Perkins to allow inmates the opportunity to test varieties of roses at the site. By the late 1950s, they expanded the penitentiary rose gardens to areas just outside the prison walls.”
One larger rose garden, located in the northwest corner near the dining hall, not only provided a little touch of beauty but was also the site of the gallows, where 6 of the 10 penitentiary executions occurred. (We learned that the hangings occurred at midnight, to avoid curious witnesses and also to minimize the smell associated with execution.)
One of the first buildings erected, the “Territorial Prison,” was the home of the first 11 inmates. As other buildings were erected, this was converted into a chapel in the 1930’s and housed artwork created by one of the inmates, as well as a piano.
During a prison riot in 1973 the Chapel and the nearby Dining Hall were both destroyed by fire. Sadly, the artwork was lost, although the piano was saved.
The Cooler and Siberia
In the southeastern corner of the prison yard sits the Cooler, a small cement building with six cells – each housing from 1 to 6 men. Each cell had a small opening for light, and was heated by a radiator centrally located in the building. The metal doors had a barred opening in the bottom to allow some heat to enter the cells.
Occupants were given a blanket or two during the summer, and probably double that during the winter months. They were allowed one shower per week, and each cell contained a “honey bucket” (or toilet). It was a dismal place.
Around the corner was Siberia, the solitary confinement building with a dozen 3′ x 8′ cells with tiny holes in the bottom of the metal doors to let in air and light. “Dismal” is too pleasant a word for these cells.
Maximum Security and Death Row
Diagonally opposite, in the northwestern corner, is the Maximum Security house. The most violent and unruly criminals, or those who had committed the most heinous crimes, were housed downstairs. If sentenced to death by hanging they were placed upstairs on Death Row.
Andrew told the story of one lost soul whose crimes were not described to us, due to the presence of children in our group. He unlocked the gallows room and asked us to stand near the wall (rather than on the wooden floor) while he described how the hangman tested the rope – it must be well seasoned; a new rope has some “give” and does not provide a quick death – and also the trap door mechanism to make sure all was in order for the execution.
We were then invited to walk downstairs to see the room underneath the trap door – with a drain in the floor, a hose, and a single bare light bulb. Our imagination filled in the details about this room.
The Other Houses
Of course, most of the inmates performed their required jobs during the day (for a small amount of prison money) and slept in small cells, usually with one, two or three other men.
The Women’s Ward
In 1905 male inmates built the wall around the old Warden’s residence to hold female inmates. In 1920 this permanent structure was completed. It contains seven two-person cells, a central day room, kitchen and bathroom facilities.
From the Website
The Old Idaho Penitentiary was a functioning prison for 101 years. It was built in 1870, and the first prisoners arrived in 1872. The four and a half-acre site was selected because of its proximity to the growing agricultural center in Boise and to sandstone, the material used in the construction of the penitentiary’s walls, Administration Building, and cell houses. The buildings on the site were built by inmate laborers.
In 1872, the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary officially opened. The Old Idaho Penitentiary grew from a single cell house into a complex of several buildings holding Idaho’s most notorious criminals. The “Old Pen” received over 13,000 inmates with a maximum population of over 600 inmates.
The federal government operated the site until statehood in 1890. The “Old Pen”, as it is affectionately referred to by locals, officially closed in December 1973.
A few more interesting facts:
The Old Idaho Penitentiary is located on the eastern side of Boise, and can be reached by driving along Warm Springs Avenue, so called due to the warm springs that still provide warmth to many of the old historic homes on either side of the street. These same warm springs were used as a source of heat for the prison.
The Old Pen was built by prisoners using sandstone blocks quarried in the hills above the penitentiary.
There were around 500 escape attempts and 90 of those were successful. This included attempts and successful escapes from local farms and fields where inmates would be taken to perform manual labor.
The Moorish-style dining hall was designed, constructed and supervised in 1898 by inmate George Hamilton. The prison administration was so proud of his efforts, he was granted an early release providing he leave Idaho and never return. Hamilton committed suicide the day after he was released.
Much of the Old Pen is wheelchair accessible. The facility wasn’t built with wheelchairs in mind, and some of the building entrances are too narrow for entry (i.e., the Cooler) and others have steps or stairs. Sidewalks are generally passable, although some are rough or slightly buckled so wheelchair users should use caution.
There are at least four handicap parking spots; the restroom – near the entrance – is accessible.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Old Pen, and can highly recommend it!
All Photos: © 2017 ImagesByRJM