We had planned on hiking on Monday and the only trail head I knew about was attached to the parking lot of the Old Idaho Penitentiary. When we finally found it, there was an office so we went in to ask them if they knew where the different trails went. Adam found a brochure for the Pen. It’s $5 per adult and it sounded interesting so we decided to take a tour before we went hiking.
The brochure read: “Idaho Territory was less than ten years old when the territorial prison was built east of Boise in 1870. The penitentiary grew from a single cell house into a complex of several distinctive buildings surrounded by a high sandstone wall. Convicts quarried the stone from the nearby ridges and completed all the later construction.
Over its century of operation, the penitentiary received more than 13,000 convicts, of whom 215 were women. Spurred in part by conditions that sparked a general riot in 1971 and an even more severe riot in 1973, the inmate population was moved to a modern penitentiary south of Boise and the Old Idaho Penitentiary was closed on December 3, 1973. After the Penitentiary closed in 1973, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Begin your visit with our video presentation recalling prison history, notorious inmates, and daily prison life. Once inside the Yard, imagine life in the foreboding sandstone cell houses, see the contrasting beauty of the historic rose gardens, and view the effects of the 1973 riot. Visit Solitary Confinement, known as "Siberia," as well as Death Row and the Gallows. Exhibits are located throughout the site.”
There’s an 18 minute video you can watch first. While it was not the most interesting video it was informative about the buildings and some of what went on in them. We took our map and went through the different buildings. I can’t find the map so I have no idea which building was what.
The first building we went into was the first building to get indoor plumbing. Even in 1973, not all the buildings had plumbing. Some of the cells had plastic buckets that could be pushed into a ventilation pipe when not being used. In that building, the doors were made out of flat iron bars, instead of the round bars. They were easier to break out of but cheaper to make. Unfortunately for the prisoners in those cells, they made for less ventilation and light. The paint was peeling off the ceilings and walls from years of neglect.
All the buildings had 2-3 heaters placed under the windows on the ground floor level. I seriously doubt that they did much to keep anyone inside very warm. I know that the heaters weren’t on while we were there but it was so cold inside. At least one of the buildings had fire damage from the final riot which caused everyone to be moved to the new prison that had just been built sooner than they would have been moved. The dining hall was destroyed in the same riot.
There is a maximum security building which was the last building to be built sometime in the 50’s with a gallows room and a room below where the prisoner would fall into. That was where they witnessed the death.
They had a shirt factory where they made shirts. Later, a laundry room and shower room was added. The prisoners did laundry for the air force bases as well as the laundry for the inmates. There are exhibits on either side of the laundry room. One is a weapons exhibit and the other is a transportation exhibit. Further away, in an old building that I don’t know what it used to be, is a prison tattoo art exhibit and an electricity exhibit that has seen better days.
Then there’s the solitary confinement. One of the signs said that the prisoners were each given a blanket or two, a meal, or sometimes 2 meals, a day and that’s it. The only light available was from a small air tube at the top of the cell and if the small hatch door was left open, they could get a little light that way as well. There were 2 little heaters in that building but the thick metal doors would have certainly kept most of the heat out while the small air tune was letting in outside air. They had no mattresses, only the 2 blankets they were issued and there was a small covered hole in the floor. I am assuming that that was where they were able to go to the bathroom but I’m not sure about that. They didn’t know how long they’d be in there when they were put in. It could last anywhere from a few days to a year. The last door is open so you can step inside. Even knowing that there was no one to lock me in and no reason to be paranoid about it, I felt very vulnerable and scared when I stepped into it. I imagined living in one for even a few days. It was cold and dark (but lighter than it would have been for anyone locked in it since the door was still open). I knew that 2 blankets wouldn’t have been enough. I can understand why there was such a high rate of insanity or suicide while staying in there. What a scary fate for someone. I got Adam to go in it and I closed the door most of the way. He wasn't too thrilled with that...I'm assuming he was having some of the same feelings that I had. The room wasn't much bigger than Adam. The hole Adam is looking through is the hole where they got light, food and blankets through.
There’s a woman’s section as well but we didn’t make it to that one before it closed. It’s outside the main gates into a second sandstone fortress.
There is a rose garden behind the min fortress near the barn. It is supposed to be beautiful but it is dormant right now so we didn’t get to see it. From there, we picked up a foothills trail.
There were only a handful of other people there and we usually weren’t in the same building at the same time. I think that helped. It was so quiet, eerie almost and I got to really think about how I felt looking at certain things. I am so grateful for the upbringing I had that led me to live a fairly good life…one where I am in no danger of ever living in such a place, where all your freedoms are taken away. It’s obvious that the people who end up in prison don’t care about the people they harm, but how can they be so indifferent about how what they do will affect their futures? They are missing out on so much in life; sadly, few will ever realize that.