Boise Places Worth Seeing

Old Idaho Penitentiary - Our Own Little Shawshank

When the State of Idaho announced recently that they were eliminating orange juice from inmate meals at the state pen, that made us wonder: just how good do inmates have it these days? The best way to find out, in our opinion, was to take a little field trip to the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, which is nestled snugly at the base of Table Rock in between the Idaho Botanical Garden and Quarry View Park. Believe me, you don't have to look around the Old Pen very long to realize that cons today have it easy, whether they have orange juice or not.

The first buildings at the Old Pen were constructed between 1870 and 1873 to serve as a territorial prison. At the time, the territory of Idaho was still over 15 years from becoming a state, but it had obviously already attracted its share of bad folks who needed to be incarcerated. According to esteemed procurer Hedley Lamaar, these bad dudes included "rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers, and Methodists." Popular sentiment at the time was that all these bad folks scattered in county jails across the territory needed to have their own country club to call home, and Boise was chosen as the location.

I'd say that nose saw a bar fight or two

The original building material for the prison was the local Boise sandstone from the nearby quarry. The territorial government, taking its cue from ancient Egypt, realized that prisoners make the best stone cutters and laborers, so they generously agreed to allow all the incarcerated folks at the time to quarry the stone that would later confine them. If you take a good look at the early cell houses, you'll see that not only is the stonework well done, it's also quite beautiful. If you've made the rounds downtown and paid attention, you'll probably notice some similarities among the stonework at the state capitol building, the old Children's Home, and the Old Pen, and that would make sense because the stone all came from the same place. In the case of the Capitol, the stone was also quarried by prisoners at the pen.

They just don't make 'em like this anymore

Despite being attractive on the outside, the earliest cell house, finished in January 1871, was just the opposite on the inside. Cold in the winter, oven-like in the summer, drab, dark, and claustrophobic year round, the cells did not even have forgotten conveniences such as electric lights and toilets. That means that if you were doing 5-10 for cattle rustling in frontier Idaho, you probably spent a whole lot of time waiting for daylight and hovering over a bucket. A second stone cell house, dubbed the "New Cell House", was completed in 1889, followed by a third building built in 1899 that was later cut in half to make what's now known as Cell House 2 and Cell House 3. These newer stone cell houses weren't much cozier than their predecessors, and Cell House 3 was actually condemned and not used until it was refurbished in 1928, making it the first cell house to have plumbing.

Swing low, sweet chariot...

By the early 1950s, the prison population had grown and the stone cell houses had become terribly obsolete. The state then built Cell House 4 in 1952, followed in 1954 by the maximum security building (Cell House 5) that featured a hanging room and death row. As a nice precursor to modern times, only one man was ever hanged in the building (which didn't turn out too well, by the way), proving that the state has always been willing to spend a lot of our money so that lawyers and judges can have something to do. These two new buildings, the last to be built on the site, were constructed out of concrete and steel, making them as ugly on the outside as they were on the inside. On the inside, however, there are a couple significant differences between the early cell houses and Cell House 4. Cell House 4 has much better natural lighting and the walkways are much wider, whereas the early stone cell houses look like a 19th century Russian gulag.

The ugly but well-lit Cell House 4

The 1950s-era cell house also proved to be a better canvas for bored or talented inmates. One of the real treats of the tour is peering into the cells and reading the graffiti. I don't know whether it's because the prison was almost instantly put on the National List of Historic Places when it closed, or because we still have some smart people among us, but preserving that graffiti was a stroke of brilliance. It really makes you realize how painfully monotonous prison life must be, and it lends an extra dash of authenticity to the site.

Over its 100-year history as an active prison, ten executions were carried out at the Old Pen. Most occurred in the rose garden next to the dining hall. Raymond Snowden, the only man to die in the Cell House 5 indoor gallows, struggled at the end of a rope for almost 15 minutes before he finally died, proving that good executioners and noose makers are hard to find. There was also the odd violent death here and there, such as the Andy-Dufresne-Meets-the-Sisters incident in the communal shower facility. These infamous incidents were explored by the crew from the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures a few years ago, and I must say that it's really enjoyable viewing. In fact, it's hilarious. Not hilarious as in Monty Python, Spinal Tap, or Tosh.0, mind you, but hilarious as in Crossing Over with John Edward, Scientology, and the Jim Bakker Show. If all you need to do to get a TV show is hang out all night at an old prison, pretend to talk to dead people, and claim to feel something touch your arm every few minutes, sign me up!

Seriously, that smudge in the corner is a ghost

The Old Pen has an assortment of interpretive aids spread throughout the grounds, including displays on improvised weapons, daily life, and prison riots. The riot information is particularly interesting, and it goes a long way to explain the eventual downfall and replacement of the Old Pen. Notable riots occurred in 1953 and 1971, but it was a riot in March 1973 that had the most lasting effects. Inmates set fire to four buildings, burning the dining hall and chapel beyond repair. By the end of the year, all the prisoners were moved to the new state pen south of town, where they were sure to have nice comfy cells and all the orange juice they could drink, at least until a few weeks ago.

I don't see Andy's rock hammer

The Old Pen is a must see. If you've lived here for a long time and have never gone, you're missing some cool stuff. If you're visiting from out of town, put this place high on your list. I just hit the highlights; there are plenty of other neat things out there that you can discover for yourself. I suggest you make an afternoon out of it; you can also visit the Botanical Garden or hike the trail up to the top of Table Rock. The trails start behind the Bishop's House, which is across from the Old Pen's sally port.

Place worth visiting: Old Idaho Penitentiary
Where: 2445 Old Penitentiary Road

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Hours: Memorial Day through Labor Day: Daily 10am to 5pm
September through May: Daily 12pm to 5pm
Cost: Adult: $5
Senior (60 or over): $4
Child (6-12 years): $3
Website: Idaho State Historical Society
Fun Fact: Visiting is almost like being incarcerated, except for the absence of shankings, bad food, and forced sodomy.