It was almost closing time at the Old Idaho Penitentiary when I arrived in Boise after working in Idaho City, but this landmark I’d seen from the Idaho Botanical Gardens next door was on my list of must-see destinations. One of four Territorial Prisons open in the U. S. today and designated a National Historic Site, the Old Idaho Penitentiary (1870-1973), now opens its campus and buildings to visitors seven days a week.
When I arrived an hour before closing time on a coldish, early-spring day, I was a lone visitor taking what became a sort of eerie self-guided tour around the campus and inside the buildings. As I walked from place to place (looking over my shoulders, uneasy about fully exploring open cells), I found myself imagining how life inside these walls must have unfolded day after day. And coupled with that feeling of loneliness, I also noted the impact of dwindling afternoon light on my mood as I walked among the buildings into open doorways. Slanted rays of afternoon sun formed long shadows, making me wonder what impact the lack of light — as well as the lack of freedom — had on the residents at Old Idaho Penitentiary. Take a walk with me and see for yourself.
Old Idaho Penitentiary — Outside
Old Idaho Penitentiary — Inside Rooms and Hallways
Women’s Ward — Old Idaho Penitentiary
In 1905, male inmates built the wall with its signature tornado-like brickwork on the corners around the old warden’s residence. In 1920, according to the Walking Tour Guide, the permanent structure contained seven two-person cells, a central day room, kitchen and bathroom facilities. Was I glad I went to Old Idaho Penitentiary? Yes. But enjoyment may not be the operative word here. The only other prison I’ve visited is Alcatraz, and I had the same empty feeling there as I did at Old Idaho Penitentiary. Reading the displayed accounts of inmates and wardens helped me put real faces and names into place. But seeing stone and iron-gated exteriors, scarcely-lit interiors, and small, tight rooms made me wonder how prisoners lived day-to-day with so little of what I take for granted. It’s definitely a tour worth your time if you’re visiting Boise.
For more information and to check on visitation times:
Old Idaho Penitentiary State
2445 Old Penitentiary Road Boise, Idaho 83712 208.334.2844 http://history.idaho.gov/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Old-Idaho-Penitentiary/94920681668
To read more about our travels through Idaho and Washington, click on the Page at the top: Inland Northwest. Thanks!